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. 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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April 10, 2014

Photographers Larry McNeil and Will Wilson Go for the Platinum

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Will Wilson's finished platinum print portraits. Used with the permission of the artist. 

Photographers Larry McNeil (Tlingit/Nisga′a) and Will Wilson (Diné/Bilagáana) have been invited to speak about their platinum printmaking at an international symposium on the science, conservation, significance, and continued application of the historic photographic process. Presented by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the symposium will take place on October 22 and 23, 2014. The two photographers are scheduled to speak on the first day of the two-day program. Tours of photo collections held by the National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress, and the National Museum of American History and workshops on the the chemistry of platinum and palladium photographs are offered on October 21 and 24.

NMAI has acquired platinum works from both artists and is currently preparing an exhibition of these important photographs. Opening on June 7, 2014, Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson reminds us of the role platinum photographs played in late-19th- and early-20th-century representations of Native Americans. The exhbition further argues that McNeil and Wilson challenge this problematic history by integrating the process into their contemporary practice.

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Larry McNeil and Shawna Hanel, his assistant, with a test platinum print of Elders. Used with the permission of the artist.

In preparation for the show, the two photographers have been hard at work in their darkrooms. Platinum paper used to be manufactured by photographic supply companies and was basically ready to use right out of the box. In fact, platinum printing was considered easy to do. This is no longer the case. The platinum process is now difficult and dangerous. McNeil and Wilson have to make their own platinum paper by mixing light-sensitive chemicals in a darkroom and applying the solution to the paper. The photographers use a printing frame to put the sensitized paper in direct contact with a negative, then expose the frame to light. Upon exposure, the image from the negative burns itself onto the paper in reverse. McNeil and Wilson must monitor the development of the print so as not to produce an over- or underexposed photograph. After exposure, they return to the darkroom to dunk the print in a chemical fixing bath.

I asked Will Wilson to describe the work involved in using a digital image to create a negative for platinum printing:

A contrast curve is the tonal relationship ranging from black to white. Establishing the contrast curve for a digital negative depends on several factors: the paper to be used for the final print, the platinum/palladium ferric oxalate ratios, the developer, the light source, and the negative substrate material combination. Humidity also impacts the curve. 

With my homemade platinum solution, I sensitize a Stouffer test wedge, which measures a gradient of tones in five percent increments from black to white, to do a series of tests to find the time that gets me to the dMax—the shortest time to develop the perfect black. I record this. Next I expose another test wedge at my perfect-black time, and this anticipates the entire tonal range of a platinum print. I let the new test strip dry and then scan it into Photoshop. 

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Will Wilson's digitally derived negative of his self-portrait. Used with the permission of the artist.

In Photoshop I use the eyedropper tool while viewing the contrast curve of my scan to measure the contrast values at each of those five-percent increments. You “build your curve” by inputting these values into an inverted version of your contrast curve, which radically changes its shape. You apply this new curve to your test wedge and reprint. Now you run another test strip, scan, and measure. This time your contrast values should give you a curve that is much more linear, with a steady, predictable progression from black to white.

Based on this test you tweak the first curve you built and test again. Hopefully you are very linear at this point. Now you use the curve you built with its tweaks, applying it to all of your digital negatives, and you should be golden for your particular combo.

One more thing: Bostick and Sullivan of Santa Fe and photographer Ron Reeder should be credited for leading me down this particular wormhole. 


Larry McNeil recently posted to his blog on the cutting-edge technology he uses in aid of his platinum-printing and his thought process for titling his newest work, which will appear in Indelible.

The photography symposium has received support from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Gallery of Art. For a complete schedule of the symposium and to register, submit payment, or apply for scholarship funding, please click here.

Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson will be on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., from June 7, 2014, to January 15, 2015.

—Heather Shannon and Will Wilson


Heather Shannon is photo archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian and curator of Indelible.
 

Will Wilson, a Diné photographer who grew up in the Navajo Nation, studied photography at Oberlin College (BA, 1993) and the University of New Mexico (MFA in Photography, 2002). In 2007, Wilson won the Native American Fine Art Fellowship from the Eiteljorg Museum, and in 2010 was awarded a grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. From 2009 to 2011, he managed the National Vision Project, a Ford Foundation funded initiative at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, and helped to coordinate the New Mexico Arts Temporary Installations Made for the Environment (TIME) program on the Navajo Nation. Wilson is part of the Science and Arts Research Collaborative (SARC) which brings together artists interested in using science and technology in their practice with collaborators from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia Labs as part of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts, 2012 (ISEA). His installation Auto Immune Response was on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in 2006. 

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Some beautiful photos on display here. How's he'd edited them is something of genius.

The work used gold nanoparticles and titanium dioxide as a catalyst to speed the process and determined that water serves as a co-catalyst for the reaction that transforms carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide. While researchers have worked with carbon monoxide oxidation using gold catalysts for years and have realized that water can change the reaction, none have previously been able to fully explain why it worked.

This is a great post.

Incredible you guys are larry mcneil and will wilson, you create an awesome opportunity for photography. you proved this is an art.

March 27, 2014

The Museum's Artist Leadership Program Launches a New Collaboration with the Institute of American Indian Arts

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Melissa Shaginoff (Chickaloon Village) and Charles Rencountre (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) are the first participants in a prototype Artist Leadership Program for students at the Institute of American Indian Arts. 

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. This year, the museum and the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe worked together to develop a prototype program within the ALP for IAIA college students from indigenous communities in the United States. The program's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership and, at the same time, enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars. 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 register and receive credit for their independent study experience.

Melissa Shaginoff (Chickaloon Village) and Charles Rencountre (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) are taking in the inaugural program, conducting research in the museum’s collections and making presentations to the museum’s staff. In the next phase of the program, Melissa and Charles will create new works of art for public display at IAIA, based on their research projects at the NMAI. Here are their personal stories of their NMAI research, staff experiences, and perceptions on Native art. 
 

CHARLES RENCOUNTRE 

I am a Lakota from Rapid City, South Dakota. I am enrolled at the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. I am a student and artist working on a BFA at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will begin my senior projects in the fall semester of 2014.

My goal in coming to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was to research the calumet and see first-hand how they were constructed by the ancestors. My perception of the world of research changed over the course of the first several hours I spent at the Cultural Resource Center (CRC) during the week of March 17 to 22, 2014. I was introduced to Mr. Anthony Williams, a museum specialist, and he guided me through the research and treated me and the sensitive objects with the highest level of respect and professionalism. He also asked if I would like to use the smudge room, and I gratefully accepted this offer.

The level of security personnel, locked doors and departmental passes all seemed a normal part of the museum culture I have been accustomed to in the larger museum field. It was the level of kindness and family at the NMAI while attending to the need for security that affected my perception.

My wife Alicia brought this NMAI opportunity to my attention after seeing it in her IAIA email account. She is my strongest educational advocate. I will share my experience with my fellow art students as a must-do, and I will also share my new knowledge about the accessibility and proper protocols for attaining research through the NMAI. 

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Emil Her Many Horses (left) and Charles Rencountre working together at the museum's Cultural Resources Center. 

The most significant moment was when I was consulting with Mr. Emil Her Many Horses in the CRC collections. He is a respected artist, scholar, role model, and elder from my home community, the Lakota Nation in South Dakota. Mr. Her Many Horses took the time to share with me the stories of our people and how they related to the making of the calumets. He explained the reasons why different feathers, yarns, and colors were used. He taught me things that could only be taught person to person. His teaching will stay with me, and I will share it as I make my public art project for my community. 

Regarding the question of art, or of contemporary and traditional Native American Art: I have always identified myself as a Native American contemporary traditional artist. After visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland, my perception of the idea of art is reaffirmed. The making of what we call art is a gift of expressing what is important in our lives. It could be as simple as decorating a bag that holds a ration card from the early reservation era, or as large as a forty-foot totem pole from the Northwest coastal tribes. 

The value of this NMAI Artist Leadership Program experience to me is that I now have more of the skills required to be an effective researcher and artist, not only at the NMAI but also within the entire Smithsonian complex worldwide. I have been taught some of the foundational protocols for accessing information from the Cultural Resource Center’s staff. I have become a member of the NMAI’s family, something I value very highly, and I am deeply honored by it. 

The first skills I learned and will be practicing have to do with the archival aspect of research. I think this is the most important part for me, because I will be conducting research from afar. Working with Heather Shannon, Rachel Menyuk, and Michael Pahn in the archives department was gaining a very important tool that I can use immediately. I could have spent more time with them easily. 

Based on my desire to learn and on what the NMAI has shared with me, I will lead by example. I will continue to research with the tools I have been gifted and share with my fellow students my successes. 

I will use these new skills to research my Senior Projects in my last two semesters at IAIA. I will take these skills through the rest of my career and share them with all who ask for my help. 

It truly has been an honor to become a family member of the NMAI; it is a dream come true. Thank you Jill Norwood, community services specialist; Jacquetta Swift, repatriation manager; Heather Shannon, photo archivist; Rachel Menyuk, archives technician; Zandra Wilson, cultural interpreter; Dennis Zotigh, museum cultural specialist; and so many more of the Smithsonian family who where so helpful and supportive. 

—Charles Rencountre 


MELISSA SHAGINOFF

My name is Melissa Shaginoff, and I am Ahtna Athabascan of the Tsisyu clan from Chickaloon Village, Alaska. I grew up in the small fishing town of Kenai, Alaska. I received my first Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and I’m currently enrolled in the BFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. My current work centers upon my own personal identity and issues of contemporary indigenous female identity. 

My first intention was to gain a visual reference for objects I had been told about but had never seen back home. Items such as traditional red ochre painted regalia and symbolic amulets. I applied to the Artist Leadership Program in my first semester at IAIA. Being a new student, I didn’t think my research proposal would be chosen, but the chance to experience these items empirically was so intriguing I had to at least apply. And luckily I was chosen for this great opportunity. I would certainly recommend this experience to other students. My time at NMAI I feel has forever changed my art, and the knowledge I’ve gained I will share with my tribe and family.

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Melissa Shaginoff's research focuses on Ahtna–Athabascan objects in the museum's collections.

It’s hard to narrow down what was the most significant moment of this NMAI Artist Leadership Program experience, but I would have to say that a certain item I looked at was particularity special to me. There is only a small number of Ahtna-specified material in the NMAI collections, so I asked to look at all of it. I came across a knife and hide sheath. The NMAI collection staff member I was working with, Veronica Quiguango, suggested that we turn the item around and look on the back. When we did, we discovered the name Chief Nikolai carved into the hide sheath. Chief Nikolai was my great-great granduncle. There are some 800,000 items in the collection at NMAI and somehow I chose to look at this knife and sheath. Perhaps it is just serendipitous, but I feel very blessed to have been gifted with such a physical connection to my experience at the museum. This knife and sheath have inspired a confidence that I am on the right path in the current exploration of my art.

As artists we all draw upon personal history in developing our ideas and process. As an artist with a Native background, I naturally draw upon indigenous technique and material in my work. This experience with NMAI has only increased that background of techniques and materials to draw upon.

I feel that I gained a new respect for the collection itself. There’s a certain power to these items that I studied that is palpable and reverent. Both the knowledge possessed in the construction of these items and the thought that perhaps the last Ahtna person to hold these things quite possibly was my great-great granduncle is a humbling concept. I now want to become a leader of my community. I want to share what I’ve learned and experienced at NMAI and encourage others to reach out for opportunities, because experiences like this have the ability to change so much of one’s own work. I certainly will never be the same and neither will my art. I’ve grown as both an artist and as an Ahtna person. I cannot thank NMAI and IAIA enough for this gift. Tsin’aen—thank you.

—Melissa Shaginoff

 

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 5, 2014. 

The program Melissa and Charles have described is a prototype currently limited to applicants from Institute of American Indian Arts.

—Keevin Lewis 

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

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March 14, 2014

Weaving and Protecting a History: A Conversation with Basket-Maker Kelly Church

Kelly Church baskets2
Baskets made by Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe). Photo courtesy of the artist.


So many Native American artists are generational, learning long-held artistic techniques from family elders and passing them on. This Saturday, March 15, will be an all-in-the-family event in part, when Kelly Church (Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Ojibwe) showcases her basketweaving skills during a day of demonstrations by Anishinaabe women artists at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Church will be joined by her daughter, Cherish Parrish (Match-E-B-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi), and by Jamie Brown (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), Church's second cousin—both accomplished basket-makers in their own right.

Also featured at Saturday's event are painter Dawn Jackson (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan), bead- and quillworker Naomi Smith (Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation), and basket-maker Whitney VanderWal (Pokagon Band of Potawatomi). The demonstrations are part of a series of programs happening throughout the day to complement the exhibition Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakeson view at the museum in New York through June 15.

Kelly Church's family has long been involved in weaving, using black ash wood to make cultural objects since the 1850s. Collectors' records confirm this lineal history, although photographic evidence came much later. "We made baskets before we made cameras"—these are the words that Church remembers passing from her "gramma's" lips to her ears. "We have a picture of my family working with a log and weaving as a group from 1919."

Church is extremely proud of her heritage. And why not? She was born into the largest black-ash basketmaking family in Michigan, so black ash has surrounded her since childhood. She learned to harvest it from her father and her cousin John Pigeon. Church later attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the University of Michigan, and Western Michigan University. At college and in graduate school, she focused on painting, sculpture, and other forms. But it's nearly impossible to deny one's place in tradition. She returned to full-time basketmaking about 15 years ago.

The people of the Great Lakes region have made black ash a staple fiber in their weaving for centuries, says Church. "As Natives, we use what is available to us in our surroundings." Michigan's abundance of swamps and wetlands allow black ash trees to grow well there, she explains. Church works predominantly with black ash, basswood, birch bark, white and red cedar bark, sweet grass, cattails, and copper. She says her family owns a huge copper kettle once used for feasts and making maple syrup. "The purest copper in the world comes from the Great Lakes." Church began weaving copper into her baskets in 2008, and has recently begun to weave in silver, aluminum, brass, and gold embellishments on top of plaited black ash underlay. 

Church is mainly known for her woven strawberries and her black ash bracelets, but she also weaves frogs with lily pads, checkers games played by strawberry versus pinecone pieces, or ash wood frogs against cedar frogs. Most recently she began weaving baskets in the style of Fabergé eggs that open and contain other items within. While there are many new, intriguing ideas she wants to explore, Church also remains faithful to tradition, creating recognizable forms such as traditional baby baskets, black ash bark baskets, and market baskets. She carves Anishinaabe cradleboards and creates birch bark bitings, a form at which few people in North America are skilled. The technique involves using the eye teeth to bite traditional designs into thin layers of birch bark that are then woven into a variety of decorative objects. Church will demonstrate this process as well at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend.

What is it like to work with black ash? "Black ash is so pliable," says Church. "You can do just about anything you set your mind to with it." Church is amazed by the work of her daughter, Cherish Parrish. One of Parrish's sculptural baskets that takes the shape of a pregnant human figure—part of her Next Generation series—is on view in Before and after the Horizon. Parrish is able to create her tightly woven baskets because of the ease with which the material can be manipulated.

Beyond the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes is all about the history of the varied art forms found in the area from the past to the present. It makes one ponder the kind of relationship the Anishinaabe people share with the black ash. "Black Ash baskets have always been woven according to the needs of the basket-makers at that time," Church explains. "So, in the past they were needed for gathering, carrying items from the market. . . . [People made] fishing creels, baby baskets, and sewing baskets. Later, they made fancier baskets to sell to tourists, as money was needed for staples—food, homes, and cloth for clothes." 

She says modern-day indigenous people of the Great Lakes make baskets for their own utilitarian purposes. Today's needs are somewhat different, but all in all, tradition finds its place with necessity. Fancy baskets are meant to be eye-catching and pleasing. As in days of old, they are made to sell on the collectors' market to help support the maker's family. "We are influenced and live in a much different world than our ancestors, but we honor them in all ways still," Church says. That includes harvesting trees by family, processing the materials together, and weaving baskets for use and shoonya (money). "We still lay down our saama (tobacco) and give our thanks. Our basket styles and shapes are influenced by our everyday lives."

While black ash basketmaking has endured for generations, it is now an endangered by the arrival of the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive species of beetle that came to the Great Lakes region in the 1990s. Church is on a crusade to help preserve basketmaking for future generations by documenting the process, as well as how to identify and properly harvest and prepare black ash for weaving. Over the last deacde, she has been speaking at conferences to spread the word about the growing infestation and its impact on black ash basketweaving.

It is a tough battle with a long road ahead. "The EAB will kill 99 percent of the ash trees in the US, and collecting seeds now is the only way this tradition will continue in the future. We will end up skipping a generation in this process while we wait for EAB to die out or move on." Church says it will be necessary to replant the seeds in about 20 years, after which the new generations will have to wait another 30 to 50 years for the trees to grow to basketmaking size. A large part of her education effort involves kids who will have to reestablish the art form when they are 50 or 60 years old. Church will hold her fourth national conference to educate people about the EAB this fall.

At the same time, Church and other artsts have helped to keep basketweaving a living and ever-evolving art form. Basketweaving is gaining popularity in the Native American art world, and fine examples are highly sought by collectors. While adhering to tradition, Church says there is room for improvisation. She advises beginners who are interested in learning to look around to find materials with properties that can be used for weaving. "I weave baskets with vinyl blinds and ribbon, metals, paper . . . whatever is available and can be used!" She adds that the nature of weaving lends itself to relaxation. 

Church says she is excited about returning to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York this weekend. "We enjoy working with people and sharing our culture." The opportunity to show work and demonstrate skills at museums ". . . broadens people's knowledge about Natives and helps them to see the different styles of basketry, paintings, and art that we have." Beautiful as they are, basketmaking and other artforms tell a great deal about a people, their geography and past.  Humbly she expresses that demonstrations educate people on the nuances between different Native American cultures and serve to celebrate each unique culture and its arts.

Before and after the Horizon organizes objects using six curatorial concepts that frame entry points into Anishinaabe culture, including the idea of religion. When asked about the derivation of her surname, Church said "My last name is a mystery, but I did have a grandfather who was our Native preacher for all of his life . . . [His name was] Reverend Lewis White Eagle Church."

The artist demonstrations will take place at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York in the second floor Rotunda from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m Saturday. In addition, at 11 a.m. in the museum's West Gallery, Brooklyn-based Canadian artist Maria Hupfield (Wasuaksing First Nation) will present a site-specific 30-minute performance art realization as a "Living Tour Guide." At 2 p.m. in the Diker Pavilion, David Penney, curator of Before and after the Horizon, will moderate "A Dialogue on Anishinaabe Art," a panel discussion with artist and cultural theorist Robert Houle (Salteaux), author Gerald Vizenor (White Earth Nation), and curator Gerald McMaster (Plains Cree and member of the Siksika nation). Finally, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., visitors will be treated to the New York premiere of Robert's Paintings, a documentary by Shelley Niro (Mohawk) examining Robert Houle's life and work. A discussion with Houle will follow. Both the film and the discussion will take place in the Diker Pavilion. For more information about these and other programs celebrating Anishinaabe art, see the museum's calendar of events.

—Paul Niemi

Paul Niemi is an arts and culture writer and a Museum Ambassador at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The quotations in this piece are from Paul's recent email interview with Kelly Church.  

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