By Cody Harjo
The National Museum of the American Indian in New York presents weekly family-friendly programs and annual events such as the Children’s Day Festival in May and the Day of the Dead Celebration in October. Yet, we understand the timing of your visit might not coincide with scheduled programs. There are still plenty of opportunities for visitors with children to enjoy unique, self-guided learning experiences.
The Education Learning Center, commonly referred to as the Tipi Room, is located on the first floor of the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan. Indeed there is a tipi in the room, along with animal hides, and objects for study in the glass cases. It is a hands-on learning environment that recreates elements of 19th-century American Indian material culture from the Plains and Plateau regions.
“Is this real,” is one the questions we hear most often. The answer is, “Yes! Everything in the room is real.” Many times when people ask, “Is this real?” they are really wondering if an object is a historical item. Regarding the tipi, a more accurate response is, “Yes, it is a modern tipi with a canvas cover. The historical tipi covers were made from buffalo hides.” The tipi liner is also made of canvas and painted by award-winning ledger artist Tom Haukaas (Lakota). The tipi is an excellent example of cultures’ adapting modern materials for the continuation of traditional practices. All items are recent acquisitions, proof that many people still practice their traditional arts!
The Education Learning Center also contains a buffalo hide and a stretched deer hide in rawhide form. Both hides are part of the museum’s handling collection. Feel free to touch them! A looped video explains the hide tanning process.
After you watch the video, compare and contrast the thickness of the buffalo hide to that of the deer hide. Buffalo hides are thicker and harder to cut, and thus were not typically used to make clothing. Hides such as deer and elk are more suitable for clothing. Uses for buffalo hides include ornamental robes, bedding, and tipi covers. As demonstrated in the video, rawhide is the form in which the hide exists before it is softened. Rawhide is used to produce many items, such as drums and parfleches.
The Tipi Room is also an excellent place to introduce the concept of culture associated with regions, as tipis are very specific to certain Great Plains cultures, such as the Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Sioux. The idea of organizing the study of cultures by region is illustrated by the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations, located off the Rotunda on the second floor. Continue to this gallery to study historical objects made from the two types of hides examined in the Education Learning Center.
Above: Lakota box-and-border robe. Probably South Dakota, ca. 1865. Deer hide, glass beads; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (11/1739). Right: Comanche leggings & moccasins. Oklahoma, ca. 1890. Deer hide, ochre, glass beads, horsehair, feathers, silk, beads, metal cones, pigment. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/1506 & 2/1833). On view at the museum in New York in the permanent exhibition Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.
These are just two examples of museum objects made from buffalo and deer hide. Study the gallery labels to discover the many uses of buffalo, deer, and other types of hides. It is amazing to see how craftsmanship and artistry can transform hide into objects of beauty and function.
Depending on which museum entrance you use, you might immediately find the Tipi Room. It is easily visible from first-floor entrance. The monumental staircase and portico lead to the second-floor entrance. From there you can proceed to the first floor via elevator or stairs. Enjoy your visit!
All photos by Cody Harjo, NMAI.
Cody Harjo (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Otoe, and Creek) served as a cultural interpreter at the National Museum of the American in New York from 2008 to 2013. She is a fall 2013 graduate of the New School’s M.A. program in Media Studies.