April 04, 2013

Birds of a Feather: NMAI collaborates with Natural History to identify the feathers used in an Otoe headdress

Otoe headdress
Otoe headdress, date unknown. Collected in Oklahoma in 1910 by Mark R. Harrington. 3/2750 


At the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), we have thousands of objects from all over the Western Hemisphere made using feathers. Some of these objects include eagle feathers, which are highly protected under the U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Other feathers are protected by the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The museum is not able to send any of these objects on loan outside the United States unless we obtain Fish and Wildlife Department permits for transport of the specific kinds of protected bird feather used on the object. 

So, how do we identify mystery feathers that may be old, fragmentary, dyed, or otherwise modified on an American Indian object? We are fortunate to collaborate with one of Smithsonian’s top scientists, Dr. Carla Dove, feather identification specialist at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Dr. Dove is a world-renowned expert on identifying birds that have caused aircraft crashes. (And no, she did not change her name to match her profession!) 

Dr. Carla Dove with Otoe headdress
Smithsonian ornithologist Carla Dove studying the headdress in the Feather Identification Lab at the National Museum of Natural History. 
 
Although always very busy with her work as a member of Natural History’s Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Dr. Dove has regularly taken time to examine mystery feathers in the NMAI collections. Most recently, Marian Kaminitz, head of Conservation at NMAI, and I transported an object to NMNH in order for Dr. Dove to analyze the feathers and make an accurate identification. The 19th-century Otoe headdress from Oklahoma included an unidentified bird head with a yellow beak and green coloration on the head feathers. It also incorporated two turkey feather “beards” and bundles of unidentified large feather quills that are dark orange.

Dr. Dove uses two visual methods of identification. One is direct comparison with feathers in the extensive collection of bird skins at NMNH. By looking at feathers side-by-side, comparing our object feathers to those on a preserved bird skin, Dr. Dove is able to confirm most feathers’ species. For the Otoe headdress, the small bird head with a curving yellow beak and soft striped brown feathers matched specimens of the Greater Prairie Chicken. In the 19th century, this bird was widely distributed across the prairies of the west where the Otoe lived. The green coloration on the head feathers is actually pigment applied to them by the maker of the headdress.

The large orange feather quills in the bundles on the sides of the headdress, however, were not immediately comparable to those of a specific bird. Dr. Dove guessed that they could be eagle feathers, due to their size, which had been dyed with orange pigment.

Photo6c Duck Barbules
Under the microscope: Barbules on the shafts of one species of duck down. 50 microns (µ)—the scale at the bottom of the image—is described as the thickness of a sheet of paper or width of a human hair. 
 
This prompted Dr. Dove to advance to the second method of visual evaluation for unidentified feathers: microscopic examination of the down. The bird feather identification laboratory has a dual binocular microscope that allows scientists to view the tiny barbules on strands of bird down. Barbules—nodes on the shaft of the down invisible to the naked eye—bear signature shapes specific only to one bird, much like fingerprints. Some barbules look like rings on a curtain rod, others are heart-shaped or look like bamboo. Dr. Dove has an encyclopedic collection of glass slides of barbule samples from thousands of birds. Looking through the microscope at a reference slide of barbules from an eagle, side by side with a slide of a down shaft from the bundles on the Otoe headdress, we were able to make a conclusive identification of the orange shafts as eagle feather.

If we ever lend this Otoe headdress to an exhibition outside of the United States, we will have to go through a permit process with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to receive permission to transport the object abroad. The purpose of laws like these is to protect eagles, migratory birds, and endangered species from illicit trafficking by poachers and smugglers. The penalties for not obtaining a permit can include confiscation of the object and large fines for the Smithsonian. We have confidence that we will not run this risk for our loan objects, thanks to the expert eye (and microscope) of Dr. Carla Dove! We thank her and the Museum of Natural History for this cordial collaboration with NMAI Collections and Conservation.

—Gail Joice

Gail Joice is Collections manager for the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 

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January 24, 2013

Warmth And Spirit: A Comanche Coat Returns Home

 

021503_000
Child's parka, Niuam (Comanche), ca. 1890. Lynx skin/fur. Collected by M.R. Harrington in 1909. (02/1503)

Around 1890, a Comanche woman living in the Great Plains created this parka for one of the tribe’s children. Made of thick, golden lynx fur, it provided crucial protection from the region’s winters, especially at the close of the 19th century, before electricity had spread to the Comanche reservation in Oklahoma Territory. Considering how many hours it would have taken to hunt, skin, dress, stretch, cure, scrape, tan and sew the animal’s pelt, the parka was not only a labor of love, but one of considerable time and technique. 

But this parka wasn’t simply worn for warmth. Plains tribes like the Comanche revered certain animals for their unique abilities. The turtle, for example, drew admiration for its longevity. By wrapping a young boy or girl in a coat of lynx, Comanche elders hoped to imbue the child with the creature’s characteristic courage and stealth.

The parka, which was on view for the New York museum’s 2001 exhibition, “Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts,” will soon return to Oklahoma, where it was first collected by archaeologist Mark Raymond Harrington in 1909. The object was hand-selected from the museum’s collection by Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi (Comanche), executive director of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, to be part of their upcoming exhibition, “All Things Comanche: A Numunuu Trilogy,” which opens in Lawton, Oklahoma February 28th.

Wahahrockah-Tasi first spotted the parka during a tour of the museum’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where the vast majority of the museum’s 800,000 objects are stored, studied and preserved when not on loan to other museums or on display in New York or Washington. Wahahrockah-Tasi says the coat’s hood, which features actual, tufted lynx ears, reminds her of modern-day stocking caps worn by the community’s children today.

“It gives insight into how our people survived those cold, winter months, and also how we treasured our children back then as much as we do today.” Plus, she added, “This coat bucks the misconception that everything was made out of buffalo.”

For members of the Comanche nation, the tribal museum doesn’t simply represent history, it represents family. The upcoming exhibition, for example, includes an object that once belonged to Larry Saupitty, a Comanche Code Talker who stormed Normandy during World War II. He was also Phyllis’ late uncle.

“We are the originators, not the imitators,” Wahahrockah-Tasi says of the museum’s objects, many of which are family heirlooms personally donated or loaned to the museum by the community. “We are the heartbeat of the nation. We bring the real history and culture.”

                — Molly Stephey is a senior writer for American Indian magazine and a public affairs producer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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This gives me the chill. It was indeed labor of love, depicting how we love our children way back in earlier history up to the present. Amazing exhibit.

depicting how we love our children way back in earlier history up to the present.

November 05, 2012

A Flag of The Fathers

230730_000_000_20120730_psBritish wool cloth flag said to have been given to Tecumseh (Shawnee, 1768-1813) by the British in 1812, National Museum of the American Indian, 23/730 (Photo by Roger A. Whiteside, NMAI)

 

Before it went on display at the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ontario last month, this British flag from our museum's collection had never been seen by the public before. Though it appears rather tattered, the flag is in remarkable shape considering its age: it turned almost exactly 200-years-old this year.

The flag is special not only for its venerable age and exceptional condition, but also because of its previous owner: the famous Shawnee warrior Tecumseh. As legend has it, Tecumseh received the flag from British Major General Sir Isaac Brock as a symbol of their alliance against the U.S. during the War of 1812. Tecumseh and his army of Native American warriors had joined forces with the British to halt American expansion into the “Old Northwest,”  a region now comprised of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin that Tecumseh had hoped would someday become an independent pan-Indian nation.

Brock’s gift was hardly an unusual one. At the time it was customary for British commanders to present flags, medals or uniforms to Indian chiefs as symbols of political allegiance. But Tecumseh’s military and leadership savvy so impressed Brock that he bestowed something else to Tecumseh along with the flag: the title of Brigadier General in Great Britain’s army.

Made of wool bunting and hand-stitched with linen thread, the flag –known as the Union Jack – is believed to have been carried by fellow Shawnee warrior Yellow Hawk (Othaawaapeelethee) during the Battle of the Thames in 1813, the same battle during which Tecumseh was killed. The flag was passed down through Yellow Hawk’s family as an heirloom until 1942, when it was purchased by Milford G. Chandler, an automotive engineer and enthusiastic collector of Native American arts and antiquities. In 1961, it became part of the museum’s collection.

Before delivery to the Woodland Cultural Centre, a First-Nations' managed museum, a team from the National Museum of the American Indian, led by textile and flag conservator Gwen Spicer, worked to conserve and mount the flag. Staff textile conservator Susan Heald and Mellon Felllows Sarah Owens and Rebecca Summerour also participated.

The flag is now on view as part of the Woodland Cultural Centre’s exhibition War Clubs & Wampum Belts: Haudenosaunee Experiences of the War of 1812, presenting the largely unknown story of the Iroquois civil war within the international war. The exhibit runs through Dec. 24, 2012.

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This is an amazing union jack. The texture and the colouring of the fabric is totally amazing. Considering its age, I think has survived time pretty well.

Thanks.
Mellion Fine Art

P.S. Union Jack or the British flag, is a merger of two flags of England and Scotland.

I work for a flag company and love finding out new information about historical flags. This is an amazing story that I would love to share on our Facebook page for our historical flag customers. They are huge history buffs and I'm sure they'd love to learn more about this piece of history! Let me know if it is okay to share this with our Facebook fans.

Tam,

The museum would be delighted to see this story on your Facebook page. Thank you very much for asking.