March 23, 2017

The Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854

On March 23, 2017, the Treaty of Medicine Creek (1854) was installed in the exhibition Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The treaty, on loan from the National Archives and Records Administration, will remain on display through August 2017. Here, museum historian Mark Hirsch recounts the origins of the treaty and highlights a key provision that secured the fishing rights of the nine Puget Sound Indian nations and bands that signed the agreement. 

NAA Walla Wall 08602800
Gustav Sohon (1825–1903), Coming for the Walla Walla Council, May 18, 1855. Colored pencil, watercolor, and ink on laminated mat. Image 20.3 x 20.3 cm. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. NAA INV 08602800

 

The words “broken” and “treaty” figure prominently in contemporary discussions on American Indian history. For good reason. Today, most historians agree that the United States violated many, if not all, of the roughly 371 treaties with Native nations ratified from 1778 to 1871. Yet the story of Indian treaties is more than a chronicle of coercion and bad faith. As the historian Alexandra Harmon reminds us, the narrative arc of treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns” and produces unexpected outcomes that have bolstered Native rights and tribal sovereignty.

The Treaty of Medicine Creek, with the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other tribes and bands of southern Puget Sound, was the first of four agreements the U.S. made with the Native peoples of Western Washington during a 37-day period in 1854–55. Although 63 tribal leaders signed the treaty, they and their people soon came to regret it. For in doing so they relinquished 2.5 million acres of tribal land to the U.S. in exchange for three 1,280-acre reservations, $32,500 paid over 13 years, and other considerations that aimed to assimilate Indians into European–American culture.

Flash forward to 1974. The descendants of the Medicine Creek Treaty signers embrace the old agreement. They consider it a source of Indian rights, a font of tribal traditions, and a recognition of sovereign nationhood.

What a difference 120 years make!

The shift in Native perceptions of the Medicine Creek Treaty turns on language found in Section 3, which states that, “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the Territory.” 

Isaac Stevens LOC
Isaac Ingalls Stevens, ca. 1860. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. LC-BH82- 5175 A

We tend to think that foresighted and hard-bargaining tribal leaders pressured American treaty commissioners to include such language in their treaty. After all, the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island, and other southern Puget Sound tribes and bands depended on salmon fishing for survival. Yet the evidence suggests that the impetus for recognizing tribal fishing rights at Medicine Creek came from Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–62), the lead U.S. treaty negotiator.

An ambitious graduate of West Point, the 36-year-old Stevens was the governor of Washington Territory—a vast and sprawling area that included northern Idaho and western Montana—as well as its superintendent of Indian Affairs. To him fell responsibility for negotiating land cession treaties with the Indians of the territory.

Acquiring legal title had become a matter of urgency in 1850, when the U.S. authorized white settlers to claim Native lands under a new homesteading act. Land cessions were needed to “extinguish” Indian claims to their homelands.

When he arrived at Medicine Creek, Stevens brought already-drafted treaty language that would be read to the approximately 600 to 700 tribal delegates who converged on the treaty ground on Christmas Eve 1854. The draft reflected a recent trend in U.S. Indian policy: Rather than removing tribes to far-flung lands, U.S. officials hoped to make treaties that consolidated Indians on small parcels, or reservations, within their original homelands.

Stevens’s treaty also reflected some understanding of the cultures of the Puget Sound Indians. He knew that salmon fishing was central to their lives, that tribal leaders would never countenance a treaty that removed them from their homelands’ streams, rivers, and saltwater bays. He also knew that U.S. Indian officials were stingy and that allowing Indians to fish on their former lands would reduce the government’s responsibility for feeding them. Last, Stevens knew that incoming white settlers would need access to Indian labor. For these reasons, Stevens’s treaty recognized Indian rights to leave their newly created reservations to work, hunt, and especially fish for salmon at their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

The tribal delegates who attended the Medicine Creek Treaty expected to discuss and negotiate the terms of the agreement. But Stevens was not of a mind to negotiate. Ultimately the treaty was signed as written and forwarded to Washington, where it was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1855.

Medicine Creek 1-2
"Treaty between the United States and the Nisqualli, Puyallup and Other Indians at Medicine Creek, Washington." 1854. First page, recto and verso. National Archives, Washington, D.C.

There is little doubt that the tribal leaders were confused by the proceedings. An interpreter read the terms of the treaty to them using the Chinook trade jargon, a 500-word pidgin language that had no words for Western concepts of land ownership, fishing rights, and other principles invoked in the treaty.

Leschi WA Hist Soc
Portrait of Nisqually Chief Leschi, painted by an unknown artist in 1894. Watercolor on paperboard. Washington State Historical Society, cat. 200.

An X appears next to the name of the Nisqually tribal leader Leschi (1808–58), but there is reason to believe his mark may have been forged. Certainly Leschi was angered by the treaty’s plan to relocate the Nisqually to a small reservation atop a wooded bluff, away from the river where they traditionally harvested salmon. Leschi also visited neighboring tribes who were preparing to negotiate treaties with the U.S., urging them to place no faith in Stevens. As tribal resentment spread through the region, so, too, did white fears of Indian unrest. In 1855 the growing atmosphere of tension, distrust, and cultural misunderstanding led to violence and war. For eight months tribal warriors and volunteer militiamen engaged in skirmishes that cost lives on both sides.

In November 1856 territorial authorities captured Leschi, who was put on trial for allegedly killing an American soldier. Leschi’s attorneys not only proclaimed his innocence, but argued that an act committed during wartime could not be punished in civilian courts. The trial ended in a hung jury.

But Leschi’s troubles were not over. After a one-day retrial, a jury of non-Indians in a different venue found him guilty. Although his lawyers presented new, exculpatory evidence, the Territorial Supreme Court upheld the conviction. On February 19, 1858, 300 people gathered around an outdoor gallows near Fort Steilacoom, south of present day Tacoma, to witness his execution.

Leschi proclaimed his innocence to the end, and many people, including his hangman, believed him. “I felt then I was hanging an innocent man,” Charles Grainger recalled years later, “and I believe it yet.”

QuileuteHookWas
Quileute salmon-fishing hooks, ca. 1890. Washington. Iron, wood, cordage, split plant fiber. 20 x 7.5 cm, cord 120 cm; 20 x 8.4 cm. 5/7591 | NMAI Photo Services, Smithsonian

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the Native peoples of the Puget Sound region continued to remember Leschi as a great tribal leader and a wrongly convicted man. Today a neighborhood in Seattle, a city park, a marina, and a school on the Puyallup Indian Reservation bear his name. In 2004, 146 years after his execution, Leschi was exonerated at a historical retrial presided over by the chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court.

In the 20th century, the Native peoples of Puget Sound also remembered and continued to invoke fishing rights guaranteed under the Medicine Creek Treaty. Exercising those rights, however, was now challenged by increasingly stringent state regulations that prohibited Indians from harvesting salmon out of season and without state fishing licenses. For state officials, U.S. treaties that guaranteed Indians the right to fish in their “usual and accustomed stations” were vestiges of a bygone era, ancient promises that held no purchase in modern America.

Puget Sound Indians never waivered in the belief that their treaty-recognized fishing rights were inviolate. “We have this treaty right, the supreme law of the land under their Constitution,” the Indian fishing rights advocate Valerie Bridges (Nisqually, 1950–70) declared. “It’s a treaty we’re fighting for.”

It was this fundamental belief in the sanctity and power of the Medicine Creek Treaty that helped inspire the great fish-in protests on the salmon rivers of Western Washington in the 1960s and ’70s. Those acts of resistance fixed national attention on Indian treaty rights and laid the groundwork for the emergence of the modern tribal sovereignty movement that continues to define life in Indian Country today.

—Mark Hirsch


Mark Hirsch is a historian at the National Museum of the American Indian. His research interests include 19th- and 20th-century social and cultural history, U.S. Indian policy, Native–European contact, and the making of the modern world


Source for the observation that treaty history makes “ironic twists and turns”: Alexandra Harmon, “Indian Treaty History: A Subject for Agile Minds,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 106:3 (Fall, 2005): 358.

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March 17, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Sailmaking

1. Introduction and author bio
2. Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood

3. Roughing out the hull
4. Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock
5. Stitch and glue
6. Sanding and gluing
7. Outrigger and booms

8. Cordage
9. Lashing the booms to the hull 
10. Lashing the booms to the float 

 

Pandanus plant
Pandanus growing in the village of Inarahan, Guam. The fruits of some species are edible.

Pacific Islanders didn’t have cloth as we know it—woven with threads of fabric. Sure, there was barkcloth (known as tapa or kapa in Hawai‘i), but this is closer to paper than to cloth. In fact, it’s made from the paper mulberry tree (wauke, in Hawaiian) by much the same method as traditional papermaking. It is felted rather than woven, and not strong enough for a sail. On top of that, on these remote islands there were no large mammals to provide hides. Besides, animal hide does not do well in water, and sails do get wet.

Things woven by Tan Floren
A small sample of the work of master pandanus weaver Tan Floren Meno Paulina. I am reliably told that making hats, far left, is the most difficult art of pandanus weaving.

The answer was truly ingenious: leaves. That is, leaves of the pandanus tree (hala), which are several feet long and very fibrous. Pandanus, sometimes called screwpine because of its corkscrew growing pattern, is one of the “canoe plants” that Pacific Islanders took with them on the canoes as they migrated across the ocean. Woven pandanus products are still used widely in the region, from small baskets and containers to large mats. And sails.

Tan Floren Meno Paulino (Tan is an honorific for female elders), a master pandanus weaver on Guam, explained to me the processing of pandanus. The hala leaves (lauhala) are picked and dried in the sun. Once a leaf is dry, a simple tool is used to strip off the thread of thorns that runs along each side. The leaf is then rolled into a coil, which sits for a while. When it is unrolled, you have a nice flattened strip of fiber. The leaf can then be pulled through a very simple gizmo that slices it into even widths for weaving. These can be very fine, for small or detailed projects, or wide for mats and sails.

Lourdes Yidwechog drying pandanus
Lourdes Yidwechog on Ulithi Atoll lays out pandanus leaves to dry.
Floren prepares fiber strips
Clockwise from upper left: Tan Floren uses a very simple knife to strip the thorny edge off the dried leaves. Then she rolls each dried leaf into a coil; when she unrolls it, she has a nice flattened strip of fiber. The leaf is pulled over a simple device that allows the user to space several blades evenly to cut lauhala into strips.
Tan Floren
Tan Floren, weaving.
Twill weave BPBM
Twill weaving on a sail in the collections of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

Now pandanus mats are still pretty common throughout the Pacific. They are cheap and easy to make, last a long time, and are infinitely useful. But the standard over-and-under box weaving that is used to make mats is not the same as that used for sails. Samples in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu show that sail-weaving uses a twill pattern—over two and under two. This is said to provide more strength for flexing in heavy winds. One doesn’t see this much anymore.

Sails were apparently made from a series of mats stitched together. Here is a WWII-era photo from Ulithi Atoll taken by Marshall Paul Wees, a U.S. Navy doctor stationed there during the war. You can see that the men have staked out the sail pattern on the ground with pegs and string, and are then stitching together a series of strip-shaped mats into a sail.

Men stitching mats Ulithi Atoll
Men stitching mats together to make a sail. Ulithi Atoll, ca. 1944. Their pattern is outlined in stakes and string. Photo by Dr. Marshall Paul Wees.
Needles  Bishop Museum
Bone needles in the collection of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

Back in the old days, stitching would have been done with needles made from bone, usually bones of large sea birds. Here is an old image of bone needles from the Bishop Museum.

These days the process is more prosaic, since the fabrics and tools are available ready-made. Wharram’s Melanesia design uses what’s commonly called a crab claw sail, after its shape. This shape was common throughout much of the Pacific, though the sailor and scholar David Lewis speculated that it was replaced in central Polynesia by Micronesian-style sails like the one shown on the Carolinian-style canoe below.

Ulithian canoe under sail
A Carolinian-style canoe with a lovely pandanus sail, ca. 1944. Off Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands. Photo by Dr. Marshall Paul Wees.
Cut-out tarp
Blue tarp from the hardware store, with the sail shape cut out of it.

Because my canoe is a cheap do-it-yourself project, my sail is made from common blue tarpaulin from the hardware store. It doesn’t look fancy, and it won’t last a terribly long time since the plastic breaks down in sunlight, but it certainly is inexpensive!

I must admit, I thought making the sail for this boat would be the most boring part. A lot of stitching, stitching, and stitching. After hewing logs into outrigger and booms, the idea of such minute work had little appeal. I was so wrong!

Working on the sail on the floor
One edge done, almost. Note the rolled pandanus mat, right, and the giant clam shell, upper left.

Step one is to cut the sail shape out of the tarp. The instructions weren’t as clear on how to do this as I would have liked, but I managed. Here is the tarp after I had cut out the pattern.

Next you lay a rope along the two sides that attach to the mast and the spar (the luff and the foot, if you must), but not the curve (or leech). The edge of the tarp is then folded over, and you use a very simple large stitch to attach this rope inside the tarp. I used polyester thread intended for exterior usage.

So, on a hot summer day in Baltimore, with the giant windows in my lofty apartment open, I sat on the floor in my lavalava stitching this sail, listening to a CD of Micronesian songs and chants. It was easy to feel that I was in a canoe house somewhere in the Pacific, doing what men have done for millennia: making a sail. It was wonderful.

The next step is to lay a second rope alongside the outside of the edge you have just stitched, and to stitch it on heavily every six inches. Basically, you are attaching loops of rope on the outside of the sail to the rope stitched inside the edge of the sail. These loops are what will be used to attach the sail to the mast and boom. A whole lot of stitching. The top edge (or leech) of the sail is simply stitched for reinforcement, since it is not attached to anything.

Stitching the ropes to the sail
Half-inch stitches secure a rope into folds along the edges that attach to the mast and boom (left). A second rope stitched to the outside creates loops used for lashing (right).

Now you can see the edge of the sail where it is attached to the mast. Clearly visible are both the rope inside the material, and the rope stitched to the outside every six inches, creating loops. Another rope passes through these loops and around the mast and boom. It’s so easy my five-year-old son could help.

My son lashing the sail
My son helping to lash the sail.

And voilà! A sail! I painted a frigate bird on it, because I named this canoe Namaka‘iwa, “eyes of the frigate bird.”

Full sail with frigate bird
The finished sail lashed to mast and boom.

Now to the last step: rigging the canoe and getting ready to sail it. 

—Douglas Herman, NMAI


Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

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

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March 02, 2017

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Lashing the booms to the float

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
Part 8: Cordage

Part 9: Lashing the booms to the hull

 

1LashedcanoeThe hull, booms, and outrigger lashed together. I have added bamboo platforms on either side, for sitting out. At this stage, I was using commercial nylon rope for all the lashing.

Lashing the outrigger (ama or float) to the booms (‘iako) has a great deal of variations depending on the style of canoe. So much so, in fact, that when the authors of Canoes of Oceania began their study, the goal was to understanding just this facet of outrigger canoe design.

2 Hawaiian canoe at the museum
The nice, curved ‘iako of a Hawaiian canoe are typically made from hao. This canoe was built for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004.

For the Hawaiian canoe, the booms are curved downward to meet the ama near the water level. A peg is driven through each boom into the float, and then lashed. As you can see below, it’s pretty simple, using figure-eight lashing over and around the peg, then choking it and tying it off.

Carolinian-style canoes, on the other hand, have a complicated lashing system using Y-shaped sticks stuck into the float. The ama is much shorter, and the system of booms more complex, allowing the canoe to hold a platform for transporting goods. 

Lashing types
Lashing the 'iako to the ama. Upper left: A peg fixed into the ama allows for tight, secure lashing that won't slip. Upper right: Lashing on a Carolinian canoe, with the complex of pieces and holes through the ama itself. Lower: A Palauan canoe at the Etpison Museum in Koror shows a similar, elegant method for attaching the outrigger.

The canoe I am building, Wharram’s Melanesia design, uses a third method found around the Pacific, including in . . . Melanesia. It involves four sticks for each boom, bored into the outrigger at different angles and lashed to the ends of the booms. That the sticks are at different angles is supposed to provide the tension that keeps them from popping out. Variations on this method can be found all over the Pacific.

4 Fijian canoe at the Bishop
A Fijian canoe at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, showing a method similar to Wharram's.

I started out using commercial nylon rope, as seen in these photos, but then decided I wanted my canoe to look as traditional as possible. At the same time, I want it to be safe and functional. And I don’t have access to a lot of coconut sennit. So I used manila rope from the hardware store, which is the next best choice. Compared to the synthetic ropes used on today’s sailboats, manila rope is rough, less durable, and far less strong, but like sennit, it tends to swell up a bit when wet. I used it for lashing the booms to the outrigger, but not for lashing the booms to the hull. For that last part, I used a thinner synthetic rope that is strong, light, and easy to tie and untie. Wharram’s plans for this canoe didn’t include holes big enough for a larger, natural-fiber rope, so I needed something smaller, yet strong. 

Now the outrigger is a different story. The end of each boom sits in the top of two pairs of Xs formed by the crossed sticks. Then you lash over the top of each X and it holds the boom down. As I mentioned, the tension caused by the different angles of the four sticks is supposed to make them all stay put. Well, there I was out on the Chesapeake Bay in high winds when I noticed some of them had come out! If the entire outrigger fell off, I was done for. The hull will not stay upright without it. So I headed quickly back to shore, and reconsidered.

5 Xs
Left: I keep these Xs lashed together, even when they are not on the canoe. Saves one step in the whole lashing process. Right: The Xs, showing how they are at different angles. Here they are loosely lashed for demonstration purposes.

I thought about those Carolinian canoes in Micronesia, where the much smaller outrigger was attached by “sticks” (Y-shaped), but there were also holes that went through the outrigger itself to tie it securely to the booms. Not around and under the outrigger, because that would add drag. So I drilled holes through my own outrigger and lashed through those in addition to the lashing on the sticks. Now that I have ropes going through the outrigger and up and around each of the three booms, I feel oh-so-much more confident! That ama is on snug and tight. It has never since shown any sign of coming loose. A bit more work, but I think it looks pretty neat too!

6 Xs lashed through the outrigger
Note the rope going through the outrigger float itself, then up over the top of the boom. These pull the two tight together, so that even if the sticks of the Xs come loose, they will not come out.

Now you see lots and lots of lashing at the tops of the Xs (above right). This is because I had a handful of spare sections of manila rope left over from my first attempt at rigging this boat, and decided to use them for the lashing. They were significantly longer than needed, but I hate to cut ropes (or can’t be bothered to re-whip them) so I decided to make these decorative in their lashing. A bit over-the-top, but what the heck? Perhaps next summer I will reconsider. In another post, I will tell a story of how sturdy my new system proved to be.

Whipping rope? You’ve probably experienced the problem with any twisted rope—or even string—that when you cut it, the ends start to unravel. To stop this, you can “whip” the rope.

7 How to whip rope
Cut rope wants to untwist. “Whipping” the end with waxed thread stops this from happening.

This is an easy technique that I learned by chance on YouTube one day. Using two to three feet of waxed thread (you can buy waxed “whipping thread” at boating supply stores), you make a half loop and lay it against the end of the rope, the top of the loop away from the cut rope end and the tail of the loop extended a few inches beyond the cut end of the rope.

8 Whipping a cord
I have laid a loop of thread about an inch and a half along the rope. I will wrap for about an inch, leaving a nice big loop to stick the end of the thread through. I'm wrapping as tightly as possible and trying to keep it even. I’ve finished wrapping, and am about to stick the end of the thread through the loop. With one end of the thread through the loop, I pull the other end, bringing the loop (and the end of the thread) down tight behind all the wraps. Cut off the excess and you’re done!

Then, starting at the cut end of the rope (some people say the loop should be towards the cut end instead, but whatever), you wrap this thread tightly around, working your way towards the loop. When you have maybe a good inch wrapped like this, you put the thread through the loop and pull it tight. Then you grab the tail of the loop and pull the loop (and with it, the other end of the thread) through, under the coils you just wrapped. Voila! Cut off the excess threads, and your rope is whipped! For this project, I had to whip a lot of ends of ropes and got pretty efficient at it. It really doesn’t take long at all.

Next installment? Making and rigging the sail. 

Douglas Herman, NMAI


Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. On April 22, as part of the Smithsonian's Earth Optimism Summit, he will give an illustrated lecture at the museum in Washington, D.C., on traditional leadership and resource management practices in old Hawai‘i. Doug curated the exhibition E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, on view January 2016 to January 2017. He also blogs for the Smithsonian and is the institution's liaison with the round-the-world voyage of the Hōkūleʻa.

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

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November 03, 2016

Artist Anita Paillamil empowers other Mapuche women by reconnecting them with their culture

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. The 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 community art workshops 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. Here, artist Anita Paillamil shares some of the important things she gained from the program.

Anita Paillamil at the Museo Regional de la AraucaníaTextile artist Anita Paillamil (Mapuche) outside the Museo Regional de La Araucanía in Temuco, Chile.


My name is Anita Paillamil, and I am Mapuche. I live in the town of Nueva Imperial, in the rural area of Lliuco in the Araucanía Region in southern Chile. My main job is to create and reproduce Mapuche traditional textiles, made with sheep's wool and dyed with natural elements such as leaves, mud, flowers, and fruits. Also I dedicate myself to teach this art to Indigenous women who for many reasons have been left with no knowledge of textiles and who today feel a need to reconnect with their ancestors through textile art.

261561 + 176668
Mapuche woman's ligchamall (dress) and trariwe (belt). Dress: ca. 1910; central Chile; wool. Belt: 2000; purchased from Fundación Chol-Chol, a non-profit organization focused on economic development for Mapuche people, Temuco, Araucanía Region, Chile; wool yarn, dyes. 17/6668 & 26/1561. NMAI Photo Services.

I applied to the National Museum of the American Indian to take part in the Artist Leadership Program because tangible and intangible Mapuche culture is losing its impact due to young people's lack of motivation to learn it. Our parents belong to the generation that encouraged their children to stop practicing their culture because of shame. As a result so much knowledge and so many stories were lost. I was fortunate—everything I know I learned from my mother. So for me as a Mapuche woman and instructor of this art, it is very important to reconnect with our culture. Only then will I be able to transmit it to the different generations of Mapuche and non-Mapuche people, ensuring that the traditions will not be lost.

When I started my research at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, my main goal was to examine the collection of trariwes, or women's traditional belts, identifying iconographic patterns that were lost in the textiles that are produced today. My goal was to be able to reproduce the patterns, working together with the women of the group Wallontu Witral to which I belong and of which I am president. The trariwe is one of the most sacred pieces for us as a people, and I thought that during the trip to Washington, I would only get to see trariwes. When I got to the Cultural Resources Center, however, and started my project, I was impressed by the number of objects in the collections and the care with which they are treated. That was something I did not expect, because here in rural communities we see very old textiles thrown on the floor or hung on a fence. Also I do not speak English, and I was a little worried that I might not be able to communicate and work independently. I thought it would be difficult, but it was not, because the museum's whole team was very willing to help me at all times.

ALP artists 2014–15 at the CRC
Individuals artists who took part in the Artist Leadership Program for 2014–15 (left to right): Keevin Lewis (Navajo), the museum's outreach program coordinator; Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation), Anita Paillamil Antiqueo (Mapuche), Jacob Butler (Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community), and Irma Alvarez Ccoscco (Quechua). National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, Maryland.


To all the artists who are applying, especially those who do not speak English, do not to be afraid of the language. The feeling of being there with some of your own living culture is invaluable, and the team is always looking for ways in which you're right! Do not be frustrated if you cannot be selected immediately. Do try again, because you can always count on the support and guidance of Keevin Lewis, the Artist Leadership Program's outreach coordinator and now a very good friend. It is also a unique opportunity to re-meet your own people.

Many moments I experienced during my stay in Washington were very significant, but what I think I remember most was my visit to the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks. I was not able to finish that visit because I felt very bad—not physically, but of the spirit. Looking at the objects and feeling the energy that was in that place it was as if there was part of me there and perhaps something that belonged to my family, my direct ancestors.

White wool black dye
Anita's community workshops explored traditional Mapuche dyeing, among other techniques. To create black, white wool is first boiled with maqui tree leaves, which turn the wool yellow. Oily mud from a local swamp is then added to turn the yellow wool black.

This made me think that this time I am living is something unique, something very important, and that reconnecting with our culture is a task that must continue. One of the ways to assure that is through my community art project. My goal is to share that experience with all who feel this attachment to nature and the land that gives us life, because it is important to preserve and disseminate the knowledge of our grandmothers.

Thanks to my trip to the museum, from February 16 to 20, 2015, I conducted many activities in different communities in my area, retransmitting my experience in Washington, much of what I could see in the museum's collections, as well as my own feelings as a Mapuche woman. About 200 people were involved in this project, mostly Mapuche women who have been my students. Now they’re continuing to develop traditional textiles in their own communities. Among the most important activities was the rescue of natural dyeing to give white wool a black color—important knowledge for Mapuche culture because black represents security. Also during the week of my community art project we had very important discussions about the protection of our textile iconography, as it is part of us as a people and belongs to and is characteristic of our culture.

I think the most important aspect of my experience in the program is that I have gained more confidence in my work, and more appreciation for it at different levels. I feel my role within my culture is to continue working so that knowledge is not lost—teaching women, children, young people, and all those who are interested in learning. When I was in Washington, I realized that this is part of my purpose in life—to preserve traditions, spread awareness, and support Mapuche women who are somehow reconnecting with all this ancestral knowledge.

—Anita Paillamil (Mapuche)

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August 12, 2016

Perspectives on Museum Archives: An Interview with Archives Technician Rachel Menyuk

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian has two public facilities, the Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. A third facility, the Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Maryland, is home for the museum’s collections. This post, the third in a series of interviews of staff members who work at the CRC, looks at the career of an archivist.

Also in this series: Becoming a Conservator and Logistics and Detail: Museum Registration.


Describe your background for us. Why did you go into museum archive work?

I sort of got into archival work in a complicated way. Most archivists have a degree in Library Science with a focus on Archival Studies. I actually don’t! I did my undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Theatre. After graduating, I went on to New York University (NYU) to get a master’s degree in Performance Studies, which combines anthropology and theatre, particularly the study of theatre history. At NYU I focused on political theatre in indigenous communities in Latin and South America and also on women using performance as a means of social protest.

While I was living in New York and going to school, I needed to find a job, so I went to NYU’s library and asked what kinds of positions they had for graduate students. They turned out to be hiring a graduate assistant in the Tamiment & Wagner Labor Archives. During my interview, I said, “You know, I don't have any archival experiences, but I love libraries!” I later heard that they were so impressed with my enthusiasm, it was the reason that they hired me! I had also previously worked with Jewish organizations, so I had that knowledge base for understanding the collection they wanted me to process.

I ended up loving the work, and I especially loved the research process—getting my hands dirty with the information. That is one of my favorite things about working in archives: You really are able to focus on the research. The head archivist at NYU at the time really took me under her wing, and I gained amazing experience in working with and processing large, organizational records.

Rachel MenyukRachel Menyuk, archive technician at the National Museum of the American Indian.

When I finished my degree in Performance Studies and moved back to the D.C. area, I realized I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I began looking at other options at museums. I saw a posting for a three-month contract position processing organizational records at a “museum in D.C.” Though the posting didn’t mention which museum, they were specifically looking for someone who knew how to use Archivist Toolkit, which is a particular database that archivists use. I knew how to use Archivists Toolkit, and I had just spent the last two years processing huge organizational records. It was just luck that the museum ended up being NMAI. I had always loved the National Museum of the American Indian. I had been in D.C. when the museum opened and was taking a class where I got to review the opening exhibitions, and I really loved the museum and its collections.

That was six years ago, and since then I’ve become a permanent federal employee. Our former head archivist, Jennifer O’Neal, also really took me under her wing. I’ve been lucky to have some really great mentors who have continued to inspire me to keep learning about the archival profession, the history of NMAI collections, and the incredible value of working directly with Native communities.

What does your average workday look like?

The average day has changed a lot for me because we’ve hired more staff. Recently I’ve been more focused on processing, which means I'm working with archival collections that have not been organized yet. This is a long process of inventorying, organizing, arranging, and describing materials to produce a guide to each collection that will then go online. That is my main task right now. Once that is done, I also write blog posts about the collections, work with communities to look at digitization of collections, and deal with the transcription center. That is really what I do on a day-to-day basis.

Previously I was working a lot with researchers. Even though we now have someone who is working on that specifically, if someone contacts us about a collection that I know a lot about, I will work on that, which falls under the reference umbrella. I also frequently talk about the Archive Center on tours of the Cultural Resources Center. This summer in particular, I’ve been working really closely with our interns and helping them through their projects.

I do attend meetings sometimes, and the ones that I attend usually have to deal with cross-Smithsonian archival groups. There are 14 archival repositories across the Smithsonian, and we want to put all of these collections together online, which requires standards. I’m really embedded in that world.

So, my day can really encompass a lot of different things.

If you had to pick, what is your favorite object in the collections?

N27245
Frank C. Churchill (1850–1912), portrait of E-me-yob-be or Semo (Choctaw), 1901. Tuskahoma, Pushmataha County, Oklahoma. Acetate negative, 5 x 7 in. (N27245)

This is such a hard question to answer because it is constantly changing depending on what I’m working on. I can tell you a little about the collection I'm about to start working on, the Churchill Collection. Frank Churchill was an Indian inspector for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He went around visiting Indian boarding schools across the United States between 1899 and 1909, and his wife traveled with him. Together they took thousands of photographs (we have 30-plus albums!), and she, Clara, wrote journals documenting everywhere they went. Their personal perspective is obviously a little off, as they were all about assimilation, but the collection shows a snippet about this part of history that really needs to be remembered and brought to life. Clara was really good about documenting people’s names, so we can add names to faces, which is not always the case. It’s a really important collection that we can hopefully get digitized and give people access to.

Could you give a piece of advice to readers who might be aspiring museum or archives professionals?

I think it is really important to have some kind of subject interest, in addition to the practical archival skills. It will make it so much easier in the long run if you have a background in something, even if it is as basic as history. With that, there are a lot of dual degrees now. For example, one of our interns, Kelsey, is doing a dual degree in Archives and Art History so she can work specifically with artists’ records. Doing that type of program is helpful because you can’t get boxed into one viewpoint. You get a broader perspective, which helps a lot in the museum world.

Thank you.

—Lillia McEnaney, NMAI

Lillia McEnaney is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Archaeology and Religious Studies at Hamilton College; she will graduate in spring 2017. Lillia is a research assistant for Hamilton’s Religious Studies Department, the blog intern for the Council for Museum Anthropology, the webmaster for Art/Place Gallery, a content contributor for Center for Art Law, and an intern for SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone. She is a summer collections management intern at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center.

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i heard lots of interesting stories through our librarian. The stories of some peoples are the most interesting.