Friday, December 2, 2016

Native American Baskets and Pottery

In celebration of Indigenous People’s month, we are going to look at the Native American objects in the Farm House Museum. There is an assortment of Native American baskets and pottery in the permanent collection on exhibit at the Farm House Museum. All of the objects can be found within the library except for one. There are a number of reasons University Museums has these Native American objects in the Farm House. One reason is because of an old picture taken of the Farm House library in 1907, during the Charles Curtiss years, that was featured in an agricultural home magazine. This is the oldest known picture of the inside of the Farm House. On the right side of the picture, on top of a bookcase shelf you will notice a Native American basket. The library today is curated to reflect the 1907 picture and because of the presence of the Native American basket in the picture, University Museums decided to include a permanent collection of Native American basket to the Farm House museum. The second reason for adding so many Native baskets and pottery is that the Farm House library is designed in a Victorian period style. In Victorian times, people would often decorate their homes with various objects from around the world to create a “cultured look.” The Farm House reflects this by exhibiting a selection of the Native American objects in the permanent collection on display. Farm House museum is also able to teach about the past and inclusion of Native American baskets and pottery helps illustrate the history of peoples who were native to the Americas.

A majority of the baskets and pottery discussed in this blog post were transferred in the late 1970s to the Farm House Museum from the ISU Applied Arts Department teaching collections. The Applied Art Dept. faculty collected these objects, likely in the 1930s through 1950s as tourists to the regions they originate from. The faculty would then use the objects to teach ISU students about culture, art, and design. When the department was dissolved, this teaching collection along with many other object like Japanese woodblock prints, ceramics, and home goods was transferred to the University Museums’ permanent collection.              

Firstly, let’s explore what basketry and pottery meant to Native Americans. Basketry makes up two thirds of the Native American objects present in the Farm House. Basket weaving is one of the oldest known Native American crafts. The art of basket weaving is estimated to be 8,000 years old based on archeological records from the American Southwest. It continues to be a lively and productive art among Native Americans today. Baskets are meant to be both utilitarian and works of art based on the regions they come from. They were used for many different purposes such as carrying materials, cooking food, storage bins and wall decorations. They also served as a sense of pride for the maker as many of the baskets were often woven by women. Elder women were generally the most experienced and were called upon to teach their younger relatives the basket making traditions. The designs and shapes of baskets have changed over time, especially when Europeans arrived in the New World. Often different tribes would develop a number of distinctive weaving techniques for making baskets, which would transfer between neighboring tribes as well. Some of these techniques include different materials, shapes and characteristic patterns.
Southwestern Native American baskets are often made from tightly coiled sumac or willow wood. Northwest Coast Native Americans will typically weave with swamp grass, spruce root and cedar bark. Southeast Native Americans, which includes the Cherokee, traditionally use bundled pine needles or river cane wicker. Northeast Native American often use pounded ash splints and braided sweet grass. Finally Northern Native Americans like the Ojibwe will often make birch bark baskets. The Inuit of northern Canada will even make whale baleen baskets, though this is a more recent tradition. Much of the reason for the changes in native baskets was the displacement of native peoples from their traditional lands and lifestyles. This displacement caused basket-weaving styles to change somewhat as they absorbed new customs from their neighbors and adapted new materials. However, many Native American tribes in the western United States still maintain their own artistic styles, while eastern Native Americans lost much of their tribe’s unique style components.

Native American pottery makes up about one third of the Native American objects in the Farm House. Pottery making began within Native American tribes about 4,000 years ago when they began adopting a more agricultural-based lifestyle. Using local clays, they began to burn coil pots in open pits making a smooth slab. Each tribe’s pottery was shaped for their own various customs and needs such as gathering water, cooking, storing grains and preserving seeds. Woman became the chief pottery makers. Early pots were a very simple design with little decoration or embellishment but later on more decorative designs began to appear. Pottery even became important in ceremonies such as rituals and burials. Wedding vases with two spouts became very popular for wedding ceremonies. Before Europeans arrived pottery was used all around North America. With the arrival of Europeans, many native tribes were pushed out of the east and some central plains tribes abandoned pottery-making altogether for a more nomadic lifestyle. Today, the Native Americans most associated with pottery are the Southwestern cultures, specifically Pueblo and Navajo. The reason for this is that Southwestern Native American cultures have changed little over time. They are also some of the oldest tribes with a continuous record of habitation in one area. This has caused the many elements of their culture to remain intact in areas including pottery making. Many of their designs are simple white and black ceramics decorated with geometric patterns. These patterns are painted with pigments made from residue of boiled plants or finely ground metallic rocks. Much of the pottery in the Farm House shares these designs. It should be noted that while most Native American pottery is from the Southwest there are a few tribes along the West Coast that still make some pottery. But they mostly focus on basketry.   

There are a number of different Native tribes associated with baskets and pottery in the Farm House. All of them either came from the Southwest, Pacific Coast or Alaska. None come from the Eastern United States likely due to the fact that when these object were being collected few Native tribes remained there. All the baskets were probably made in the 20th century as many of them were transferred to the Farm House or donated by different people. The baskets and pottery were probably made by a few specific artisans and were likely made specifically for tourists or the tourist trade. While most of these may not have been made for the purpose of the tribe, it is still important to understand where they came from and who influenced there design. There are 18 different Native American baskets and 8 different Native American pots.

Four of the baskets belong to Native Alaskan tribes. Indigenous Alaskan tribes have varied cultures that have adapted to the harsh arctic-like environments. Their language often identifies their own historic groups. Indigenous Alaskans are known for their totem poles and potlatch ceremonies, which would often celebrate the first hunt and funerals. They were avid hunter-gatherers of the land but also were very well known for whale hunting and fishing. With the colonization by Russia and America, the population of Native Alaskans began to decline as more settlers established homes, towns and cities, disrupted Native hunting grounds. Unlike most other Native American tribes, Native Alaskans didn’t have treaties that protected their substance rights except for whale harvesting. Groups of Natives often define their group village to village, instead of as one whole nation like in the continental United States. There are large Native tribes like the Aleuts who live off the coast on the Aleutian Islands or the Inuit (Eskimos) who live in the Arctic Circle. (For more about Inuit printmaking and carvings, be sure to visit the Brunnier Art Museums exhibition “Creative by Nature” Jan. 17-July 30, 2017.)
All four baskets are twined with light brownish grass. While not being able to trace which specific tribe the baskets came from, the Alaskan baskets do have some distinctive symbols on them. One is a picture of a killer whale, which makes sense with their relationship to whaling, and whale meat as food. One basket that is notable has a picture of what we know today as a swastika. The swastika symbol has been used by many different Native tribes before being appropriated by the Nazi party. In some Native cultures it was a symbol of peace like in the Navajo culture. (For more on this symbol, see the blog post “Native Alaskan Basket and the Swastika” from March 30th, 2016) The other two baskets have arrow designs and black squares. All the baskets do look very similar due to their color and twining.

Other baskets at the Farm House include three Papago baskets. The Papago Native Americans are also known as Tohono O’odham and they live in Southwest Arizona extending into northern Mexico. Their title means, “desert people” and they were known for their impressive basketry. They lived in small cone-shaped dwellings and often grew corn, beans and squash. When the Mexican-American border was set between the U.S. and Mexico, the Papago were split from their native land in what would be Mexico and couldn’t migrate across the border. The three Papago baskets all use lightly tanned yucca grass that is coiled. All three look very similar with black squares with some shaped into a cross symbol. One figurative basket creates the image of a woman on top with the basket as her dress.

Of the other Native American baskets from the southwest, two are Navajo and one is Hopi. The Navajo nation is one of the largest reservations in the United States and is located primarily in Northeast Arizona. The Navajo are known for having a very complex language that was used in World War II for sending secret messages. They are also known for their artistry when it comes to complex basket weaving and pottery. Of the two Navajo baskets, one has a swastika symbol on it while the other is a wider basket with a star design coming out the middle. To the Navajo, the swastika design is a symbol for the whirling log, a sacred legend-based design. Both use thick narrow straw with a tan design. The Hopi basket uses twigs in a circular pattern with a bold colored dye in the middle. The Hopi reservation is actually surrounded by the Navajo reservation in Arizona so they share similar artwork. The Hopi are specifically known for their Kachina dolls making.

The other baskets come from Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast. Three of them come from the Pomo tribe, which is located in northern California. There are several different Pomo tribes with many varying styles, but they all use willow and redwood trees for clothing and artwork. Their baskets were known for intricate patterns of triangles and other geometric shapes. One of the Pomo baskets is small and has a zigzag lightning design going across it, while the other two use willow and redbud with a triangle design, characteristic of Pomo art. One of these baskets is located on the second floor in the President’s desk. This is the only Native object located outside the library. The remaining Native basket belongs to the Klamath tribe, which is located in southern Oregon and Northern California. This region is filled with rivers and streams thus the Klamath are known for their fishing as well as use of the abundant timber resources. The Klamath basket uses light brown banding with a plaited (braid-like) design. There is one other basket, which is light brown with a duck and boat symbol on its side. The only mention of what kind of basket this is in the object record is its description as Siwash. This is a general term that refers to Northwest Coast Native Americans but doesn’t refer to a specific tribe, thus it can be assumed that with the boat symbol this was probably from the Northwest Coast.

There are eight different Native American pottery objects that all come from the Southwest, specifically Arizona and New Mexico. There are three different tribes that are represented from New Mexico, all from the Pueblo nation. The Pueblo people have a long history of being influenced by the Spanish, then the Mexicans and then the Americans. Pueblo culture is largely influenced by their religion and relationship with the natural world. This involves performing large ceremonies for the season and to improve their relationship with nature. Pueblo tribes often extensively traded with each other. Their art is very distinctive in its design though. The three Pueblo tribes from New Mexico include the San Domingo from central New Mexico, the Acoma in west central New Mexico, and the San Juan from north central New Mexico. The San Juan is represented by three pots, the Acoma by two and the San Domingo with a singular pot. 

While the Pueblo people are all very similar, these three tribes do have some differences. The San Domingo are considered one of the most conservative of the Pueblo groups as well as responsible for producing the most pottery and jewelry. The Acoma are known for being the oldest continuously habited community in North America. The San Juan are known for having a number of different secret societies within their tribe. The San Domingo pot has a flower symbol with a white background. The two Acoma pots both have a white background with designs of orange and black going around the side. The three San Juan pots are each a little different just as they have differences in style within their tribe. Two of the pots are small and have dark red coloring, a characteristic of San Juan designs. The other pot is a large black earthenware pot, which is also another specific characteristic of San Juan pottery. These pots reveal the diversity amongst tribes that are physically located close to each other. 

The two other Native American pots both come from tribes in Arizona. The first is from the Hopi of Northwest Arizona. The pot is a squat earthenware pot with light beige and dark banding along the side. The pot also has dark geometric patterns near the bottom. This pot is very different from the Maricopa pot, which is a small red clay pot with a circular drawing on the side characteristic of Maricopa art. The Maricopa live along the Colorado River in Southwest Arizona and are known for their red clay pottery as well as for being very close with the Pima tribes of that area.
Ultimately there is a lot to learn from the artwork in the Farm House such as the tribes that they came from and why they are there. You are encouraged to stop by the Farm House Museum during the semester or summer to explore the collection of unique objects discussed in this blog.

Note: There are three Native American baskets that aren’t mentioned, because I’m unsure of their origin. The first is a round basket with two handles and a small opening at the top. Along the sides are 6 cross symbols with diamonds surrounding them. The basket shares many similarities with the Alaskan baskets including its use of twining and its tan design. Due to this I can only assume that it is either Alaskan or from the Pacific coastal region. The second basket is bowl-shaped with a dark brown design. Along the side are asymmetrical triangular designs in tan. The bowl is made from grass and quill. The design of the asymmetrical triangles is very similar to Pomo designs. The color is lighter than the other Pomo tribe baskets in the collection, but it is similar. Due to this I’m assuming that this baskets is either Pomo or at the very least from the Northwest Coast. The last basket is a straw basket with large weaves. The coiled basket is rectangular with dark brown and butterscotch colors. It has arrow symbols pointing different ways all around it and a chain link type edge around the top. This basket has some similarities to Northwest Coast baskets including its color and dark brown dye used for its arrows. This is why I’m assuming that this basket is maybe from the Northwest Coast but it is uncertain. Overall though, these Native American objects reveal a lot about their influence and origin and can teach us even more about indigenous people in the United States.  

Monday, November 7, 2016

Fainting Couch

       Couches have been used over time in many different styles and for many different purposes. The reclining couch in this picture is often associated though movies and TV shows with psychological therapy. But this couch is actually called a fainting couch. The term fainting couch comes from the th century, where the couch would be used for women to faint on (and hopefully recover!). While fainting couches became popular in the Victorian era, they weren’t created during this time period. Reclining couches have existed ever since ancient Greek and Roman times. Reclining furniture can be found in many old Greek and Roman pictures and may have been in ancient Greece since the 7th century BC. The Victorians were very fond of reviving historical styles thus adapting Greek and Roman furniture to their own households. What the Victorians did do was give the reclining couch a new name and purpose, yet they didn’t invent it.
Victorian era of the 19

       In the Victorian era there are many stories of woman fainting or swooning. This has led to the depiction of the “swooning Southern Belle” in period movies and books like Jane Eyre. The question is why did the women faint so much? The most agreed upon reason is that their corsets were too tight and this led to shortness of breath and feelings of wooziness or dizzy spells. Worn around the torso, corsets were often made of a durable tightly woven fabric in which vertical ribs or boning was inserted. This is called boning because they were often made of whalebone. Corsets were sometimes meant to give a skinny, flat look, while other times they were meant to add extra curves or voluptuousness. Either way these high statements of fashion common during the Victorian era would have tight lacing that often squeezed organs together and displaced ribs. Movement around the house, especially up and down stairs, would cause many Victorian women to have to lie down for a second. This is why many of these fainting couches were near the staircases in homes.

       The fainting couch in the Farm House Museum is located in the library. The reason behind this location goes back to a 1907 picture of the Farm House library taken for an agriculture magazine. This picture is the oldest known picture taken of the inside of the Farm House and it shows a skirted fainting couch prominently situated in the library. Thus the fainting couch placed in the library currently is meant to reflect that historic picture. The fainting couch can teach us a lot about Victorian culture associated with fainting. While fainting from a fashionable tight corset was the most agreed upon reason for the couches unique name, there were other reasons as well. One reason for fainting could have come from dehydration especially in the hot summer months where a Victorian woman would often wear layers including a corset, a bustle pad, a full skirt, a petticoat (sometimes lined with steel hoops) and a bonnet. All these extra layers could get very hot, very fast, along with the added stress to the body of holding up the weight of the cloths themselves. All this heat and extra weight could make any woman dehydrated, causing them to faint from overheating or heat stroke.

       One more possibility for the reason Victorian women frequently fainted was that they were actually just pretending to faint. It was considered very ladylike to swoon when women felt any sense of shock. This was meant to show their delicate nature and was a strong social cue for women whenever they saw something that might be scandalous or unladylike. Due to these social norms, women might have used fainting and thus fainting couches to get out of uncomfortable situations. If they wanted to avoid someone or something, they could faint. If they needed to use the toilet but didn’t want to announce it, they could faint. Fainting was one of the few ways Victorian women could change a subject or abruptly exit a room while still being considered ladylike. These social norms surrounding fainting couches can continue to tell us how women might have acted in the Farm House during the Victorian era since we know from the 1907 photo a fainting couch was present in the library at the time. There are a lot of different objects within the Farm House that continue to tell us more about the past, gender roles, society, fashion, and many other interesting historical topics.