January 22, 2016

One Hundred Years of History: Going Digital

A question I'm often asked as an archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian is, “How do I find what I’m looking for, and once I find it, how do I access it?” The Smithsonian is one of the world’s largest repositories of primary sources, with archival holdings measuring somewhere in the area of 137,000 cubic feet, spread across 14 museums and other research centers within the institution. These amazing resources include letters, journals, scrapbooks, photo albums, and sound and video recordings, with subjects ranging from art and culture to science and technology. The scope can make searching for specific information a daunting task. Luckily, Smithsonian archivists have been hard at work making it easier to find the material you are looking for, and making it increasingly possible to view a digital version of the letter, field notebook, or photograph in question.

In October 2015 the Smithsonian launched the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). This online interface provides access to archival finding aids—inventory lists that provide context and detail to the many pieces that can make up a collection. Currently the NMAI Archive Center has 101 archival collection records, including photographic, paper, and media collections, available via the SOVA. Of these 101 records, 28 collections have full finding aids.

You can browse the SOVA by Smithsonian unit, making it easier to focus your search on NMAI’s archival holdings specifically.

SOVA homepage


If there is digitized content available within a collection, a symbol will appear in your search results next to the collection name.

Tibbles screen shot


The papers of the journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles (1840–1928)—the husband of Indian rights writer and orator Susette Bright Eyes LaFlesche (Omaha) and a progressive figure in his own right—are one example of a fully digitized collection now available online. You can browse the full collection here.

One of the museum’s largest archival collections is the records of our predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI) in New York City. The MAI records include collectors' field notebooks, catalog lists, and expedition records, as well as exhibition and organizational files. (For a more in-depth look into what this massive collection holds, take a peek at the earlier blog post Finding Treasure in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records.)

As many of you may know, in 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the MAI. As a part of a year-long anniversary celebration, every month the Archive Center is putting new digitized content from the MAI records up on the SOVA. These records will be accompanied by stories from the 100-year history of the MAI. As our first offering the Archive Center has made available the MAI’s annual reports from 1917 to 1989. These annual reports give a keen insight into the activities of the museum from its earliest days up until it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The MAI annual reports offer an great opportunity to learn about conducting research using the SOVA. For instance, say you want to know what expeditions the museum funded in 1924. You can easily find this information by following the digitized content boxes in the MAI finding aid to the Publications Series: 

MAI screen shot


You can then select the annual report folder you're interested in. If you're looking for 1924, you’ll want to click on Folder 2.

MAI screen shot3


You can then browse through the annual reports until you find 1924.

MAI screen shot2


MAI exp 1


The annual reports are just one of the many treasures among the MAI records. Make sure to check back with us every month for new and exciting stories from the archives!

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

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September 03, 2015

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: Mukluks

Mukluks 255337

Inupiaq mukluks, ca. 1950. Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association, Nome, Alaska. 25.6 x 9.8 x 23.2 cm; ugruk (bearded seal), white reindeer, calfskin, red felt, yarn. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/5337

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) purchased many things from Native arts and crafts cooperatives in the United States as a way to showcase the latest regional work. Like this pair of mukluks, many objects in the IACB Headquarters Collection are products of Alaska.

These mukluks were made by members of the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association. Originally funded by a bonus of $5,000 from Admiral Richard Byrd for clothing they provided for his Antarctic expeditions, the Nome Skin Sewers made skin parkas, pants, hats, and mukluks for sale. Its members were primarily Inupiaq women.

World War II had a profound effect on the arts and crafts of Alaska. In 1943, Alaskan arts and crafts brought in $242,100 in revenue; that figure rose to $420,201 in 1944 (Robert Fay Schrader, The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: An Aspect of New Deal Indian Policy, p. 281). In 1944, the Nome Skin Sewers alone sold $200,000-worth of products to the military (see Alaska History and Cultural Studies, "World War II brings economic activity").

Members of the military stationed in Alaska needed Arctic gear. Mukluks and skin parkas worked better than standard issue military clothing. Waterproof and reaching above the ankles, mukluks keep feet warm in ice and snow. Made around 1950, this pair of mukluks is sewn of ugruk (bearded seal), white reindeer, and calfskin. Red felt and yarn are used for decoration at top.

Emma Willoya
John Nichols, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Emma Willoya (Inupiaq), Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association, 1949. Nome, Alaska. Photo by E. P. Haddon/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2010 Uqaaqtuaq News printed a 1980 interview with Emma Willoya, a founder of  the Nome Skin Sewers Cooperative Association and its manager in the 1950s. After talking about reindeer herding and the use of reindeer hides, Ms. Willoya recounted a disagreement with a customer who chastised her for the strong smell of the home-tanned skins she used to make boots. She explained that although Outside-tanned skins might be softer, they drew in moisture; hand-tanned, Alaska-tanned skins were more durable and warmer:

“You make them for me Outside-tanned anyway!”

So we made them Outside-tanned. Later on, he came in, the big shot, and sat by the heating stove. I was in the other room, taking inventory, when one of the sewers called, “Emma, you have to come out here! This man won’t listen!” Here the man had taken off his mukluks and put them on top of the heating stove!

“Good Lord! You can’t do that! Look what you did!” I went and picked them up. They were shriveled on the bottom. When I touched them, they tore to pieces. I told him, “You spoiled your mukluks! I told you they wouldn’t last! Outside-tanned mukluks draw moisture and freeze your feet!” He wanted to dry them right away and he cooked them.

He began to understand that Eskimos knew a little more than he did. Next time he ordered Alaska-tanned mukluks and his feet were never cold again. Even in wet and snowy weather he wasn’t cold.

—Anya Montiel

Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.

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August 26, 2015

The Indian Arts and Crafts Board: Introduction and Tohono O'odham Bowl

In 2000, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB) transferred its Headquarters Collection to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Since its creation in 1935, the IACB—a federal agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior—had collected and purchased examples of Native art. The collection transferred to the Smithsonian is from the IACB office in Washington, D.C., and does not include the collections of the IACB's three regional museums in Oklahoma, Montana, and South Dakota.

The collection contains a wide range of things, including baskets, ceramics, beadwork, textiles, paintings, sculptures, and experimental pieces. Since the IACB's concentration is economic development enterprises for American Indians and Alaska Natives, many pieces were produced for the tourist market.

The Early Collection

It may seem odd that a federal agency has an art collection. The IACB was created during the New Deal era, when the federal government invested in cultural development initiatives such as public mural projects, documentary photography, and graphic arts workshops. The IACB is part of what is called the Indian New Deal, a series of federal policies and programs set to reverse assimilative policies towards Native Americans in favor of promoting cultural pluralism and increased tribal sovereignty.

During its first decade, the IACB conducted surveys on Native art, supported the establishment of tribal arts and crafts cooperatives, and endorsed Native artists for public mural projects. Under the direction of Rene d'Harnoncourt from 1936 to 1944, the IACB curated two monumental exhibitions of Native art—the Indian Court at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, and Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1941.

Initially the IACB did not catalog its collection. There are few records and little other documentation available for its early purchases. This bowl was noted as "number 2" on a card file from 1951 and is one of the few pieces from the 1930s.

NMAI 25-9250

Tohono O'odham bowl, circa 1930. Arizona. 11.8 x 14.8 cm; pottery, paint, tree pitch. Purchased by Indian Arts and Crafts Board representatives from an unknown source at an unknown date prior to 1940. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 25/9250

Coiled by hand, the bowl gets its reddish color from hematite present in the clay. Mesquite sap is used to paint designs on the surface, and the sheen is from burnishing the surface with a smooth stone. This bowl was created by an unknown Tohono O'odham artist. The Tohono O'odham Nation is one of the indigenous nations in Arizona; the nation's traditional lands extend from the Phoenix area into northern Mexico.

The bowl was exhibited during the 1941 exhibition Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art; it appears on page 204 of the exhibition book.

—Anya Montiel

Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is the first in a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection at the museum.

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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. 


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


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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