Skip to main content

Feature

Tradition Comes to Light in a 20th-Century Space

Long-Unseen Native American Objects Find a Refurbished Home in Pittsburgh

By Michael Gill | HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

Two thousand rare Native American objects, some of them unseen for a hundred years, go on exhibition in June at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. They come from a collection of ten thousand objects that have lain in storage.

The exhibition, seven years in the making, will open the new Alcoa Foundation Hall of Native Americans. It focuses on four North American regions and the tribes inhabiting them. Each section addresses traditional life and the alterations that have come about in the last century, in areas from urbanization to Indian rights.

"It's not often that a project this challenging comes along," says Marsha C. Bol, associate curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum. She and her team have taken a page from anthropologists Richard White and William Cronon, who wrote: “If regional environments were diverse, Indian uses of them were even more diverse. Nature offered not one, but many ways for human beings to live in a given region."

Bol comments, "I don't think anyone would disagree that our limitations are set by our environment. Our choices are going to take the environment into account, but I think what White and Cronon were saying is that you take what's available and make choices, and different groups will make different choices.”

She offers examples. “The Hopi and Navajo lived in the same region, but the Hopi chose agriculture in an area where that was very difficult with such sparse rainfall. Their mythology illustrates that decision. On the other hand, and in the same environment, the Navajo chose a herding lifestyle. They herd sheep. Both tribes are resident in the Southwest, especially in Arizona, and they even have joint use of some land."

Another example is the Lakota use of embroidered porcupine quills as a decorative medium. As Bol points out, "It's a long step between seeing a porcupine and deciding that you could pluck the quills, cut off the sharp tips, soak the quills in water or saliva, flatten them with a fingernail or with your teeth, and then dye them, all so that they can be embroidered as a decoration on hide for a man's shirt, on a pipe bag, or moccasins, or any number of different items. That's quite a bit more elaborate than mere adaptation to the surroundings.”

The project developed from a self-study grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped determine that the Carnegie Museum's Native American collections were of such standing and quality that they ought to be exhibited. A subsequent grant from the Endowment, along with substantial funding from the Alcoa Foundation, made the exhibition a reality.

Bol consulted scholars in the field, as well as Native American leaders and tradition bearers. One consultant was Rayna Green, director of the American Indian Program at the National Museum of American History. She recommended a focus on Native Americans' relationship to the natural world, a subject that had not been thoroughly addressed in the context of a major exhibit. As Bol and the committees examined the collections, it became clear their strengths lay in the west and southwest; because of the museum’s location in Pittsburgh, they added to that the urbanization of Indians in the northeast. To make the exhibition manageable, it was decided to limit its time frame to the last one hundred years.

Bol and the team are presenting something more than objects in cases. The Hopi section, for example, includes a diorama of a Hopi wedding with six life-sized figures. The diorama depicts the procession of the bride as she returns to her parents' house wearing clothes the groom's family has made for her. She is followed by the groom's family bearing gifts and by the bride and groom's child. That is not uncommon, Bol says. Native American families often take years after a couple's civil marriage to save enough money for the finery and feasting of a traditional wedding. Completing the scene in the diorama are pick-up trucks, dogs, and other details.

"We have a mix of contemporary and historic pieces in many of the cases,” Boll comments. Exhibition planners commissioned a Hopi weaver to make the child's and the new bride's robes. “We didn't have contemporary collections, so we made a concerted effort to add to and update these collections, in some cases commissioning native artists. In fact I just got a call that the artist has finished one of the wedding robes."

Maintaining the social structure in the face of industrialization and Europeanization is another facet. Bol explains that they have made choices that preserve essential elements of the culture. "Iroquois women historically stayed home and grew the crops -- corn, beans, and squash, and the men were hunters and traders who went away from the home base. As the land base became smaller and reservations came into being, the game was hunted out, and the men just didn't have work to do. So in the nineteenth century, there was to be a bridge built across the St. Lawrence River. As part of negotiations, Mohawks -- one of the Iroquois tribes -- arranged that some of their men would be hired to work on the bridge. The construction workers found that the Mohawk were very adept at walking the high steel rails. And they developed a whole tradition of the Mohawk as ironworker. This once again gave them the feeling of going out to work. Ironwork in particular is extremely dangerous, and many family members have lost people on these jobs. In the Mohawk community, the ironworkers are treated with great respect."

According to Bol, the role and image of the warrior has also survived. "America Indian men and even women now take great pride in serving in the military. They have fought in every war and distinguished themselves, and the people are very proud of this. Homes are filled with photos of family members in uniform. Every powwow is opened by a procession and grand entry of dancers led by veterans of the armed services who are flag bearers. This is part of the ongoing warrior tradition, which holds that men protect their home and family. They receive the same kind of respect and honor as they did as warriors in the past."

In sections of the exhibition dealing with regions around Pittsburgh, the Hall of Native Americans addresses some difficult realities of Indian-white relations. One display tells the story of Chief Cornplanter of the Senecas, who had a land grant in northwestern Pennsylvania, the last piece of Indian land in the state. In the 1960s the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers built Kinzuna Dam nearby in the Allegheny River for flood control and recreational purposes, putting most of the land in Cornplanter's grant under water.

Now, the curatorial team is reconstructing his land holdings in a model. Bol tells how it came about. "In 1798 Cornplanter had invited the Quakers to open a school and teach on his land grant. The Quakers kept very detailed journals about the area and the activity. Using those journals we reconstructed a very large model of Cornplanter's grant focusing on the village. We sought out the president of the Cornplanter's Descendant’s Association to advise us on that part of the exhibit. It's a painful topic because Pittsburgh was seen as the culprit, being the big city downstream. Hopefully we will begin to be able to heal some of the wounds. I think that's probably the most political content of the exhibit.”

It is not the only politically charged part, however. The advisory committee asked for the inclusion of a section on the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Pennsylvania, which was the first all-Indian boarding school in the United States. Open from 1879 to 1918, the school was attended by twelve thousand Native American students from one hundred different tribes throughout the country. For most, attending the school was their first experience away from home.

"It wasn't a uniform experience for all the students but it was traumatic and even devastating for most,” Bol says. “The purpose of the school was to teach Euro-American lifeways to the Indians, because the belief was that this would be the only way they were going to survive. Children were not allowed to speak their native language at Carlisle. All their native clothing was taken from them, and they wore military uniforms, including boots. Their hair was cut, which was very traumatic. It was a very regimented lifestyle. They spent half their time in school, and the rest of the time in trades that were supposed to be useful when they got home. A lot of children died. There is a graveyard at Carlisle.”

She continues. “For presentation in the exhibit we received a uniform from the last graduate of Carlisle -- a military uniform worn by the last student in line in the last graduating class."

In talking about the preservation of traditions and lifeways through the accelerated change of the twentieth century, Bol chooses her words carefully. "I'd say that some traditions are being lost as elders die and knowledge dies with them, but other traditions are being gained. I'd say that Native American traditions are intact. Every nation has different circumstances, but there is a very strong interest and pride in the culture, and the preservation effort is stronger this decade than it has been before. Tribes now have historians that develop museums in reservations. There are tribal colleges and universities throughout the country that have curricula dealing with regional traditions."

The Carlisle section juxtaposes two dorm rooms in photomurals with accompanying audiotapes. One is a black-and-white photograph of a Carlisle dormitory, enlarged to life size and viewed through a doorway that creates a sense of depth. In an accompanying audiotape, a Taos pueblo boy tells his memories of the school. Adjacent is a color photomural of a contemporary Native American dorm room, with an audiotape by Kawenniiosta Boots, an Onandaga student who interned at the museum during the preparation of the exhibition. The room is full of symbols of Native American pride - - a flag with the Iroquois tree of peace and a traditional corn husk doll among them -- none of which would have been permitted at the Carlisle school. They intermingle with artifacts of contemporary culture -- a glossy magazine featuring Keanu Reeves on the cover, and a teddy bear. In the audio, Boots talks of her dream of building a museum to preserve the traditions of her people.

It is those people who come to mind when Bol sums up her work. "Beyond doubt the most exciting thing has been working with the native consultants both at the museum and at their home territories,” Bol says. “I personally have learned so much. They have been so generous."