The winter solstice begins a season of storytelling and ceremony

In the Northern Hemisphere, December 21 will be the year’s day of least sunlight, when the sun takes its lowest, shortest path across the sky. North of the Arctic Circle, it will be the midpoint of the period of darkness, when even twilight doesn’t reach the horizon. As we did with the solar eclipse in August, this December we asked our Native friends to share traditional stories or beliefs they’ve heard about the winter solstice. Their answers highlight winter as a time for storytelling.

Snow Snake Game
Ernest P. Smith, (Seneca, 1907–1975), The Snow Snake Game, 1969. Tonawanda Reservation, New York. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Headquarters Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian. 26/2224

Ojibwe (Minnesota Chippewa Tribe): This background for teachers was prepared by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation/Lessons of Our Land:

Like many events in American Indian culture there is a proper time and place for all activities. Traditional storytelling is reserved for the winter months for many tribes. This was a practical choice given the fact that during the other season's, people were busy growing, gathering, and hunting food. It was in the winter, with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside, that telling stories was a way to entertain and teach the children. Another reason is that many traditional stories contain animal characters. To be respectful, people waited until the winter when animals hibernate or become less active so they cannot hear themselves being talked about.

To have a storyteller tell you a story is like receiving a gift. To be respectful, a gift of tobacco is offered to the storyteller before the story begins. The storyteller will often take the tobacco outside and place it on the earth as an offering to the spirits of the story.

San Carlos Apache (Arizona): This reminds me when I was young. My grandfather would ask a really older man to come visit. We would eat dinner; they would visit, smoke. Then my grandpa would put a bundle at his feet. Soon he would start telling stories most of the night.

Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin: We have to wait for the Winter Moon, and there has to be snow on Mother Earth for those stories.

Blackfoot (Calgary, Alberta): Blackfoots are the same with the snow and stories.

Acoma Pueblo (New Mexico): The winter solstice marks our New Year in Acoma. We mark the time with ceremonies not privy to the public.

It’s also the time of haamaaha, storytelling of the coyote, stories of heroes, stories of the animals, sharing of knowledge. My parents said that when you call haamaaha, people will arrive with piñon nuts gathered in the fall that are roasted and shared.

Passamaquoddy (New England): In traditional calendars in the Northeast, the solstice is always marked. For my folks it’s a sign that the frost giants will be returning to the North.

Assiniboine/Sioux (South Dakota): Waniyetu [winter]—time for gathering can'sa'sa [red willow bark] while the Thunder is gone.

Syilx (Washington State & British Columbia): What I know is that it marks the point in time when our Winter Ceremonies can be held. My grandmother sometimes held her first ceremony of the winter at this powerful time. We have winter dance ceremonies; prayers for the new year to come, for the berries, roots, four-leggeds, and fish—the four Food Chiefs; prayers for our families and ourselves. There are songs, dancing, feasting, and a give-away. This is held during the evening and can go all night, depending on the number of sacred singers who come to share. The ceremonies are called winter dances. Or my grandfather also called them Chinook dances. In our territory to the south in Washington State around Nespelem, my grandfather told me of one dance ceremony lasting ten nights in a row!

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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December 18, 2017

A tradition of service: Specialist Allen Kale‘iolani Hoe

In 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian will honor Native American servicemen and women by building the National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here, Specialist Allen Kale‘iolani Hoe (U.S. Army retired), a member of the memorial advisory committee, talks briefly about his experiences as a Native Hawaiian in the U.S. military.

From 2015 until the summer of 2017, the advisory committee and the museum conducted 35 community consultations to seek input and support for the memorial. These events brought together tribal leaders, Native veterans, and community members from across the nation, and resulted in a shared vision and set of design principles for the National Native American Veterans Memorial. The design competition for the memorial is open until 3 p.m. Eastern time January 9. All information about the competition is available at https://nmai.si.edu/nnavm/memorial/.

Allen Hoe
Specialist Allen Kale‘iolani Hoe (U.S. Army retired), the son and grandson of veterans and a Gold Star father, serves on the advisory committee of the National Native American Veterans Memorial. Photo courtesy of Allen Hoe

 

May I ask you to introduce yourself and to give us your Native name and its English translation?

I’m Allen Kale‘iolani Hoe. My Hawaiian name is Kale‘iolani. It means hawk (io) from the sky (lani), bold, loud, brash (kale)

What is your tribe or Native nation?

I am a Native Hawaiian. We do not identify as a tribe. Our genealogy goes back one hundred generations.

Where are you from?

Hawai'i.

Is the warrior culture strong in your family and tribe?

I am descended from a long line of Native Hawaiian warriors, as well as my Caucasian ancestors from America and England and my Asian ancestors from China and Japan. 

Both my grandfathers served in World War I, and my dad served in World War II. My oldest son, 1st Lieutenant Nainoa Hoe, was an infantry platoon leader with the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. He was killed in action on January 22, 2005, in Mosul, Iraq. My young son is currently a staff sergeant with the 442nd/100th Infantry Battalion’s Scout Platoon.

Allen Hoe with flag
Allen Hoe standing in front of a painting that honors his son, 1st Lieutenant Nainoa Hoe. An Army Ranger, Lt. Hoe was killed while leading a foot patrol urging Iraqi citizens to vote in Iraq's national elections. A scholarship in his name is awarded annually to a Hawai‘i high school senior who is enrolled in a JROTC program and who will enter Army ROTC at the University of Hawai‘i. Photo courtesy of Allen Hoe

Why did you choose to serve in the armed forces?

In 1966 there was this little thing called the Selective Service draft. I always say I was so good that Uncle Sam invited me to be on his team.

Did your Native background play any part in your decision to join?

My heritage gave me the pride to step forward and serve with honor.

Why did you enter your specific branch of the military?

I guess the early scouting reports gave the Army the first shot at my being on their team.

What years did you serve and where did you serve?

I served from 1966 to 1968. I was trained as a combat medic at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. I served with an Air Defense Command Unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, then volunteered for Vietnam and served as the senior medic with the Recon Platoon, 2nd Battalion 1st Infantry, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, northern sector of South Vietnam, known as I Corps.

What was the highest rank you received?

E 5, SPC 5.

Were there other Natives who served with you, and would you care to talk about them?

There were other Native Hawaiians who served with me, as well as Native American Indians. All of them were natural leadrs, recognized for their bravery and their ability to adapt very easily to their surroundings and the natural jungle environment.

Were you treated differently in the service because you are Native?

No not really. My being from Hawai‘i in the ’60s, the discussion somehow always turned to my surfing experiences.

Is there a story or incident that sticks out the most in your mind about your service?

As a combat soldier, you become very superstitious. I lived by three strikes and you’re out. Following the third time I cheated death, I took on a different persona, completely confident in my survival. Nothing worried me from that time forward. I never doubted that I would survive combat.

Where were you when your service ended?

I was in country. My Expiration of Term of Service was out of South Vietnam, and I was separated from service at Ft. Lewis, Washington.

Did your tribe or Native community do anything special for you upon your return home when your service ended?

No, but my family and many close friends celebrated with me.

Are you a member of any veterans groups?

Yes, a number of them—the Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and otehrs.

Would you recommend joining the service to your family members or others of your tribe?

Yes, I do and I have, especially young men and women who are, perhaps, still unsure of their abilities or what career or profession they wish to pursue.

What do you think of the National Native American Veterans Memorial that will be biult on the grounds of the museum in Washington?

It’s long over due and very timely during this particular period in our nation’s history.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes. I grew up in a culture that accepted service to the nation as something expected of each of us. I proudly served and believe to this day that the United States would benefit from some sort of compulsory service program across the board, maybe not armed service for everyone, but at least service benefiting the greater good of the community at large.

Please let me extend condolences from all my colleagues at the museum on the loss of your son. Thank you for your service to the country and thank you for helping build the National Native American Veteran’s Memorial.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

The design competition for the National Native American Veterans Memorial closes on January 9, 2018, at 3 p.m. EST. All information about the competition is available at https://nmai.si.edu/nnavm/memorial/.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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A tradition of service: Captain Jefferson Keel

In 2020, the National Museum of the American Indian will honor Native American servicemen and women by building the National Native American Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Here, Captain Jefferson Keel (U.S. Army retired), a member of the memorial advisory committee, talks briefly about his experiences as a Native American in the U.S. military.

From 2015 until the summer of 2017, the advisory committee and the museum conducted 35 community consultations to seek input and support for the memorial. These events brought together tribal leaders, Native veterans, and community members from across the nation, and resulted in a shared vision and set of design principles for the National Native American Veterans Memorial. The design competition for the memorial is open until 3 p.m. Eastern time January 9. All information about the competition is available at https://nmai.si.edu/nnavm/memorial/. 

LtGov Keel Tomb Unknown Soldier
Jefferson Keel, Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Keel

Thank you for serving as co-chair of the Veterans Memorial advisory committee. Please introduce yourself.

My name is Jefferson Keel. I am the Lieutenant Governor of my tribe, the Chickasaw Nation.

Where are you from?

I am originally from Tishomingo, Oklahoma.

Is the warrior culture strong in your family or tribe?

Yes, it is. I come from a long line of combat veterans, in my family and my tribe. My father served in World War I, where he received the Silver Star. I have uncles who served in both World War II and Korea, and brothers who served in the Air Force and Navy. My younger brother and I both served in Vietnam.

Why did you choose to serve in the armed forces?

The military appealed to me, and I could not wait to join. When I turned 16, I persuaded my mother to sign so that I could join the National Guard. I wanted to be an Airborne Ranger, so from there, I enlisted in the regular Army.

LtGov Keel Army Ranger
Jefferson Keel as a U.S. Army Ranger. Photo courtesy of Jefferson Keel

What years did you serve and where did you serve?

I joined the National Guard in 1963 and enlisted in the regular Army in March 1966. I served until 1974, when I returned to college and was commissioned and returned to active duty. I retired from active duty in 1989.

What was the highest rank you received?

Captain.

Were there other Natives who served with you? Were you treated differently in the service because you are Native American?

There were a few other Native Americans. Mainly we were treated with curiosity.

Is there a story or incident that sticks out the most in your mind about your service?

I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam, but there are too many stories to try to recall any one in particular.

Where were you when your service ended?

I was a Combined Arms Tactics instructor at the U.S. Army Aviation Center at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

Are you a member of any veterans groups?

I am a member of the Chickasaw Warrior’s Society.

Would you recommend joining the service to your family members or others of your tribe?

Yes.

In addition to being the lieutenant governor of your tribe, you’re the co-chairman of the Advisory Commitee to the National Native American Veterans Memorial. What made you want to support the memorial?

I think the memorial is a long-overdue tribute to one of the most underappreciated links to America’s heroes. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for this opportunity.

Thank you for giving the museum this interview, and thank you for helping build the National Native American Veteran’s Memorial.

—Dennis W. Zotigh

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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December 11, 2017

For the holidays, six favorite picture books from imagiNATIONS Story & Discovery

Every month the staff of the Washington museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center highlights a different book during our Story & Discovery program. We choose books written by Native American authors or by non-Native authors who have consulted with Native communities. By choosing the books in our story program with care to showcase the diversity of Native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere, we hope to break down stereotypes. Thinking critically about the characters and illustrations in these books is also a great way to help young children develop empathy and cultural sensitivity skills. This holiday season we are sharing six of our favorite books that we think would make great gifts for kids age 5 to 7.



Berry Magic cover W400
Berry Magic
written and illustrated by Teri Sloat and Betty Huffmon (Yup’ik)

Community focus: Yup’ik, Alaska

Why we love this book: Berry Magic is one of our tried and true program books; we have been using it for years! Yup’ik Elder Betty Huffmon shared this traditional story of how berries came to her people with author and illustrator Teri Sloat. Their collaboration produced a book with beautiful pictures, Yup’ik vocabulary words, a song to sing together, and even a recipe for akutaq, a traditional Yup’ik dish made with berries!

 

 

 

Hungy Johnny W500Hungry Johnny written by Cheryl Minnema (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe), illustrated by Wesley Ballinger (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe)

Community focus: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota

Why we love this book: Johnny is a very relatable character who just wants to EAT, EAT, EAT! This book touches on some common holiday themes, such as food and community gatherings, while teaching the value of patience and the importance of respecting elders. Hungry Johnny is also full of Ojibwe imagery that inspires close looking, such as wild rice cooking on a stove and traditionally beaded jewelry and clothing.

Goat in the Rug W352

The Goat in the Rug written by Charles L. Blood and Martin Link, illustrated by Nancy Winslow Parker

Community focus: Navajo (Diné), Arizona

Why we love this book: This fun story is told by Geraldine, a goat whose wool is woven into a rug by her Navajo friend Glenmae. Based on a true story from Window Rock, Arizona, The Goat in the Rug teaches the complex process of creating Navajo rugs in a way children can understand and appreciate. Geraldine’s unique insight and sense of humor make this a book that adults and kids will enjoy reading together!

 

 

 

 

Thunder Boy Jr W500Thunder Boy Jr. written by Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene), illustrated by Yuyu Morales

Community focus: Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Why we love this book: The character of Thunder Boy Jr. is a great depiction of a contemporary Native child—he strums a guitar, rides his bike, plays (and fights) with his sister, and is a powwow grass dancer. He also hates his name. Read along as Thunder Boy Jr. learns to navigate his relationship with his father, Thunder Boy Sr., through love, respect, and understanding.

 

Gecko and Mosquito W579Gecko and Mosquito written and illustrated by Melissa DeSica

Community focus: Native Hawai’ian

Why we love this book: At the museum we strive to promote the preservation and use of indigenous languages. This book delightfully pairs Hawai’ian language with rhyming text that begs to be read aloud! A glossary in the back of the book provides translations and pronunciation for the Hawai’ian words. Bright and colorful illustrations complement this entertaining story about the harms of bullying.

 

When Turtle Grew Feathers W426When Turtle Grew Feathers by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), illustrated by Stacey Schuett

Community focus: Choctaw, Oklahoma

Why we love this book: Classic stories are told in many different ways throughout the world. The Choctaw version of the age-old race between the tortoise and the hare, for example, may be a little different from the one you know! This account features a turkey wearing a turtle shell, an adorable cheering squad of baby turtles, and lovely paintings of the High Plains. In the end, Rabbit still gets his comeuppance and Turtle learns the value of a helpful friend.

 

 

 

We hope our recommendations remind you of how wonderful it is to share a book, as a reader or listener. Join us at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall for imagiNATIONS Story & Discovery! Our current program times are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

Recommended age: 3+

Please note: Groups (e.g., school or home school classes, daycare, camp, or scout groups, etc.) are required to schedule entry time to the imagiNATIONS Activity Center.

The Smithsonian museums are open every day of the year except December 25. Happy holidays!

—Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas is an educator at the National Museum of the American Indian’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center in Washington, D.C. Her work includes developing culturally appropriate family programs, creating partnerships with local organizations, and educating pre-k to 3rd grade school groups. In addition to having a background in museum education, she holds an M.A. in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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November 28, 2017

Long journey: A traditional kayak frame comes to New York

NY museum staff at kayak frame welcoming ceremony si
Members of the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York hold a welcoming ceremony for a kayak frame built in the traditional Yup'ik way at the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska. A testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the Native cultures of the Arctic, the kayak frame will become a teaching exhibit when the New York museum's imagiNATIONS Activity Center opens this May.

In May 2018, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York will unveil a brand-new exhibition space, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, or iAC. The center will be geared towards a young audience, offering hands-on interaction with the origins and outcomes of Native innovation. One section of the iAC will highlight the kayak, an invention designed by the Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut people as long as 4,000 years ago. The focal point of this section will be a full-size traditional Yup’ik kayak frame—15 feet of historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales. Acquired by the museum from the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska, the frame was built by Troy and Ethan Wilkinson with the guidance of their father Bill, who studied for many years under the revered traditional Yup’ik kayak-maker Frank Andrew. In the iAC, the kayak frame will serve as a visually compelling example of Native craft and ingenuity that lives on today.

Duane Blue Spruce, public spaces planning coordinator for the museum in New York, spearheaded the effort to obtain the kayak, and was the main point of contact with Alaska during the months-long process. I had the pleasure of speaking both with Duane and with Bill Wilkinson, co-founder of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok (or Kwig, as the locals call it) about their perspectives on the experience.

Bill described to me the history of Qayanek, humbly crediting his knowledge and skill to his father-in-law, Frank Andrew, who was part of the last generation of Yup’ik people to be taught traditional kayak-building practices. Frank agreed to be Bill’s teacher, and Bill spent 19 years working with him and developing his knowledge. For the majority of the time it was just the two of them, but Frank spent his last six years teaching Bill, Noah Andrew Sr. (Frank’s son), Ethan Wilkinson and Troy Wilkinson to use traditional materials, such as driftwood and sealskin, to construct the kayaks. Bill said he “tried to learn how to build them how they would have built them 100 years ago or more.” They used their teeth to bend wood, caulked the joints with seal oil and moss, and colored the wood with traditional natural pigments. In Bill’s words, they were “always pushing the envelope.”

Kayak frame close-up
Made using historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales, the frame is lashed with sealskin and dyed with natural pigments.

In New York, Duane expressed his fascination with kayak hunting, pointing out that each item a Yup’ik hunter uses is essential. On display in the exhibition Infinity of Nations is a Yup’ik hunting hat, part of the hunter’s efficient and balanced system. Duane explained that the hat not only shields the hunter’s face from the sun, but its conical shape amplifies the subtle echoes of the sounds made by seals and fish under the surface of the water. Bill emphasized that the tools of a Yup’ik hunter kept him alive, and since his kayak was custom-made for his body, it became an extension of his being.

For 13 years, Bill was the only apprentice to Frank Andrew and his vast knowledge of kayak-making. Many family members helped to translate countless questions from Bill to the ever patient Yup’ik elder, and Bill shared much of what he learned with his sons Troy and Ethan. From the time the new Qayak Center was built in 2000 until he passed away in 2006, Frank, with Bill's urging, expanded his training to a deeply authentic level for all four of his students. Bill recalled watching Frank Andrew speak with his son in Yup’ik, joking that the “DSL connection" between the two led Noah to perfect his skill in about a quarter of the time it took him. “I think we’ve been successful in creating a small but new generation of traditional kayak builders. And they can choose to go to schools or build them or pass them on, or not. But I’m off the hook now.

“I don’t want to be the last guy,” Bill explained. “This knowledge should be back in some Native hands. And we’ve done that, so I consider that kind of successful.”

Noah Andrew
Frank Andrew’s son, Noah Andrew, poses with what Bill calls a “loon kayak.” The boat's skin is covered in seal oil and soot, traditional Yup’ik kayak-making materials. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

For Duane, from the first call to Kwigillingok in October 2015 to the arrival of the frame in February 2016, the experience was a complete adventure. The museum’s Mary Ahenakew and Gaetana DeGennaro happened upon the Qayanek website, and fate had it that Bill was willing to sell the frame. The four-hour time difference, mounds of paperwork, and 4,000 miles of distance pushed everything up to the wire, and a December 31 New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant deadline loomed at the horizon. Duane maintained weekly contact with Bill, sometimes even reaching him between classes he teaches at the local school in Kwig.

The request to buy from Bill was processed in Washington on December 23, eight days before the NYSCA grant deadline. People working on the project here in New York couldn’t help but be giddy. They regarded the last-minute victory as a “Christmas miracle,” a few even suggesting that none other than Santa Claus himself had agreed to ship the frame.

But what to do without Santa’s sleigh? “OK,” Duane remembered thinking to himself, “we’ve bought this thing. How are we gonna get it from Alaska to New York?” Bill’s experience finding a way to ship the enormous frame from tiny Kwig to New York was a true testament to the ambition and hard work of his family and the Kwigillingok community. The process he described echoed the sense of adventure that Duane felt on his end, yet was wrapped up in the difficulties of life in the Alaskan bush. Bill built an 18-foot, 700-pound custom shipping crate in the back aisle of their grocery store, which was the only indoor place it would fit. He and his son Ethan then had to disassemble it to get it out the door, reassemble it in a blizzard, and haul it a quarter of a mile through the same blizzard to the school. There, it was stored until the kayak was carefully secured and ready to begin its journey to the museum.

The final transport plan included movement on land, water, and sky. Bill stressed the danger associated with landing planes in the tiny Kwig airport, lightheartedly mentioning that “it’s very skinny, and it’s very short. . . . One pilot came out and landed on this airport, went back to Bethel, and said ‘I quit.’” The frame was flown from Kwigillingok to Bethel, and from Bethel to Anchorage. Then it was transferred to a steamship and rode the waves from Anchorage to Seattle, where it was picked up by a truck and driven to New York.

Kayak and plane
A plane prepares to take off with the kayak frame from the airport in tiny
Kwigillingok, Alaska. Making the frame's custom shipping crate is a story in itself. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

The frame arrived at the museum on Wednesday, February 3. Duane recounted that he had happened to call Bill to check in on the shipping status the day before and was astonished to hear that not only had the frame been shipped, it was set to be delivered the next day. With less than 24 hours to prepare for the arrival, the project team figured out all the logistics just in the nick of time. It was obvious that Bill took great care in packing the frame. He wrote detailed instructions on the wooden crate, complete with miniature drawings and little black circles that indicated which screws should be taken out first, as well as a playfully blunt warning: “Lid is very heavy! Do not drop lid into crate and crush contents.”

Bill's instructions
Bill Wilkinson’s instructions for unpacking the frame left nothing to chance.

The breathtaking craftsmanship and simple beauty of the piece were obvious as soon as it was unpackaged. Duane held a blessing ceremony to welcome the frame into the space, acknowledging the time and hard work that went into the project and making sure to snap a picture for Bill to assure him that the frame arrived safely and in one piece.

NY staff unpacking the frame
Unpacked! Beautiful and functional, the kayak frame represents Yup'ik knowledge and experience preserved for generations.  

I asked Duane about the importance of obtaining authentic Native objects for the exhibit. He replied that putting pieces like the kayak on display shows that “traditional methods and knowledge are still valid in the contemporary world.” Since the exhibition will focus on both the history and current use of Native innovations, it speaks to the integrity of the museum that so much time, effort, and stress were put into assuring that the kayak was not only culturally accurate, but produced in a Native environment, with traditional materials. Duane noted that, remarkably, commercial kayaks are still designed in an extremely similar way. “It still works!” he said. “The technology still works.”

The singular history of this kayak frame adds to a much larger conversation. Not only does the existence of the frame rely upon the ingenuity of the Native people who first designed it, it also hinges on the dedication of Frank Andrew, his family, and a new generation of builders who keep Frank's legacy alive and believe in the value of tradition and learning through experience. The story of this kayak adds to a broader narrative of cultural exchange and conservation, and the importance of institutions like the museum that work to preserve the memory of Native innovation, as well as support its modern reality. Ultimately, the kayak will serve as a jumping off point for young people who will leave the museum with a deeper and more personal understanding of the lasting impact of Native knowledge and design, and an interest in learning more.

As a middle school teacher, Bill has hands-on experience with the impact that Native history and knowledge have on today’s younger generations. Since the kayak frame will eventually be housed in the iAC here in New York, I asked Bill for his view on the importance of displaying Native objects in educational settings. “Here’s why I think it’s important to young people,” he said with obvious passion. “When they see the genius of kayak building, they realize that they are a part of a culture that is just as smart, just as brilliant, just as innovative, as any other society. Everybody needs to know their own self-worth, their own cultural self-worth. We all have a place in the existence of humanity, and we should all be considered with equal respect and dignity and knowledge. And I think that that’s a really important aspect of teaching people, Native and non-Native, about the brilliance of kayak-building.”

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer spent the summer working as an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. This fall she begins her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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November 22, 2017

Everyone's history matters: The Wampanoag Indian Thanksgiving story deserves to be known

LandingofthePilgrims DoS

Michele Felice Corné (1752–1845), The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1803. Credit: U.S. Department of State, Diplomatic Reception Rooms


“The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” —James W. Loewen, Plagues & Pilgrims: The Truth about the First Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving story you know and the one I know are most likely the same. It’s the story deeply rooted in America’s curriculum—the one that inspires arguably the most important and tradition-filled holiday in American culture. We’re taught that in 1620 the Pilgrims fled harsh religious suppression in Britain, sailed across the Atlantic, and in December stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock, in what is now Massachusetts. With little food and no shelter, the colonists struggled to survive a brutal winter until a friendly Indian, Squanto, came along and showed them how to cultivate crops. Their first harvest resulted in a feast, as the Pilgrims gave thanks to the kind Indians for helping to bring the colony back to life.

This version of Thanksgiving, while pleasant, isn’t terribly accurate. Told from a perspective that frames the Pilgrims as the main characters, the story leaves out major details, glorifying the Pilgrims’ endeavor and the holiday it birthed, forcing the Wampanoag Indians into forgotten roles. It also erases a monumentally sad history. When we pay homage to the Pilgrims and their bravery, and react to the tragic background of America's founding myth with silence, we essentially support a mindset that only some people’s history matters.

First Thanksgiving Brownscombe

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850–1936), The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914. Collection of Pilgrim Hall Museum. Not all mythical history is verbal. The Plains Indian headdresses worn by Brownscombe's Wampanoag leaders are probably enough said about The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth. Top: The shirtless-in-December figure on shore in Corné's Landing of the Pilgrims notwithstanding, William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote in his journal that it was four months before the Pilgrims saw the first Indians. Credit: Pilgrim Hall Museum
 

The true history of Thanksgiving begins with the Indians.

About four years before the Pilgrims anchored off Massachusetts, British fishermen had already started making their way through New England, storming through Indian towns to kidnap Native people for profit in the slavery trade. Although it’s often left out of textbooks, this series of intrusions was the catalyst to what is probably the most important event in this nation’s history, without which Europeans would not have been able to settle on top of the millions of Native people who already lived in America—at least, not as fast: epidemic illness.

Before 1492, the Western Hemisphere was largely isolated, sparing its indigenous peoples from diseases the rest of the world succumbed to time and time again. But this lack of contact prevented Natives of the Americas from developing any type of immunity to European, Asian, and African pathogens. When Europeans started trekking through Indian towns, they brought sickness with them. Indians died at an alarming rate, making it substantially easier for colonists to overpower entire villages—well, what was left of them. 

The Pilgrims already believed they were part of God’s plan. Finding empty villages as 90 percent—yes, 90 percent—of America’s Indians perished in front of them only furthered Europeans’ sense of their destiny, influencing them to continue the colonization westward. As Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora) and Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche) wrote in Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories, one of the opening exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, “That initial explosion of death is one of the greatest tragedies in human history because it was unintended, and unavoidable, and even inevitable. But what happened in its wake was not.” 

One people who famously suffered from the onslaught of disease were the Wampanoag, a nation made up of 69 villages scattered throughout present-day Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Skilled hunters, gatherers, farmers, and fishers during spring and summer, the Wampanoag moved inland to more protected shelter during the colder months of the year. Like indigenous groups everywhere, the Wampanoag had a reciprocal relationship with nature and believed that as long as they gave thanks to the bountiful world, it would give back to them. Long before the arrival of the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag held frequent Thanksgiving-like celebrations, giving thanks in the form of feasts and ceremonial games.

Exposed to new diseases, the Wampanoag lost entire villages. Only a fraction of their nation survived. By the time the Pilgrim ships landed in 1620, the remaining Wampanoag were struggling to fend off the Narragansett, a nearby Native people who were less affected by the plague and now drastically outnumbered them.  

For a moment of history, the interests of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag aligned. When the Pilgrims landed in New England, after failing to make their way to the milder mouth of the Hudson, they had little food and no knowledge of the new land. The Wampanoag suggested a mutually beneficial relationship, in which the Pilgrims would exchange European weaponry for Wampanoag for food. With the help of an English-speaking Patuxet Indian named Tisquantum (not Squanto; he spoke English because he was kidnapped and sold in the European slave trade before making his way back to America), the Pilgrims produced a bountiful supply of food that summer. For their part, the Wampanoag were able to defend themselves against the Narragansett. The feast of indigenous foods that took place in October 1621, after the harvest, was one of thanks, but it more notably symbolized the rare, peaceful coexistence of the two groups.

—Lindsay McVay

The events that followed the first Thanksgiving also depart from the peaceful ideal we celebrate. To read what happened next, see the earlier post Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving?

Lindsay McVay is a senior at the University of Central Florida, majoring in writing and rhetoric. Her professional experience includes writing grants for nonprofits; contributing to blogs, especially Book Baristas; and designing websites for Florida independent publishers. During the fall of 2017, Lindsay has worked as an intern in Marketing and Communications at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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