« December 2012 | Main | February 2013 »

January 24, 2013

Warmth And Spirit: A Comanche Coat Returns Home


Child's parka, Niuam (Comanche), ca. 1890. Lynx skin/fur. Collected by M.R. Harrington in 1909. (02/1503)

Around 1890, a Comanche woman living in the Great Plains created this parka for one of the tribe’s children. Made of thick, golden lynx fur, it provided crucial protection from the region’s winters, especially at the close of the 19th century, before electricity had spread to the Comanche reservation in Oklahoma Territory. Considering how many hours it would have taken to hunt, skin, dress, stretch, cure, scrape, tan and sew the animal’s pelt, the parka was not only a labor of love, but one of considerable time and technique. 

But this parka wasn’t simply worn for warmth. Plains tribes like the Comanche revered certain animals for their unique abilities. The turtle, for example, drew admiration for its longevity. By wrapping a young boy or girl in a coat of lynx, Comanche elders hoped to imbue the child with the creature’s characteristic courage and stealth.

The parka, which was on view for the New York museum’s 2001 exhibition, “Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts,” will soon return to Oklahoma, where it was first collected by archaeologist Mark Raymond Harrington in 1909. The object was hand-selected from the museum’s collection by Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi (Comanche), executive director of the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, to be part of their upcoming exhibition, “All Things Comanche: A Numunuu Trilogy,” which opens in Lawton, Oklahoma February 28th.

Wahahrockah-Tasi first spotted the parka during a tour of the museum’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, where the vast majority of the museum’s 800,000 objects are stored, studied and preserved when not on loan to other museums or on display in New York or Washington. Wahahrockah-Tasi says the coat’s hood, which features actual, tufted lynx ears, reminds her of modern-day stocking caps worn by the community’s children today.

“It gives insight into how our people survived those cold, winter months, and also how we treasured our children back then as much as we do today.” Plus, she added, “This coat bucks the misconception that everything was made out of buffalo.”

For members of the Comanche nation, the tribal museum doesn’t simply represent history, it represents family. The upcoming exhibition, for example, includes an object that once belonged to Larry Saupitty, a Comanche Code Talker who stormed Normandy during World War II. He was also Phyllis’ late uncle.

“We are the originators, not the imitators,” Wahahrockah-Tasi says of the museum’s objects, many of which are family heirlooms personally donated or loaned to the museum by the community. “We are the heartbeat of the nation. We bring the real history and culture.”

                — Molly Stephey is a senior writer for American Indian magazine and a public affairs producer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Comments (2)

    » Post a Comment

This gives me the chill. It was indeed labor of love, depicting how we love our children way back in earlier history up to the present. Amazing exhibit.

depicting how we love our children way back in earlier history up to the present.

January 16, 2013

Blazing New Frontiers: The National Congress of American Indians and the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy

Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38067

We gather here not only mindful of heavy burdens but also full of hope. We want to believe there is a New Frontier, a New Trail. Our faith is renewed that with our renewed effort and cooperation of the Tribes, their friends, and the U.S. government working together, we will be able to find better solutions to the problems we face. 

 —Angus Wilson, Nez Perce Tribal Chairman
Conventions and Mid-Year Conferences: Speeches, 1961. 
National Congress of American Indian records, box 12.


One of the highlights of my job at the NMAI Archive Center is helping people find those bits of information hidden in folders that, when put together, contribute to a picture of the past. Since the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) records is one of NMAI’s largest archival collections, I recently decided to learn more about the history of the NCAI in order to better assist researchers and answer reference questions. For this reason, I picked up Thomas Cowger’s book The National Congress of American Indians : The Founding Years and enthusiastically dove in. I was particularly curious about the role of Helen Peterson (Oglala Lakota), whose papers NMAI also has available for research.

During Peterson’s tenure as Executive Director of NCAI, from 1953 to 1961, one of her tasks was to work with the Indian Organization Committee for the 1961 Presidential Inaugural Parade. The election of John F. Kennedy was seen as a step in a new and hopeful direction for U.S. Indian policy. Accordingly, NCAI thought it only fitting to name its float in the parade “First New Frontier.” Helen Peterson and the NCAI also helped enter four additional parade floats from different Indian communities and arranged for the participation of more than 200 representatives from 22 different tribes.

On the morning of January 20th, 1961, despite a storm the previous night that covered the city in snow, all of the parade participants lined up along the icy streets of Washington to celebrate the inauguration. Hailing from 13 different states, the “Indian Unit” stood out impressively with its five floats, six jeeps, and 64-piece Arizona Navajo Intertribal Band, whose membership had grown to include Zuni, Hopi, Pima, Hualapai, Mojave, and Maricopa musicians. (Interesting side note: The Arizona Navajo Intertribal Band is now called the Navajo Nation Band, and they will be participating in the 2013 Inaugural Parade.  You can see a full list of this year’s parade participants here.)

Determined to keep everyone organized and on schedule, Peterson had laid out in full detail who would be on which float and the order in which they would process down Pennsylvania Avenue. Below are the final float descriptions submitted to the Inaugural Parade Committee. (All descriptions are from the Helen Peterson papers [NMAI.AC.016], box 11, NCAI Subject File, Inaugural, 1961.) 

Float 1: Rosebud Sioux, South Dakota Centennial 1961

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38058

 “Rosebud Sioux Indians, South Dakota, performing traditional and authentic Chief’s Dance honoring President Kennedy. Rosebud Sioux Tribe is joined by Oglala and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes, also with reservations in South Dakota. All performers on the float are 'Plains' Indian tribal members. This is the state of South Dakota float in observance of the state’s centennial.”


Float 2: The First New Frontier—1620 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38057

“This float (sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians) symbolizes the friendliness and generosity with which the Indians met the first new settlers and is intended to convey the richness of the continent that was the first new frontier. Squash, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peanuts, tobacco were among the food products developed by the Indians that were unknown to the Old World. Contrary to popular belief, the Indians first met the white settlers with friendly curiosity. (The snowstorm ruined the display of vegetables and the real turkey that, were to have been a part of the float . . .)”


Float 3: Sacajawea and Lewis and Clark Blaze Montana’s New Frontier 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38064

“In the first few years of the 1800s, a Shoshone Indian woman who became the wife of Charbonneaux, a trader, led the Lewis and Clark expedition through the Northwest to open up that vast area. With a baby on her back, Sacajawea was a symbol of peace and cooperation. The small tepee is a symbol of the tepees used by the Plains Indians. The mural on the float was done by a Creek Indian artist in Washington who is employed by the U.S. Department of State. There are many dogs in Indian camps and the dog on this float was loaned by Metropolitan policemen. After the dog was selected from some thirty offers to the Montana committee, it turned out the dog’s name is NIXON.”


Float 4: White Mountain Apache Crown Dance 

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010), box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38060

“This float is composed entirely of White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers, singers and Apache women from Arizona. The dancers are students from the high school in White River, Arizona. One of the singers is Chairman of the Tribe, elected by his people. This float indicates some of the differences among the Indian Tribes of which there are more than a hundred major tribes in the U.S. today with significant populations or land holding, the title to which is held in trust by the U.S. Government.”


Float 5: Contributions of the First Americans  

National Congress of American Indian records (NMAI.AC.010) Box 593, Inaugural, 1961. P38068

“Sponsored by the Navajo Tribe which spreads over almost sixteen million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, this float calls attention to the many contributions the First Americans have made to the social, economic and political life of the United States. 'Miss Indian America' is a symbol of the rich resource of Indian youth. She is Vivian Arviso, member of the Navajo Tribe, 18 years old, and a student at Colorado College.”


Though many participants were undoubtedly cold and damp by the end of the parade, spirits must have been high: NCAI won runner-up for most creative float.

For more information on the NCAI records or the Helen Peterson papers, please feel free to contact the Archive Center at NMAIArchives@si.edu. The NMAI Archive Center also would like to welcome tribal community members to Washington, D.C., for the Native Nations Inaugural Ball and the “Out of Many Festival” which will be held January 18th through the 20th at the museum on the National Mall.

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

Comments (3)

    » Post a Comment

It is so refreshing to see the history of the past in display realizing how it impacted the nation in the present generation.

This is so important, to help educate people about the history of the american indians in relation to the start of this country.

It is really important to share the history of the past and how it impacted the future of the country. People should learn way more about it.

January 04, 2013

Introducing "Buried History"—Edition 1: Foul Play

Cenotaph 3
An early photo of Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of Senate.gov)

Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., contains 55,000 burials, or “residents” as they are affectionately known by cemetery staff. Here, people who have shaped our nation in various and colorful ways are buried beneath roughly 10,000 tombstones, meaning most of the interred do not have individual markers. Many people are buried under large family markers or don't have any identification at all.

The cemetery was founded in 1807, two miles behind the Capitol. Before refrigeration and embalming techniques were invented, people had to be buried close to where they passed away and quickly due to health concerns. American Congressmen were among the first to be buried in the cemetery because of its proximity to the Capitol building. The most famous tombstone there is the “cenotaph,” used to mark more than 100 plots that were reserved for the country’s first lawmakers. At the time, some Congressmen joked that the idea of being buried beneath the hideous cenotaphs made death “that much more terrifying.” Nevertheless, the name “Congressional Cemetery” has stuck even after most congressmen were no longer buried on its grounds.  Now privately maintained, it still holds evidence of great U.S. history. The cemetery accepts burials today; though it almost always takes an act of Congress.

Lesser known inhabitants include the 36 Native American leaders, diplomats and tribal members who reside on the cemetery grounds, many of whom ended up there after falling ill during visits to the nation’s capital to fight for rights, negotiate treaties or settle debts owed to them. But two of the cemetery’s residents died under mysterious circumstances, most likely homicide. These two cases remain unsolved, reminding us of the tension between Native Nations and the federal government in the 19th century. Washington D.C. was a hostile environment for Native peoples in the 1800s.


Portrait of Kangiduta (Scarlet Night, also known as Scarlet Crow or Scarlet Raven; Dakota [Eastern Sioux]), Washington, D.C. February 1867. Photo by A. Zeno Shindler. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (P00589).


Scarlet Crow (Kan Ya Tu Duta) of the Wahpeton Sisseton Sioux Tribe is one of the unsolved murder cases. Crow was adamantly against the treaty his nation was in Washington D.C. to sign. On Feb. 24, 1867, he disappeared from the barracks where his delegation was staying on New York and 19th streets. His fellow tribesmen were immediately concerned and requested an official search. An ad was placed in the lost-and-found section of the Washington Chronicle containing his description and a reward for information leading to his return. Two weeks after his disappearance, his remains were reported in the woods near the Aqueduct Bridge (today the Key Bridge) in Arlington, Virginia. According to the papers published by the University of North Dakota in 2006, his remains were found by a man named John Birch and a boy named Joseph Golden who were searching for a lost cow. They reported the body to a county officer who claimed the reward and reported it to Indian Agent Joseph Brown. (Read Senator Byron L. Dorgan's tribute to Scarlet Crow).

Crow appeared to have hung himself from a branch with a strip of his own green, three-point blanket. Agent Brown on the scene noted that the knots in the blanket were not the kind used by Native people. The rest of the blanket was tucked in around Crow’s body, suggesting someone else had been there. Additionally, the branch couldn’t support the weight of a small child. He appeared to have been well-fed and only recently deceased. The Indian Agent suspected that people who had reported the body were responsible and advised against paying the reward. The Agent didn't want to set a precedent of paying rewards for dead Native delegates, but he also did not want to accuse them without evidence so the reward was paid. The short-lived investigation ended, and suicide remains the official cause of death. Scarlet Crow’s son, Sam Crow, petitioned Congress for a headstone in 1912. Congress finally placed a marker on his grave in 1916 -- 49 years after his death. (Read Crow's obituary).

An photo of Ut-Sin-Milikan’s barely legible tombstone in Congressional Cemetery. Ut-Sin-Milikan’s killer remains unknown. (Photo courtesy of Flickr).

Buried next to Scarlet Crow is a second murder case: Ut-Sin-Malikan of the Nez Perce Nation. The soft earth caused the headstones sink over time. The top of his headstone now barely pokes up through the marshy ground; his namely is nearly illegible. Ut-Sin-Malikan signed Treaties with the U.S. in 1855 and 1863. He was against the further division of Nez Perce land when he arrived in Washington in 1868. He became ill and was shoved to his death from his hotel window.

These are a few of the stories that show a long political relationship between Native Nations and the U. S. government. It is appropriate that the evidence of this history is buried in one of the oldest cemeteries in Washington D.C. These leaders are buried alongside Congressmen, the first woman to run for president, and the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They remind us as a nation that we come from many backgrounds, perspectives and cultures. This is the history that made America the country it is today. These men deserve to be remembered as part of that history.


Cenotaph 2
A recent photo of the Congressional Cemetery's infamous cenotaphs. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Often in U.S. history books, the Native story is untold, or buried beneath a shuffle of images and brief comments. This ongoing series hope to bring some of these stories to light.

Future editions of Buried History will explore: Chiefs buried on the site, 14 Cherokee who are buried according to their political beliefs, and stories about some of the Native children resting on the site. Share your thoughts with us on the comments below. What are some of the buried stories where you live?

—Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)

Rachael Cassidy is a Cultural Interpreter at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.


Washington Chronicle Newspaper, February 1867

Congressional Cemetery Records: www.congressionalcemetery.org  

Rebecca Roberts, program director, Congressional Cemetery 

Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City, Herman J. Viola,1995

Garcia Papers, University of North Dakota, 2006

Comments (4)

    » Post a Comment

I would like to know who killed Ut-Sin-Malikan, and if the killer was brought to justice.

Fantastic work. I cannot wait for the next installment.

Actually, anyone can be buried at Congressional, and it certainly doesn't take an Act of Congress. As we like to say, we are open to Presidents and Residents alike. Many thanks for an interesting piece!

Hello Quinn. Thank you for your question! Most of the historical accounts simply state that Ut Sin Malikan died because he was ill. Accounts that cite the murder include a book called "Hear Me My Chiefs," as well as tribal and family history. My understanding is there wasn't much of an investigation. We don't know why this killer was not brought to justice. Here are a couple of possible reasons: At this time in history, Native people were not considered human beings. It wasn't until the trial of Standing Bear, in 1877, that Native people were declared human. Additionally, Native people were not U.S. citizens. There were complications around conducting murder trials for non-citizens. There isn't much else known about Ut Sin Malikan. The Nez Perce people do make a point to visit his grave. He is remembered and honored by his people. I am glad that you found his story interesting and hope that his memory will honored by all Americans.
~ Rachael Cassidy, NMAI