April 24, 2015

The Artist Leadership Program and the Institute for American Indian Arts, 2015

2015 IAIA ALP grantees Tania Larsson and Lee Palma at the Cultural Resources Center
Tania Larsson (left) and Lee Palma at the museum's Cultural Resources Center.

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) seeks to inspire new generations of artists; to mentor young people through pride in learning about their cultural and artistic heritage; and to reflect the fact that indigenous arts hold value and knowledge, and offer communities a means for healing and new ways to exchange cultural information. On research visits to Washington, D.C., ALP artists have access to more than 800,000 objects, photographs, and archival documents in the museum’s collections at the Cultural Resource Center, as well as to exhibitions at the museum on the National Mall. 

The museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe together have developed a program within the ALP for IAIA students. Selection for the program is coordinated with the IAIA and is based on students’ proposed research, public art projects, academic presentations, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of support from IAIA faculty. Participating students receive credit for independent study. 

Here, 2015 ALP–IAIA grantees Lee Palma (Comanche) and Tania Larsson (Gwich’in) describe their experience in Washington. In the next phase of the program, Lee and Tania will create new works of art for public display at IAIA, based on their research projects at the NMAI. 

LEE PALMA 

My name is Lee Palma. I am Comanche and am currently a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, studying Studio Arts with a focus in Jewelry and Metals. I also work within the Digital Arts department as a work-study student.

Lee Palma
Lee Palma doing research in the NMAI Photo Archives.

My primary purpose in coming to the NMAI was to explore my heritage. I particularly wanted to see if the museum's physical collections and archives contained any clues to some mysteries within my family about where we come from and who we were before we were Comanche. My secondary purpose was to view jewelry and other metalwork objects from both my tribe and the surrounding tribes in the Southwest, having previously noticed a correlation between those objects’ designs. 

My experience was a lot different than I had anticipated. I didn’t expect the collections to feel so alive, and I was really happy to find out how much respect and love the NMAI staff has for all of the objects. It was an unexpectedly emotional process—both looking at the objects and playing history detective by researching their history and possible relation to each other with NMAI Collections Specialist Cali Martin. I also discussed my family history and addressed the lack of visibility and acceptance of mixed-race Natives with Gabrielle Tayac, a historian on the museum's staff. I came through this experience feeling settled in some ways and unsettled in others, but completely prepared to deal with processing those emotions. I have so many mysteries to solve about my family history now as a result, but my entire experience with the NMAI solidified my security in my identity, which I feel will make this next journey easier to embark on.

Participating in the NMAI Artist Leadership Program gives you a better sense of yourself as an artist and your relationship to your culture, but also where you stand within your community and culture. By looking through the collections and objects from your culture, you gain a more complete understanding of where you come from and can take elements from the past to bring with you to share with the present. This experience opens up a lot of unexpected doors and many unanticipated reactions, but it is absolutely worthwhile.
                                                                                                                        —Lee Palma


TANIA LARSSON

My name is Tania Larsson. I am Gwich’in and Swedish and I live in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. I am a junior at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I am pursuing a Bachelors of Fine Arts with a focus in Jewelry and Digital Arts.

My purpose in coming to the NMAI was to laser scan Gwich’in traditional tools used to tan hides. These scans are converted to models in software that allows me make 3D prints I can use as a reference when I make hide-tanning tools. My goal is to go back home to the Gwich’in region and share with my community the experience and knowledge I earned.

Tania Larsson
Tania Larsson studying materials and techniques used to make objects in the museum's collections.

Seeing the collection made me realize the big cultural loss we have experienced in the Gwich’in tribe, which brought me to tears on several occasions. However, seeing how well our clothing and artifacts are being preserved at NMAI gave me hope that we can regain some of the culture we have lost due to colonization and the westernization. The helping staff made this experience so much more; they made me feel welcomed and accommodated all my needs.

I believe my life has been altered from this experience. I have enough reference material for a lifetime of work in various mediums, such as traditional arts, drawing, painting, printmaking, digital arts, and metalwork. I received many tools, tips, and contacts from the staff to help me with my research. I am looking forward to working with some of the contacts I received to learn traditional quillwork and reintroduce this aesthetic in my work.

The greatest impact of this research will be on the authenticity of my work. I no longer have to question if my work is Gwich’in or not, because I now have the cultural confidence to back up my work. This was only possible by seeing firsthand what my Gwich’in tribe was all about before our westernization.

Participating in the NMAI artist leadership program has really enriched my knowledge of my own culture. For many years I wondered what our traditional clothing was, but had never seen it in real life. I am looking forward to bringing that knowledge back to my community. With the help of my experience at NMAI and the previous research work others have done on this clothing, I believe we can bring some lost traditions back to life. That is why working with traditional tools is so important. When Gwich’in people have their own tools replicated from the tools of our ancestors, we will be able to work on our hides and then use those hides to make our clothing again. By filling in the gaps in a weakened cultural circle we will be able to strengthen our cultural knowledge and work.
                                                                                                            —Tania Larsson

 

To learn about Artist Leadership Program opportunities for mid-career artists and arts organizations, including detailed information on how to apply, see the Artist Leadership Program page on the museum’s website. Please note that this year's deadline for applications is Monday, May 4, 2015. 

The program Lee and Tania have described is a prototype currently limited to applicants from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
                                                                                                                        
—Keevin Lewis 

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the National Museum of the American Indian's Artist Leadership Program. 

All photos are by Keevin Lewis, NMAI.

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April 03, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—El Panteoncito

In just a few weeks, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This second video looks at El Panteoncito, an archaeological site located in El Salvador. 

El Panteoncito is one of several sites in the Cordillera del Bálsamo Project surveyed by Marlon Escamilla, an archaeologist with the School of Anthropology at the Technological University of El Salvador. In this video, National Geographic Society archaeologist and anthropologist Fabio Amador explains the geographic and social significance of El Panteoncito, uncovered in part by Escamilla’s research.

El Panteoncito sits high in the mountains. Living there would have been very difficult, but the site would also have provided its inhabitants with a strong defensive posture. From El Panteoncito, views are practically unimpeded in all directions, offering advance warning when the community needed to protect itself.

One unique aspect of the site is that it affords scholars the opportunity to learn what foodstuffs the inhabitants grew and consumed. Researchers have determined that many of these food practices have been carried forward to people who live in the area today. The site also serves as a place to study the history of the last migration of peoples in the region before contact with the Spaniards. 

  

 

To learn much more about the first peoples of what is now El Salvador and the sites where they lived, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed
 is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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March 27, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Joya de Cerén

In less than one month, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This first video looks at the Joya de Cerén World Heritage Archaeological Site

The village of Joya de Cerén, in what is today el Salvador, was abandoned more than 1,400 years ago, shortly before the eruption of Loma Caldera. Buried under volcanic ash, Joya de Cerén was preserved unusually well. The site has provided clues to the domestic life of the peoples of the area, as well as an excellent overview of early architectural practices. Many of the objects excavated there illuminate social structures as well, pointing to a culture whose people had a high quality of life, with a say in both the authority and trade systems within their communities.

 

Interested in knowing more about Joya de Cerén? Download the free exhibition catalogue and turn to “Dwelling in the Ancestral Joya de Cerén Village,” beginning on page 23. 

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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July 01, 2014

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: The cordage that connects it all

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 
Part 6: Sanding and gluing
Part 7: Outrigger and booms 

Canoe on VW 3
An added beauty of this design is that it all fits on top of my small car. This means you need to lash it together when you arrive at the water, and unlash it to pack it when you leave. And that takes rope. 

Lifeline—that’s a good way to think about cordage generally. Cordage is so fundamental to human activities, it's hard to imagine a world without it. And for the voyaging canoe—both building it and sailing it—rope was absolutely critical. The survival of Polynesians traveling across the Pacific owes as much to rope as to anything else.

Traditional rope of any sort is made of strands of natural fiber, usually plant fiber. Ropes made of animal products are subject to rot, shrinkage in the rain, and other problems. And in Hawai`i there were no large animals anyway besides humans—ew! Plant fibers are of finite length, so the art of rope-making involves binding these fibers together in an overlapping fashion to produce a single strand of the necessary length that will hold together. 

Step one is to identify appropriate plant fibers. You want fibers that are strong, pliable, and durable (that won’t rot easily). The number-one fiber for canoe-lashing throughout the Pacific is coconut fiber. That’s right, coconuts. Now if you’re a temperate-climate reader, a coconut to you is a small, hard, brown ball that you see in the grocery store. Crack it open and the inside is lined with beautiful white flesh. Well, that’s a husked coconut. The outside has already been removed. But it’s this husk that is our focus here.

The coconut husk is made up of fibers that run its length. Pacific Islanders, of course, have identified which varieties of coconut are better for rope-making (longer ones, generally), which ones for drinking, and so forth. But in any case, the fibers are not going to be more than a foot long. And they’re caked with pithy stuff. 

Coconut & Husks 2a-a

Husk close-up 1a-a
Clockwise from left: A partially husked coconut shows the thick, fibrous husk and the nut lodged in the middle. The fibers are intermixed with soft, pithy material that needs to be stripped away for rope-making. Cleaned coconut fibers are ready to be rolled into a strand. 

 

Coconut fibers clean a

Rope-Making3c-a
A Refaluwasch (Carolinian) man demonstrates rolling the fibers on his thigh to make a yarn.

So it’s not intuitively obvious that this is good rope-making material. Pacific Islanders learned that if you soak the fibers in fresh or salt water for several weeks, the pithy stuff comes off easily, leaving clean, strong fibers. Now here’s the neat part: These fibers bind very easily to each other, with a little help. All you have to do is roll them together on your thigh, and you get a strand. Keep adding lengths of fiber as you go, and the strand gets longer and longer. 

Once you have enough strands, they can be braided or twisted together to make a rope. And those ropes can be braided or twisted together to make an even larger rope. And so forth and so on. The result is known as coconut sennit or coir, and the best of it is stronger than manila rope. Early Western ships arriving in the Hawaiian Islands would trade for coconut sennit for their ships’ riggings. One of its great advantages is its ability to hold up in salt water, so it’s great for seagoing vessels.

Rope-Making4a-a

TTPI rope-making a

Top: Refaluwasch men demonstrate twisting yarns into rope at a festival in Palau. Above: Navigator Pedro Yamalmai teachesrope-making to students of Outer Islands High School using exactly the same process. Ulithi, Micronesia; 1972. University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, Trust Territory Photo Archives (N-2703.13). 

How does coconut sennit compare to the natural fiber ropes we use today? Its lightness is an advantage for canoe lashing, as is its durability in water. And it floats!. Most coconut coir rope available today comes from Sri Lanka and is very rough. I bought some on eBay, where it seems to be always available and not expensive, but very poor quality compared to the Pacific Islander samples I have.

According to Marques Hanalei Marzan at the Bishop Museum, twisted rope wasn’t used as often as braided for lashing Hawaiian canoes. And not thin, three-ply sennit as shown in the photos here, but five-, seven-, or nine-ply braid. It would be almost a half an inch in thickness, and flat. And in this case, he says, it was not woven by braiding pre-made strands, but by twisting and braiding the fibers together at the same time.

Once the rope was made, you’d have to clean it up. There would be all those ends of individual fibers poking out. So before you were finished with the process of rope-making, you would have to trim your rope and make it look good. Without scissors.

This kind of braided rope was stronger than twisted rope, and a lot thicker. And the flatter surface wouldn’t be as bulky. The spaces between the rounds of lashing would fit more tightly, whereas a round, twisted rope would leave a lot of space in between the cordage.

P-Harvard Two Ropes a
Two types of Hawaiian braided rope in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard: five-ply in the foreground, three-ply in the background. Photo by RDK Herman, courtesy of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

I’m told that there are more than 300 known uses for different parts of the coconut plant, and cordage is certainly a major one. Because coconut palms were so important to Pacific Island cultures, they were pretty widely cultivated and available. But there were other fibers that could be used when coconut was not at hand, or not the best choice, or if you were in a pinch and needed something right then. One of these is the bark of the hau tree—the same tree that Hawaiians used for making the boom—‘iako—of their canoes. Peel the bark from the tree, strip the outer bark (which can also be used, in a pinch) from your peelings, rip the inner bark into strips, twist or braid them together, and away you go.

Ukiuki 1 a
Ukiuki. 

To me a less probable source is the native plant ukiuki. The fibrous leaves are maybe 18 inches long. But tough, apparently! You use the entire leaf. It was especially good for house-building.

The real king of Hawaiian fibers is olonā. Olonā is the strongest plant fiber known to humankind and just happens to be a native Hawaiian plant. Olonā cordage is especially good for making fishing lines and nets, for binding two-piece fishhooks, and for making the netting for the great feather cloaks (ahuula) of the Hawaiian chiefs. But since it is not involved in canoe-building, I won't elaborate on it here.

You know how in all those cowboy movies, when someone is tied up, the rescuer goes and simply cuts the rope off? Well, even in 19th-century America, making rope was a time-consuming process. My research suggests that while a machine for twisting yarns into ropes was invented in 1780, machines for twisting fibers into yarns didn’t come about until 1850. So I figure rope was not exactly cheap, and cowboys probably took care of what they had. They would have bothered to untie the man’s hands and save the rope, not cut it off! 

Rope is simply too valuable, and too useful, to waste. And for lashing together a voyaging canoe, you needed an enormous quantity of it, as we will see in the next installment. 

Douglas Herman, NMAI


Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian and a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands, is also blogging about the round-the-world voyage of the Holule'a for the Smithsonian.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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You have shared such an informative post!!The simplest things of life are the most special that are also made unique and useful. I love the making of Hawaiian braided rope that looks simply stunning and creative. Thanks for sharing!!

the rope which made up from coconut tree is very very strong and cheap in cost, most of Indian villagers use this rope widely

May 29, 2014

The Artist Leadership Program Class of 2014 Shares the Experience


The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through workshops and youth public art projects in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support.

During April 2014, the museum hosted Holly Nordlum, Gerald Cournoyer, Royce Manuel, and Nathalie Picard—outstanding artists from Alaska, South Dakota, Arizona, and Québec—while they conducted research in the museum’s collections. Here, Holly, Gerald, and Nathalie share their aspirations and values, and their thoughts about Native leadership and the arts. Later in the summer, we'll hear from Royce on his research into the technology of bows and arrows and their importance to Aw-Thum men and boys. 

—Keevin Lewis 

 

ALP 2014 a
From left to right: Gerald Cournoyer (Oglala Lakota), Nathalie Picard (Huron-Wendat), Holly Nordlum (Inupiaq), and Royce Manuel (Ak-Mierl Aw-Thum)—individual artists selected for the 2014 Artist Leadership Program at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI Cultural Resources Center (CRC), in the background, houses the museum's object collections and archives. All photos are by Keevin Lewis (Navajo), NMAI.


Holly Nordlum

I am Holly Mititquq Nordlum, Inupiaq visual artist, and I live in Anchorage. I grew up in Kotzebue, Alaska. My work reflects where I come from, but also who I am now as a Native person, an American, a mother, and a common woman. I use printmaking, painting, sculpture, and other mediums to express my ideas about life.

My intent when I came to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington was to do museum collections research and find as many objects as I could to show my summer high school students in Anchorage—urban Native students who might not have any idea where they came from or who they are as Native people. I wanted to find something for everyone. Also, while I was looking in the NMAI collections, I was naturally interested in Inupiaq items and was so inspired by what I found. I took many photo images and can’t wait to get home to get working.

Holly Nordlum 1
Holly Nordlum photographing objects that will click with her students in Anchorage.


There are so many significant moments of the program to recall! But I do remember that I held a pair of Inupiaq wooden sun goggles (glasses) up to my face and felt I had stepped back in time. I was amazed at the objects the museum has in the collections, but also at what my own people created with the technology available to them. I hope to get that across to my students.

I guess my biggest perception shift during this trip is that, as Native Americans, we are the same. We are all affected by the same issues and government restrictions, whether we are on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota or in a village in Northwest Alaska. The climate might be different, but the lives and culture are so similar it’s hard to deny our connection. The NMAI Artist Leadership experience has only increased my feelings of community.

I am also more determined. The experience at NMAI and the Artist Leadership Program confirmed and strengthened my quest not only to educate myself, but also to give my students more as far as a connection and community. I would encourage all artists to apply to the NMAI Artist Leadership Program as this program was so inspiring and exciting and gave me so much to work with for future art projects and for my students. 
 

Gerald Cournoyer

I'm Gerald Cournoyer, an Oglala Lakota painter from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and I recently relocated to the Washington, D.C., area. My goal with the NMAI Artist Leadership Program changed from making pots to actually harvesting raw clay and turning it into useable clay.There is more to making pots than just coiling and firing.

Cournoyer a
Gerald Cournoyer working with reference materials from the archives and the Vine Deloria Jr. Library at the CRC. 

When I initially applied to the ALP program, I was working at our local tribal community college. Now I want to give back to my community this knowledge of pit-firing pots. We will use slip to decorate the pots and fire the slip in a fire pit. The process will be a learning experience for me as well as for the community.

I recommend this program to any and all Native artists for the opportunity to share new knowledge and experiences from the museum. The NMAI and Smithsonian collections are a great resource for information. You will learn more about your people in several different areas, not just about what you are studying. Getting into these different collections brought my Native American art history classes to life. I am learning through my ancestors—they are speaking to me with an ancient voice. In a way I feel I am bringing their spirit home with me. Throughout history Native people have adapted to climate change, invaders, traders, and technology. We continue to tweak our art forms with this new information while keeping our connections to our ancestors. 


Nathalie Picard 

My name is Nathalie Picard, and I am Huron-Wendat. My community is in Wendake, Québec, in Canada. I recently moved to the United States to live in Oregon, and I am a musician. I studied the transverse flute at the Conservatory of Quebec and the University of Montreal in the jazz and pop music program. I specialized in Cuban jazz and Latin jazz. I also play the Native American flute, I am a composer and storyteller, and I sing traditional songs with the drum.

Picard a
Nathalie Picard studying a flute and other musical instruments in the NMAI collections. 

I came to the National Museum of American Indian to gather information about Iroquoian music, musical instruments, and traditional longhouse songs to share with my community and teach the teens and young adults in Wendake. I was amazed that there was an enormous amount of cultural material in the collections of the Smithsonian from my tribe, too! What a gold mine of objects, images, and knowledge from my culture! It is very touching to see up close so many objects in the Smithsonian collections. This research experience doesn't compare to looking at pictures in publications or seeing objects on exhibit. 

It always has been a dream for me to do research in the audio archives of the Smithsonian, and it came true. This experience has been incredible! One beautiful surprise along the way was that I was able to see a wampum that my great-great-grandfather, who was chief, was wearing in an old photo. How amazing it was to see this personal family experience reflected so far from home! 

My collections research in Washington, D.C., and getting to know the different archivists of the different museums and archives will be very helpful in the future. The Smithsonian and Library of Congress staff helped me find what I needed and showed me where to search. I will be able to continue to do more productive research even from my home. 

I also had time to get to know each of the other visiting artists and what they do in their lives. We were able to share our experiences together for 12 days. I now feel I have even more new information and knowledge to share with my people in Wendake that will hopefully instill in the lives of teenagers greater cultural interest toward their ancestors’ traditions! I realize that art was the way of life of Native people; they were so creative and patient. The world has changed now, and it is too bad that these traits and knowledge are disappearing. Today I find that modern Native artists carry tradition inside themselves, and they feel that their traditions, songs, and stories need to get out into the world! They have important things to say through their art.

Since I moved to the United States two years ago, I have been able to integrate myself professionally. It is good to be able to share and exchange information with other Native artists in this program. There are things that are beyond words that make us understand each other better, and it feels good. Usually we think of ourselves as a minority in today's world. But for two weeks, it felt like I was on a journey in time, between the past and the future. My head was full of the images and impressions from the objects in the collections, and my hands are now ready to create new projects from these new sources of inspiration.

I am so happy and feel honored to have had the opportunity to be part of this amazing journey that is ALP! Thank you, Keevin, NMAI, and all the wonderful staff! önenh!  


To learn more about Artist Leadership Program opportunities for mid-career artists and arts organizations, including detailed information on how to apply, see the ALP page on the museum's website. 

Keevin Lewis (Navajo) is coordinator of the Artist Leadership Program at the National Museum of the America Indian. 

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