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November 21, 2012

It's All Connected: California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | NMAI Internship Programs

In 2009 and 2010, basketweaver Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault); cultural heritage specialist Robert McConnell (Yurok); and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), a former summer intern at the National Museum of the American Indian, joined members of the museum's Conservation Office in a program centered on Northern California basketry and its broader cultural context. This is the second post in a series that presents multiple perspectives on their collaboration. To start at the beginning of the series, see: 

1. Introduction to the Project, Acknowledgments & Contributors 

Each year, the National Museum of the American Indian hosts as many as 40 interns, many of whom are Native American, at any of its three facilities: the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; NMAI–New York in lower Manhattan; and the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where the collections are housed and the behind-the-scenes work of conservation other collections-support takes place.

Internships administered by the Community and Consituent Services Office provide museumwide educational opportunities for students interested in the museum profession and related fields. Interns complete projects using NMAI and other Smithsonian resources and learn about the museum’s collections, exhibitions, public programs, and methodologies, including conservation. 

The Conservation Office offers training opportunities for applicants interested in pursuing careers in conservation. This second group of internships and fellowships includes Andrew W. Mellon internships each summer, for practicing conservation professionals and students currently enrolled in or graduated from graduate programs in conservation; a six-month program for stduents preparing to apply for graduate-level training in conservation; and two-year Andrew W. Mellon fellowships for post-graduate conservators.

Each of these internships and fellowships provide an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to work with Native American objects and collaborate with Native people to develop appropriate methods of handling, preserving, and interpreting cultural materials. NMAI also offers specialized conservation training for Native American professionals working in tribal museums and cultural centers, or with preservation projects. 

The NMAI conservation staff is committed to offering the experience of this collaborative or integrative approach. Native American interns connected to their tribal communities, in particular, have a personal investment in the practices of the museum. Their commitment breeds enthusiasm and inspires them to question and challenge the working methodologies of the institution. They remind us that we too are responsible and accountable to tribal communities. This is exactly what Briannon Fraley (Tolowa) did during her 2009 summer internship.

Elizabeth Hickox (Wiyot/Karuk, 1875-1947) baskets, ca. 1920. Northern California. Maidenhair fern, spruce root, hazel shoots, porcupine quill; 13 x 11 cm, 21 x 20 cm, 12.5 x 15 cm. 22/1927, 25/3, 24/4103. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI.

At the end of her internship with the Collections Office, Briannon gave a presentation on basket-weaving from her perspective as a contemporary basketmaker. She described the plants that many Northern California tribes use to fabricate baskets, and the gathering and harvesting of these plants, as well as weaving techniques. Most importantly, she stressed the difficulty weavers have in acquiring these materials, because many grow on United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service lands. The successful regeneration of many of these species relies on controlled burning, a practice executed by the Hoopa, Tolowa, Yurok, and Karok from time immemorial but prohibited by the Forest Service until recently.

Briannon’s description of the challenges and political navigations required by weavers simply to collect the plant materials they need was enlightening. It underscored the challenges tribes face when dealing with governmental control of their other land and water resources. This is not unlike what is required to navigate the impositions of institutional control of their cultural material. 

During the course of Briannon’s internship, we had numerous conversations about conservators as caretakers of museum objects versus a tribal community’s role as caretaker of a people's cultural material. Through our frank and honest discussions it became clear that it is through successful partnerships between the museum and the community that we can best care for objects in the collections. The point is to understand fully that Tolowa, Hoopa, or Yurok baskets sitting on the shelves in museum storage or on our table in the conservation lab are linked to the place they come from and to the people who make and use them. The intangible context surrounding each basket is just as important as the basket itself.

Ultimately, this exchange inspired us to invite Briannon back to the Cultural Resources Center, along with her in-laws, Deborah and Robert McConnell, to teach a workshop on basketry and cultural resources to incoming conservation interns and fellows. The conservation staff has an obligation to provide this experience of collaboration for our interns and fellows, so they may comprehend the mindset and the respect required to work with the objects in the NMAI’s collections. In fact, this is the best type of programmatic educational and cultural orientation we can provide interns and fellows. 

—Kelly McHugh, NMAI

Next: The Collections Visit, Consultation, and Workshop


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Collaboration with the culture and having native American Indian is the best way of putting up history together. They would be able to express and share their selves and this would help visitors understand more about their culture. This article is very informative.

It's All Connected—California Basketry, Cultural Context, and Museum Conservation | Introduction

Conservation workshops and site visits to Native communities are important educational opportunities for fellows and interns in the Conservation Office of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). These interactions provide a way for consultants, staff, fellows, and interns to share expertise and learn from one another. Knowledge gained from these experiences underscores that the interconnectedness of culture is paramount to understanding objects in the museum's collections. The museum has found that enlarging conservation methodologies to include this type of exchange can be a very beneficial approach to conservation. 

In 2009 and 2010, basketweaver Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault); cultural heritage specialist Robert McConnell (Yurok); and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), a former summer intern at the museum, joined members of the museum's Conservation Office in a program centered on Northern California basketry and its broader cultural context. Following a workshop at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Maryland, Deborah invited the conservators to come to Northern California, where they attended the 20th Annual Gathering of the California Indian Basketry Association, witnessed a Yurok Brush Dance ceremony, and were hosted by the McConnells at Hoopa.This is the first in a series of posts offering multiple perspectives on their collaboration. 

Beginning a basket
A basket start in Louisa Hunsuzker's hand. Weaving circle, 20th Annual California Indian Basketry Association Gathering, Ione, California, June 2010. Photo by Marian Kaminitz, NMAI.

Introduction to the California Basketry Project 

The mission of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) honors, supports and helps perpetuate Native cultures. The collections policy states that the museum "acts as the steward rather than owner of the collection items in its care, and that preservation should be undertaken in consultation and collaboration with Native communities. NMAI recognizes its Native constituents may consider collection items held by the museum as living entities, and acts accordingly in its preservation activities."

The NMAI conservation staff strongly supports the museum’s mission and collections policy. The staff is also committed to offering fellows and interns educational experiences within a cultural or community context. To date, these have included lectures by Native artisans and culture-bearers; collaborative conservation treatments with Native experts; Native technology workshops, such as quill working, back-strap loom weaving, and basket weaving; trips to tribal lands for on-site cultural research and learning—including buffalo hide-tanning workshops, assisting with regalia-making for and attending a powwow, and attending ceremonies open to outsiders. Exposure to and collaboration with indigenous cultures sensitizes us as conservators and encourages our fellows and interns to see beyond the museum walls when considering an ethical approach to conserving cultural materials. In recent years, several academic programs, notably in the United States, Canada, and Australia, have also begun to offer collaborative experiences with indigenous cultural representatives as a component of conservation training.

The collaboration between NMAI conservators and Briannon Fraley (Tolowa), Deborah McConnell (Hoopa/Yurok/Quinault), and Robert McConnell (Yurok) exemplifies the importance of this cooperative approach. Deborah McConnell is renowned for her accomplished basket weaving and as a teacher of basketry. She has been involved with the California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA) for many years. Robert McConnell is the heritage preservation officer for the Yurok Tribe. He was one of a core group to re-establish the White Deer Skin Dance in the Yurok Nation, as well as to help perpetuate the art of Yurok canoe-making. Briannon Fraley currently works as self-governance director for the Smith River Rancheria. A presentation made during Ms. Fraley’s summer 2009 internship at the NMAI was the initial impetus for our collaboration. Marian Kaminitz, Susan Heald, and Kelly McHugh are all staff conservators at the NMAI whose responsibilities include insuring that collaborative processes with Native American culture-bearers are a part of conservation methodology at the museum and mentoring fellows and interns.

One main goal of this collaboration was, through the expertise and perspective of Ms. McConnell, Mr. McConnell, and Ms. Fraley, to better understand the cultural, socioeconomic, and political context of Hoopa, Yurok, and Tolowa collections at the NMAI. This raised a multitude of issues, including:

Incorporating contextual information regarding cultural materials into conservation methodology;

Utilizing active collaboration from source communities as a purposeful approach to conservation, education and training;

Acknowledging and respecting multiple voices in the stewardship of indigenous collections within an institutional setting;

Recognizing and understanding the impact of social, economic, and governmental policies on tribal life ways and culture continuity; and

Assessing the value of this overall approach for ethnographic conservation mentors and educators.

As is the nature of collaboration, in this discussion, our individual voices speak distinctly, addressing these issues and different aspects of the collaboration, to create the whole. 

Next: Briannon Fraley's internship 


This project was made possible in part by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the foundation's generosity continues to support these opportunities. 

Thanks are gratefully given to those who read and edited this text: Robert McConnell, Anne Gunnison,and Luba Dovgan Nurse. 


Deborah E. McConnell, a Hoopa tribal member with Yurok and Quinault ancestry, resides in Hoopa, California. She attended College of the Redwoods in Eureka, California, majoring in art with an emphasis in computer science and business, and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree and teacher preparation from California State University, Humboldt, in Arcata, California, in 1993. She recently began working with the Klamath Trinity Resource Conservation District, where she is project manager of the community demonstration and botanical garden. Deborah has a lifelong interest in contemporary and cultural arts. She conducted a survey of California basketmakers during the early 1980s and has taught classes in the Klamath–Trinity region for more than two decades. She worked for the California Indian Basketry Association (CIBA) from 2000 to 2009.

Briannon Fraley is a citizen of the Smith River Rancheria located on the Northern California coast. She is Tolowa from the ancient villages of Yontocket and Enchwa, as well as Yurok from Blue Creek. She grew up on the Smith River at her family’s tribal village, Niili-chun-dun. She was nurtured through and participated in the Tolowa’s earth renewal dance, Nee-dash. She learned the art of regalia-making from her family and her mother-in-law. In 2009 she graduated from Humboldt State University with a Post-Bachelor’s degree in Native American studies and a Certificate of Art in museum and gallery practices.

NMAI staff members Marian Kaminitz, Susan Heald, and Kelly McHugh are profiled on the NMAI Conservation Office web page.

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November 09, 2012

Written in Rock

Group photo at Gobustan PreserveFront row, left to right:  Namil Memmedi (Azeri), Ben Wilson (OP&A), Nurane Shahbazova (Azeri), Diana Farajova (Azeri), Umay Mammadzada (Azeri), Ann Brierty (Laguna), Laurie White (archaeologist/artist); Back row left to right:  Lorraine Caté (Santo Domingo), Claire Eckert (OP&A), Carolyn McClellan (NMAI), John Fryar (Acoma), Harold Joseph (Hopi), Lee Francis (Laguna), Jonathan Sims (Acoma), Elvin Abdullayev (Azeri), Novruz Hikmet (Azeri) and Rehman Abdullayev (Azeri and Gobustan staff member).

I’m writing from the Gobustan National Artistic Historical Preserve just outside of Baku, Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a country located north of Iran, south of Russia, and to the east of Georgia and Armenia. Baku, the capital, borders the Caspian Sea and has a population of more than 2 million.

 I am here with six Azerbaijani and six Pueblo Indian students and researchers to study the cultural significance, recording methods, and preservation of the more than 6,000 petroglyphs and pictographs found in the Gobustan Preserve, about an hour’s bus ride from Baku. Though the Gobustan Preserve was founded in 1950, a new museum was just built there last year. It is a beautiful facility, with six exhibition halls on two levels in addition to well as many interactive components.

Field Study at Gobustan3 Two Gobustan staff try out new technology to record petroglyph images.

Gobustan petroglyph 5One of the most famous iconic glyphs from the Gobustan Preserve.Dr. Malahat Farajova, the museum’s director, provided us with an overview of the history of the preserve and the museum. After a delicious lunch, we traveled to one of the sites, where Ramin Bagirov provided an interpretive tour. Many of the participants tried to place themselves back in time to understand what the original artist may have been thinking during the creation of these images.

When our day of familiarizing ourselves with the rock art was over, we boarded our bus to return to Baku, each person reflecting on the day’s activities. Once back in the capital city, we gathered together for a dinner at our now favorite local restaurant. To conclude our meal, we asked each person to reflect on the day’s events and to share with the others at least one thing he or she learned that day. It was very rewarding to hear the many comments about how much each person had learned from the other, from Azeri to Pueblo and Pueblo to Azeri.

Field work2Left to right: Using iPads, Elvin Abdullayev (Azeri), Lorraine Caté (Santo Domingo) and Diana Farajova (Azeri) experiment with advanced tracing software.

The following day was an ambitious one for our travelers, who were on the bus bright and early for a full day of recording images in the field using two different techniques: tracing and photography. Dr. Farajova took one group to demonstrate tracing techniques, while Laurie White, an artist and archaeologist with Sacred Sites Research Inc., a small non-profit based in Albuquerque, N.M., who led another group in capturing images with an iPad. White then demonstrated tracing techniques with readily available software. Each Pueblo participant was paired with an Azeri participant so they could better become acquainted and share their individual knowledge with each other.

Night photography2Participants examine petroglyphs at night under artificial lighting to look for variances in the carvings that might not be visible in natural light.  In this photo, a small glyph becomes visible that is overshadowed by the larger animal glyph.

After a light dinner on site, the group reassembled to try their hand at night photography. The rock art can seem entirely different when photographed at different times of the day and year. Nuances not seen in bright sunlight may become visible when observed at dusk (see images). Even though everyone was exhausted after a grueling day in the field, most were hesitant to leave.

This project is a partnership between the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Gobustan Preserve and is funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the American Alliance of Museums. In addition to 12 participants selected from Azerbaijan and the Pueblo Indian communities of New Mexico, McClellan was joined by two of her colleagues from the Smithsonian Office of Policy and Analysis, Ben Wilson and Claire Eckert; Dr. Malahat Farajova, director of the Gobustan Preserve; and Rehman Abdullayev and Ramin Bagirov, members of Dr. Farajova’s staff.

 Carolyn McClellan is the Assistant Director, Community and Constituent Services, of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

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Awesome photos Carolyn!

I admit had to look on a map to get a better idea of where this was. :) It's pretty crazy to see petroglyphs and pictographs, in the same photo set as an Ipad. That really puts it into perspective of how far we've come.

Thank you Mrs.McClellan for the article. But there is a little misunderstanding. The article above says Baku has a population of approximately 1 million. But the fact is, the population of Baku is more than 2 million.

Thanks for the clarification and apologies for the mistake! The post has been corrected. Thanks for reading:)

November 05, 2012

A Flag of The Fathers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mellion Fine Art

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

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


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

November 01, 2012

This Day in the Maya Calendar (Early Fall)

Cholq'ij, the Maya sacred ceremonial calendar of 260 days—a cycle of 20 Day deities and 13 numbers—is the basis of the Maya spirituality that survives to this time, practiced daily among millions of Maya people, in thousands of communities. The interpretation of the days can vary from one Maya people to another. The interpretations given here are based on sustained conversations and participation over three decades with Maya Q'eqchi calendar priest Roderico Teni and daykeeping families in the area of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, by Jose Barreiro (Taíno), head of NMAI’s Office of Latin America, and his wife, Katsi Cook (Mohawk). The glyphs representing the Day lords were painted by Esteban Pop Caal (Q'eqchi Maya).

For more background to this series, please see Jose's introduction, "Living in the Practice." For further insight into the role of the Day lords in everyday life, please see the Maya Journal. For the complete year so far, please see the Maya calendar archive.

Illustrations: Esteban Pop Caal (Q'eqchi Maya), calendar glyphs. Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala; 2003. Paint on wood. Purchased from the artist. 26/2685. Photos by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. Glyphs representing the Day lords appear throughout Maya Country. 

13 Tzi  |  Wednesday, November 21, 2012

262685_TziCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 13 Tzi. Tzi is the Canine, the guardian; 13 is the highest turbulence. Dog, Wolf, Coyote, Tzi can be snarly, terrifying the unprepared with his bark and his bite. Tzi people are zealous to guard the sacredness of ceremony, to identify and punish "intruders," those not disciplined to participate. Benevolent to friends and fierce to enemies, Tzi is steady to reward or punish. Tzi will punish those who disrespect the Days and the spirit of the family. This is a good day to ask for mystic insight for leaders so that they can seek and discover hidden things, so that they can be just. Tzi has strong sexual energy, hard to restrain. When this energy is defined, people born on Tzi make loyal friends, husbands, and wives. —Jose Barreiro  

12 Toj  |  Tuesday, November 20, 2012

262685_TojCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 12 Toj. Toj is the mystic Fish—the tear of jade and drops of rain, water falling; 12 is the highest balance. Toj is a day of making even, a good day to pay spiritual and financial debts and to collect what you are owed. This is a day of evenness for a family, a good day for parents to pay the family's debt to el Mundo, good for the oldest son to appreciate the father and the father to appreciate the mountain. Illness can be deviated from the family by making a ceremonial offering on this day. —J. B.  

11 Anil  |  Monday, November 19, 2012

262685_AnilCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 11 Anil. Anil is the fertility in the seed; Anil is Rabbit; 11 is high turbulence. Anil is red, white, yellow, black—the four colors of corn, the seed of life that is the unity of the world. Anil is renewal after death, regeneration of the earth. Anil people are four-directions people and can be good travelers. This is a day of coming back, a day to generate and appreciate abundance, a day of declaring love to create a new relationship, a day to announce the wish to do business, a day of finding lost things, a day to ask for help in overcoming shyness. —J. B. 

Continue reading "This Day in the Maya Calendar (Early Fall)" »

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