Friday, May 2, 2014





Gorgets, Moons, Heads & Coins

By

Michael Jason Galban



*note - I am not writing this as an "academic paper" per se, so when I add citations it is for those seeking further information and not particularly to validate or properly give credit. Nearly all of what we know or think is influenced by someone else and it is only when we combine all of that understanding and experience and exposure can we begin to organize original thoughts and ideas. My own research has had so many influences that I could not possibly cite them all - but I can thank them all. Nyaweh akwego. 

Of particular interest to me has always been the vocabulary of Native dress and ornamentation. If we are apt students of Native American art and culture we can begin to decipher the complex and sometimes profound language that ornamentation holds. Today, tribal or national distinctions can be as obvious as a t-shirt or ball cap with a striking tribal logo prominently displayed and labled; but in the ancient past, the subtlety of personal adornment was not so obvious. To fully understand the meaning behind ornaments one must look into the language, the folklore, and regional experiences of a people. To simply view the object and record material observations is not enough to interpret such things. That information can be useful and it is certainly of high importance to the greater understanding but it does nothing to reveal the purpose and meanings behind the objects.

Among the myriad objects which hold special meaning to Native peoples is a group of objects known as a shell gorget or “moon” gorget.  The moon gorget in simple terms is a round plate which hangs before the breast. They were originally cut from marine shells and were at times quite large, but soon after contact, the flourishing trade in silver objects spawned a silver version which held equivalent meaning for Native people. Sometimes, in the past, a round gorget-like ornament could appear permanently pricked indelibly into its owner’s chest as a tattoo.


" “A figure of the sun which the Americans (Indians) adore and they offer the smoke of tobacco for incense.”Louis Nicolaus – Codex Canadiensis (1664-1675) the Codex Canadiensis
Good Peter Oneida by Trumbull

The name “moon gorget” belies its very cultural significance. The meaning of the name comes from the Native perception that the “moon” was hung in the sky. In Iroquoian cosmology, the head of the daughter of “Sky Woman” was flung into the sky and would forever be known as “Ahsohntahne Karakwa – “Our Grandmother” - “the night time orb” 

“he made a new light and hung it on the neck of a being, and he called the new light Gaa-gwaa and instructed its bearer to run his course daily in the heavens.”

Esquire Johnson via Asher Wright 1870
Arthur Caswell Parker


M. de Bacqueville de La Potherie - showing two shell gorget suspension ornaments



In many of the old versions of the Iroquois creation story the same holds true. If the literal “suspension” does not occur in the story, inevitably we will see a very strong connection between the “nighttime orb” and the daughters head. (p.62-64 Mohawk, Iroquois Creation Story) In all cases, we are given instructions to view the moon and it path as a sign of new life. According to the ancient “Ganonyok” or “Thanksgiving Address” of the Haudenosaunee, the moon governs the ocean tides and the morning dew; it also has a special relationship with child-bearing women as their bodies follow the lunar cycle which allows them to bring forth new life. (Words That Come Before All Else – Katsi Cook - Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force)

Shell Moon Gorget found at Ganondagan

It cannot be understated that the moon is really perceived as the head of the daughter of Skywoman in this cosmology. Her head which has been suspended or hung in the nighttime sky and looks down on the people of the earth. We can think of the moon-head in the same way a toddler looks upwards and sees their parent looking down on them and smiling.

“I cannot go because he will not know where I have gone” The Grandmother answered. “His mind is already troubled because someone has stolen the head of the mother of you two.”
“Look into the distance,” Skyholder replied. “The one you are talking about is looking this way.”
She turned to look just as the moon arose, It’s rays bursting through the forest.
“It is true,” she said, “It is the mother of you two. Now my mind has once again become positive.” 

John Mohawk, Iroquois Creation Story


The moon in this instance acts as a tool of enlightenment much in the same way wampum or “Otko-ah” is used to “illuminate the mind”. The term for spark “-jist-a” is synonymous with the term for wampum which of course is a shell bead and perhaps, more specifically, the white shell bead which is bright or shines (p62, Chafe, Seneca Morphology). Her mind was clearly dark and negative because her grandsons mind was dark but the moonlight brought to her mind a healing light which translated into her admission of new found peace and positivity. It is clear that the moon holds tremendous power and ability for Haudenosaunee people. 

The moon, being the “nighttime orb” was full of brightness and light and could be a guide in the darkness for people. Visually, woodland peoples viewed things which reflected light and brightness as being inherently good and therefore protective and even transformative.


Woodland warrior wearing a shell gorget by Townshend

Not only does the object itself hold powerful meaning but perhaps even the act of hanging it is part of the story as well. To suspend the ‘moon/head” in the night sky is critical in the process of creating the world as we know it. So, when a shell moon is hung from the neck it also deserves a physical counterpart. These objects are what I am calling “gorget suspension ornaments”. This type of object which exists in collections across the globe represent a little understood set of Northeastern woodland material culture. 

Some like the British Museum example pictured still have the large moon intact. Others, like the Pitt Rivers example do not. They range in style and material, some use wampum beads, others fingerwoven wool yarn and porcupine quillwork. There is not enough of a real pattern of construction for them to indicate societal connections or badges of sub group memberships but simply that they were made ornately and with great care. I suggest that these suspension ornaments were individualized for the job they were designed for and not for any ceremonial membership. Because there are many such objects with such varied construction schemes, and because of the diverse cultural emblems on them, I feel that they represent perhaps an ancient understanding that goes beyond the colonial era culture groups in which the examples were made. We see thunder birds in the British Museum example, and we see human forms in the Liverpool example. Some have simply abstracted designs which we cannot begin to interpret with much certainty. 

I have found seven true gorget suspension ornaments, some with their shell moons intact, others without. The British Museum, The Canadian Museum of Civilization, Liverpool, Oxford, The National Museum of Ireland, Peabody Harvard and at the National Museum of the American Indian all hold such elaborate objects. I include examples which do not have a shell moon attached in the list because of their similarity to the known gorget suspension ornaments. A case can be made that they might be designed to suspend some other object like a knife case or a pouch but comparative examples of such a notion do not as yet exist. 



British Museum
Canadian Museum of Civilization
National Museum of Ireland
National Museum of the American Indian

Pitt Rivers Museum
Liverpool, UK
Peabody Harvard


There is a secondary type of shell gorget which exists. This is the moon or sun made of wampum beads. They are embroidered into a dial of radiating beads to emulate a solid shell gorget. 

“One of the Iroquois Captains exhibited, in his turn, some very rich presents, in answer to the various articles of peace proposed by the Father. The first and finest of these presents was a large image of the Sun, made of six thousand porcelain beads, its purpose being, as he said, to dispel all darkness from our councils, and to let the Sun illumine them even in the deepest gloom of night.”

Journey of Father Simon Le Moyne to the Agnieronnon Iroquois 1655-1656




“Round their neck, they have a string of violet wampums, with little white wampums between them. These wampums are small, of the figure of oblong pearls, and made of the shells which the English call clams… others have a large shell on the breast, of a fine white colour, which they value very high, and is very dear.”
Peter Kalm

1716-1799

“Now, assuredly, she had made fast the Sun for herself, and also the moon. She imposed on them the duty of furnishing her with light for their part. Verily, indeed, it was the head of her girl child who was dead that she used to make the moon,”

Mohawk version Creation story
Hewitt – “Iroquoian Cosmology”


Since the moon as a celestial body holds such potential power, a talisman which could evoke the moon and its power would also have the same effect. A “moon gorget” would project the wearers inherent light to the world and harness the power of fertility and life as well. The placement of the gorget before the breast can have many meanings but perhaps because we face forward when we walk or run, the gorget-wearer can project into the area beyond their own light and power.


Joseph Brant by James Peachey

“Upwards of one hundred years ago a moon of wampum was placed here in this country with four roads leading to the center for the convenience of the Indians from different quarters to come and settle or hunt here… a dish with one spoon was likewise put here with a moon of wampum…”

J. Brant to A. McKee

Claus Papers, Vol. 5 reel C1479, pp 285-288.

Shell moon owned by Joseph Brant

It seems that whelks of different sorts are used to make these objects. Lightning whelk in particular is quite commonly used. It is interesting to note that this is one of the very few whelks which grow sinistrally. That is to say, they grow outward in a counter clockwise or “left-handed’ spiral. Most all of the other whelks grow dextrally. I find it interesting that this shell which grows uniquely is chosen for such objects like ‘moons’ and wampum beads. The center column of this creatures shell is where we get white wampum beads not from the white portion of a quahog clam shell. The spiral cleft is still evident when you look at old white wampum beads in fact. It is also interesting to note that the whelk as a creature predates on quahog clams. They use their string ‘foot’ to pry open the clam and then they remove the quahog with their proboscis. Allegorical or incidental, the white shell creature consumes the dark bead producing creature. I find that sort of observation as perhaps an ancient interpretation of the world’s tendency to move towards a peaceful balance.


Apparently, the mobile version of this blog won't show the imbedded video I posted. So, here is the link to the youtube video:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWaMQvKfgXo&feature=player_embedded

The lightning whelk when it is young has sharp lightning shaped lines on its shell hence, the name, but inside, it is pure white. When a ‘moon’ is cut from this shell it is naturally polished and absolutely pure white. It is obvious when you see one why it was selected for white wampum beads and for making sacred moon ornaments. 

Since we have established that the moon is also a head in the Iroquoian cosmology, it is therefore possible to suspect that to suspend an object like a head it is evoking the power of the moon head or furthermore we can see the carrying of heads as a war practice as being evocative of the same suspension of power. It is true that war trophies were taken during the early colonial period and much earlier, included the taking of entire heads or more commonly and conveniently, simply the scalp. (The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping James Axtell; William C. Sturtevant The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 37, No. 3. (Jul., 1980) pp. 451-472.) The scalp was the portion of the hair which warriors kept groomed and prominently displayed during war times. In fact, it was often the only hair left on the head after careful plucking or shaving kept the rest of the skull clean. The “scalp lock” as it is known, is found at the crown of the head where the “sworl” of hair exists. This area was viewed as the focus of the persons being his “spirit’ which could be seized and kept to assume the power of your enemy or even symbolically replace a loved one in a symbolic sense. Scalps contained the essence of a person which of course Native people viewed as being contained somewhere in the head. (Hamell 2010 Some Thoughts on Great Serpents, Dry Bones, and Souls, and the Scalp Lock - Draft)


Detail of an Iroquois man's scalplock from B.Wests's "Death of General Wolfe"

  *A side note: As a young adult I listened to many native elders talk about our history and how unjustly we are portrayed in the media and in literature. It was then, that I first learned that we, (Indians) learned to scalp from the Europeans and that any claims otherwise were simply untrue. I then became a scalping denier. Then, it was in college that I began to learn more about the subject and was then convinced that indeed, we did scalp on occasion, and in ancient times perhaps even beheaded our enemies. (My own G-G-Grandfather even seized leadership from his rival by bashing in his head with a rock!) So, I revised my thinking and became a scalping apologist. It has only been recently, that I have been so frustrated with the world that I think I am gradually becoming a scalping resurrectionist! I think it might do certain people some real good. 

When warriors would remove a “scalp” it was treated as a head trophy and could be worn before their chest as the moon-heads were worn.

“some also had scalps hanging from their ears, others on their chests”

J.F. Wasmus
German company surgeon 1776-1783
Of the Huron and Iroquois


“I discovered he had a scalp hanging at his breast, and one side of his head was painted red the other black.”

The Captivity of Jane Brown and her Family 1788


An extension of the scalp-taking tradition

“The only idol which the Indians have, and which may be properly called an idol, is their Wsinhoalican, that is image. It is an image cut in wood, representing a human head in miniature, which they always carry about them either on a string around their neck or in a bag.”

David Zeisberger
“History of the Northern American Indians”


As brutal as the scalp tradition may seem, it should not be viewed as a simple instance of barbarity. The act itself is a sacred ritual between warriors. We know that warriors throughout time have engaged in trophy-taking rituals. The practice might be as benign as removing an enemy uniform, or capturing a firearm or enemy flag but in the end, it is still trophy taking from a defeated enemy. War in itself is brutal and the warriors who are expected to engage in it share a primal ethos and culture. Native American warriors in the northeast developed highly complex rituals and traditions surrounding warfare. Scalp-taking is only one aspect of that culture. 

Related to that tradition, stories have emerged which confirm both the commonality of scalp taking but also the bravado of the warrior culture. There is an old story which the Haudenosaunee people tell about the origins of certain sacred medicines. I will not delve deeper into the tradition of the medicine but I will share the story as it relates to the spiritual aspects of the scalping tradition.

The oldest written version of this recorded is in Doty's History of Livingston County, New York, as it was given long ago, by an old unnamed Seneca man, to Mr. Horsford, their missionary. I quote this brief account in full.

"In ancient times a war broke out between two tribes. On the one side the forces were jointly led by a great warrior and a noted hunter. The latter had killed much game for the skins, the remains being left for beasts and birds of prey. The battle was going against his side, and he saw that, to save his own life, he must quit the field. As he turned, the body of a great tree lay across his path. He came up to it, when a heavy blow felled him. On recovering he found, strangely enough, that he could as easily pass through as over the obstruction. Reaching home, his friends would not talk with him; indeed they seemed quite unaware of his presence. It now occurred to him that he, too, had been killed, and was present in spirit only, human eyes not seeing him. He returned to the place of conflict, and there, sure enough, lay his mortal part quite dead, and its scalp gone. A pigeon hawk, flying by, recognized the disembodied hunter, and gratefully offered to restore his scalp; so, stretching away in its flight to the retiring victors, he plucked it from the bloody pole. The other birds had, meantime, prepared a medicine which soon united the scalp to the head, when bears and wolves gathered around and joined in the dance. The hunter got well and lived many years, his experience strengthening their religious
faith, and teaching them how to use the remedies so strangely acquired, which, to this day, are among the most efficacious known to the Indians."


In 1881, Elias Johnson, a Tuscarora chief also relates the story. 

The good hunter appears, as one noted for kindness and generosity to all, even to beasts and birds. Though a hunter he was considered the protector of these. On one occasion he went out with a war party. (In some versions they are fighting the Cherokee) . The battle was furious, and in the most desperate struggle he was struck down, scalped and left for dead. A fox came along when the conflict was over, and recognized this friend of bird and beast lying lifeless on the field. Shocked by the sight he raised the death lament, and called all the beasts together. Their cries were heard in the forest; they came by hundreds to the spot and tried to revive their friend. Vain were all their efforts, and he remained lifeless. As they sat down on their haunches to hold a council, they raised their heads and a dolorous cry rent the air. Then the bear was asked to speak, as being the nearest relative and best friend of man. He appealed to each and all for medicine, but though each had his own, none did any good. Again they lifted up their heads and howled a mournful requiem, long continued and with many varied tones. This sad lament, wild as the Highland coronach, brought the oriole to the spot. He was told of their sad plight, and in turn went and called a council of the birds. There was a flapping of wings everywhere, and all came, from the eagle to the wren, in response to the call. With beak and claw they made every effort, but nothing came of it. The hunter was dead, stubbornly dead, and his scalp was gone.

The eagle's head had become white in his long and wise life, and from his lofty eyrie he had looked down, and knew every force of nature and every event of life. This white-headed sage said that the dead would not revive unless the scalp was restored.

 The first of all the fox went to seek this. He visited every bird's nest and every hen-roost, but no scalp did he find. The pigeon hawk took up the search, but soon returned. She flew so swiftly that no one expected her to see much, for birds have characters as well as men. The white heron flew more slowly, and said he would do better, but came to a field of luscious wild beans, which tempted him. He fed and slept, and fed again, while the council awaited his return. At last the crow took up the mission. The warrior who had the scalp knew of the council, but feared nothing when he saw the crow flying near, for he was accustomed to that. She saw the scalp stretched on its hoop, to dry in the smoke above his cabin. Her chance came and she carried it off. Great was the rejoicing at her successful return. At once they put the scalp on his head, but so dry
and warped had it become that it would not fit. Here was a new trouble. All did their best but nothing availed. Then the great eagle said that on the high rocks where he lived far above all other birds, the mountain dew had collected on his back, and perhaps this might serve. He plucked one of his long feathers, dipped it in this dew, and applied it to the scalp. It worked finely and the scalp was moist again. The animals brought other things for the cure. The scalp was placed on the head, to which it closely adhered. The hunter revived and recovered his strength. They gave him the compound which had restored
him, as the gift of the Great Spirit, and there was then a pattering of feet and a rustle of wings as the council dispersed. The good hunter returned to his lodge in peace.”

We can clearly see that scalp-taking holds special meaning among the Iroquoian people and is the source of a powerful medicine tradition. Such is the origins of all of these head-wearing traditions and the immense respect for the power it invokes. 

There is another bit of historical phenomena which is likely coincidental but it falls within the range of this discussion. In Europe it was customary to create medals or coins which commemorated special events or even people. These medals typically had a bust of a king or perhaps a queen and some sort of emblem of that country on the obverse. Sometimes they had special meaning as in the so-called “peace medals” other times they could be simply a sign of allegiance or reward. They were worn on the chest suspended by a ribbon. In the colonial period, Natives were introduced to this concept and embraced this idea greatly as it fell in line with the pre-existing ideas of shell moon/head ornament wearing traditions. It is a quirk of serendipity that both traditions align so well in this case. I do not believe that one had to do with the other but more likely, the practice was enhanced and promoted by all. 

Lastly, I want to reemphasize the connections between heads, and scalps, moons, shells and medals in the woodland tradition. They are all related in some way to one another and ultimately they are all hung from the neck. 

PS. I simply have to include this last story related to scalp-taking. It is far too amazing to be left out of this blog post. Enjoy.

And then from “Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader” by John Long in 1791 we receive a detailed explanation of wartime scalping and also an amazing anecdote from earlier in the century.

“A Mohawk, of the name Scunnionsa, or The Elk (it means”they have a large nose” also a word for a moose), and a Chippeway Indian of the name of Cark Cark, or The Crow, having met at a council of war near Crown Point, in the year 1757, were extolling their own merits, and boasting of their superiority in taking scalps. The Mohawk contended that he could take a larger scalp than the Chippeway warrior; who was very highly offended, and desired that the experiment might be made. They parted, each pursuing a different route, after having first agreed to meet at a certain place, on a particular day, when a council was to be held. At the time appointed they returned, and appeared at the council. The Mohawk laid down his scalp, which was the skin of the head and neck of a man stuffed with fine moss and sewed up with deer’s sinews, and the eyes fastened in. The Chiefs expressed their approbation, and pronounced him to be a great and brave warrior. The Chippeway then rose, and looking earnestly at the Mohawk, desired the interpreter to tell him that it was an old woman’s scalp, which is considered a term of great reproach, and called to one of his sons to bring forward his scalp; when instantly he exhibited to their view the complete skin of a man, stuffed with down feathers, and sewed very close with deer’s sinews. The Chiefs loaded him with praise, and unanimously acknowledged his superiority. The Mohawk warrior, fired with resentment, withdrew from the council meditating revenge; and as soon as he saw the Chippeway come forth, he followed him, and watching a convenient opportunity, dispatched him with his tomahawk, rejoicing that he had, even in this dastardly manner, got rid of a victorious rival.”

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Follow Up on Heriot

or better known as 

"I am a bit worried that what I wrote yesterday made no sense so I am just making sure..."



Two posts in two days? I feel very productive.

My last post was pretty heady and likely a bit obscure for most but I sincerely hope people understood what I was feebly trying to say: The two portraits in question are not by Heriot.

I wish it were as simple as just making a decree and devoted readers would simply have "faith" in my judgement...scratch that. That would be horrific. It's much better to build a case and have people decide for themselves right?

I really needed to get that Heriot stuff off my chest before I lost interest or time or my "history" ADD kicks in and I crack open one of my new reference books. Which, by the by, are amazing! I picked up a huge book on St. Memin AND the "American Revolution in Drawings and Prints" by Donald Cresswell, an incredible resource which has every image of the AWI held by the Library of Congress. Simply amazing.

While we were tromping around Philadelphia this past month, I even was able to meet the author of the Rev War book and convince him to sign my copy. He was a really interesting person and our interests overlapped quite a bit, so he and I talked about historic images as I drooled over his collection of prints. I came away having met an excellent person, grew my library and picked up a couple of fine 18th c prints just because I could.

* Note: Do you like how I subtly transitioned into a travel blog? Seamless...

This little trip I mention is something that my family does occasionaly. We travel on "vacation" and I schedule scads of museum collection visits, visits to galleries, and also shoehorn in some family fun. My ideal trip involves white cotton gloves and a loupe. And fortunately for me, my family indulges me because they know I can always make it fun somehow.

While we were down in the Philadelphia area, I forced my sister to let us stay with her a few minutes away in Delaware. She and her patient boyfriend made room for us in their home and I think she might even have vacuumed for the occasion. It was a real treat to see her again and to experience a little bit of their lives and home. We ate some excellent food and we laughed a lot. What could be better?

We made daily forays into Philly while we were there mainly to sightsee and do some shopping but my real focus was to study Benjamin West's famous painting of Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Here is a small version in case you aren't familiar with the piece and so you can keep up.




OK. That was just a cheap way to inject my cute kids into my blog, I know it. But It's always good to back up your words sometimes with visuals. At least thats what the professional bloggers say.

What is not evident in the snapshot is that my children are probably standing 10 feet away from the painting. They had to stand that far away so that I could get it all into the photo! The painting is massive. Really massive. In case you want to see the thing for yourself I recommend setting aside at least 4 hours, 3 hours and 45minutes to see the B.West masterwork and 15 minutes to see the other paintings in the museum whatever they are.

The painting is currently on exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, which is right in downtown Philadelphia. Rather than parking near to the museum I thought it would be smarter to park in a lot close by (at least that's what my GPS indicated) so I paid a few bucks for the safe lot and walked...and walked...and walked...

* note: I have since learned that like a politician with forked tongue , a GPS also cannot be trusted.

The "Penn's Treaty" painting was very nearly overwhelming. There are so many figures with so much happening that it really takes a while to ingest it all. Of course, I had seen images of it in books and on my tiny computer screen but to stand in front of the giant canvas is an entirely different experience.

I began to snap photos of  it almost immediately. (Without flash of course) What I really wanted to do was to bring that painting home with me, replace half of the roof of my two-story house with the thing and stare at it daily while lying on my bed. But...

It is so big that I had to stand on tip toes sometimes to get the shots I wanted. I did get into a little scrape with one of the guards who spied the green range finding light of my digital camera. I calmly explained that my flash was turned off but it took a few "demonstration" shots of my feet to convince her. I was a little miffed but as my wife pointed out, she was just doing her job. I think she was racist.

Any time spent with a great work of art is worthwhile and after about an hour of studying it my neck began to hurt and my family was ready to look at the rest of the exhibit. I chased them around the rest of the building like the Griswald's at the Louvre and just before we descended the staircase to leave, I begged them to let me look at the Treaty painting one more time. They are so accommodating. Plus, I had the only set of car keys and it was like 20 degrees outside.

I wont bore you with the minutia of the rest of our time spent in the Big Apple. BUT I will share with you some of the high points:

We ate at the Carnegie Deli and it was delicious. (I also learned that I prefer the pastrami over the corned beef and that their regular sandwich is so big that just one of them could probably end world hunger)

The Museum of the City of New York was worthwhile to me for only one thing. It contains the oldest remaining porcupine quilled bag left in North America. (I will hopefully be writing a stand alone piece on the results of that visit later this year.)

Spent around a c-note for a single elevator ride up the Empire State building, and almost had to bail out of the queue because 3 out of the 4 of us carry pocket knives and ONE of us, who will remain anonymous has a power assisted version that could be considered a switchblade. I felt like a drug mule trying to get back into the U.S. with a bag full of powder... I pulled a guard aside and explained our situation and it was all good. They put our contraband into pocket-knife jail for our time in the elevator and then we sprung them after we coming back down. No problem. I'm just glad they didn't accidentally open that one knife...

This last bit of writing is the result of a promise. I take promises very seriously mind you and I promised a man to his face that I would include his comments in my blog. So, here's the story of our visit to the Museum of Natural History.

First off, the building is awe inspiring. It stands tall and wide on the upper west side of Manhattan as a real monument to grandeur. This is an old building full of marble and brass. I have been there many times and even as a family we have been there twice before. But it never fails to impress.

At the staired entry to the building the visitor is greeted by a horse-mounted Teddy Roosevelt with his diminutive attendants (The Indian and the Black man) at his side. (I don't think I need to explain what THAT visual message screamed do I???)
Teddy and his Native attendant. I purposely left this image small in contrast to Ted's own God-complex.

We eagerly ran up to the Indian figure and shot many pictures of him and us. We always do that when we see statues of Indians. I can't explain it. It's just something we do. I even do it with wooden cigar store statues. I wonder if other Indian families do that or are we just that perverse?

The atrium of the museum is cavernous. It dwarfs the two dinosaurs bone reconstructions with its scale. The museum seems to be saying, "yeah, this standing brontosaurus is pretty impressive but like, this is only my DOORWAY and look how tiny the dinosaur is in the comparison with my massive need to display dominance!"

The line to buy tickets was equally as impressive. There were signs at each turnstile with a price scale for admission. For the four of us, I think the price was something just under $100. I thought to myself, "Oh well. What's the value of such great experiences and real learning?" The wait in line wasn't intolerable and soon enough we stood at the admission desk. The man reiterated the suggested cost of admission and then asked me with a bemused smile, "What would you like to pay?"

The question struck me as odd and he repeated himself. I looked at my son and he shrugged. He was no help. I offered the man $20 and he seemed happy to give me the tickets. Hey, I'm a working man with a family and a mortgage. It all helps.

Then, we made a beeline for the Native American exhibit.

The Native American rooms are impressive. No matter how many times I stand in front of those aged cases I see new things. It's sort of magical. I know full well that the cases haven't been changed in decades (or cleaned for that matter) but each time I go I see new things. It is very much in the old "cabinet" style of displays.

The place was packed. Room in front of the cases were at a premium. I was happily taking pictures of all the amazing material in them and waiting for people to shuffle along.

I found myself next to a small family. I stood next to two well dressed parents in their 60's and an adult male child in his 20's. They were soaking in a particularly large case of Annishnabe (Ojibwe) material, there were sacred calumets, eagle feather fans, bone whistles, amazing twined fiber bags... you get the idea right? Incredible stuff.

Because I was standing so close to them I couldn't help but overhear their conversations. It went like this:

Grey-haired woman, "Oh my...honey...look at all this stuff. Amazing..."

Grey haired husband, "Hmmm..." he held his chin in his hand and rubbed it. He appeared to be brewing a seriously profound response. "Yeah...Indian handicrafts... Hmmmm....Well, they had to do something right?"

I was so shocked by his reaction that I actually laughed out loud. He had reduced the sum total of thousands of years of Native culture and art and beauty and unique world view into describing us as simply a bunch of people with nothing worthwhile to do but "handicrafts".

He blew my mind.

I have heard lots of insensitive remarks in the last 20 years working in the field of public history. But I can't respond the way I'd like to when I am working. This time, I was out in public. I was a nobody. Free to say what I felt.

My normal response would have been to just note the conversation, internalize my reaction into a ball of rage and later talk it out with my wife and close friends. Not this time. The words flowed from my mouth before I could stop them like a horse escaping a burning barn...

"Ha ha ha! Oh My God. THAT is the most trite thing I have ever heard in my entire life. Thank you though. Thank you sir. Whew. That was great. I am putting this in my blog. I promise you that. And furthermore, as a Native American I find it disgusting."

He just looked at me with wide eyes. His wife simply looked away. His son, (I learned later from my wife) as they wandered off, patted him on the back as if to say, "It's ok old man. The times have changed but you haven't yet. But it's ok..."

OK. Promise kept. Thanks Mr. Average American. My only regret? I wish I snapped a photo of you.

But in lieu of an actual photo I simply typed "average american" into my image browser and this is the first photo to pop up. I am adding it as a placeholder just in case I bump into you again in which case I will replace it.














Saturday, March 9, 2013

Defining Heriot's Natives



The internet and our preferred methods of communication these days can be cumbersome if not downright useless sometimes. We shoot images and truncated text back and forth with scary speed. Even ideas seem to be as fluid as Instagram these days. All it takes is a statement by a person of note, and whammo! It's a fact. Dozens of people read it and copy and paste or "share" it on social media and with alarming rapidity it spreads. However, I am an advocate of questions. I try and question my understanding as often as possible - it has helped me to be a better historian and I hope, a better human being.

But how does this all relate to Indians? Or history? or anything? It is clear to me now that almost no aspect of our modern culture is immune to this phenomena. Even scholarly research has been effected by it. The smaller the community the faster the ideas spread. We no longer have to wait for the quarterly journals to arrive and greedily squirrel them away into a quiet corner to read them with excited eyes. The information is only a click away now and even the academic journals which were once guarded by dragons may be free and open to everyone eventually. This is a good thing. 

Native Americans on the internet are revising our own identities and reaching out to others who would never have any contact a generation ago. The "Idle No More" movement is clear evidence of that. Here in western NY I would never have heard of it without my social media connections. 

Challenging the old ideas of our identity and with the new stump and bullhorn we have been doing just that. The internet is a great leveling ground but it is not without it's pitfalls. We are also hearing everyones noise. Even the bigoted racist gets a voice here. But my visual/mental filter is a highly tuned weapon...

I work with some old school historians and I can see the huge differences in the way things were done in the past. The letter writing, the waiting, and the old media formats. Actual paper was the fasted way to transfer information! I have the xerox copies, slides and photographs (on Kodak paper) to prove it! 

But, like I said, things change and answers are only a few clicks away usually. So, I feel that to be ignorant is really a choice these days. 

Ugh. I'm flowing off track again. Let's get back to history and art...


George Heriot.


It was Francis Back (an amazing artist but perhaps a more amazing researcher of colonial history?) who initiated my renewed interest in the work of George Heriot. He wrote a message board post regarding an image which I had been aware of for many years but made the casual claim that it was Heriot's work. I have read Francis' posts before and it did not surprise me that he could so simply make a statement which would alter my understanding of the past as it had happened before. This was exciting news to me as I had never before heard of an artistic attribution! This could also help date the image and perhaps location from which it was rendered! This is the image in question:


Native American Indian Woman - Artist unknown


His assertion was based on an exhibit at the Musee du Nouveau Monde, in La Rochelle where both the painting of the woman in the image above as well as one of a native American man in the image below. They were shown together apparently in the exhibit and the museum furthermore attributed them both to George Heriot. 


It was always my belief that the female portrait was the work of James Peachey, another artist working in North America but earlier than Heriot. Based on the style of the work and similarity to other of Peachey's work I had decided that it must be true. When Francis made the new claim it drove me to reevaluate my earlier belief. Since both images have always been associated with each other, they must be studied together and as such I began to investigate the museums claim.


North American Indian Man - Artist Unknown
My art history training from my university days resurfaced (Mom and Dad I hope you read my blog because the years spent at University were not all entirely wasted...) and I began to evaluate both works from all the usual aspects, composition, technique and color palette. They would all come into play but only if I could compare them to the works of both Peachey and Heriot. This is not to exclude the possibility that another unidentified artist was responsible for these mysterious images mind you. I was fully aware of this possibility. It would be enough this go around to exclude even just one of them. That would be a success. I needed to see more of Heriots work to be able to accept the claim of a respected museum. I began my education into the world of the postmaster artist.

Looking at Heriot

During Heriots short artistic career in North America there came a time when he decided to focus more on people as a subject rather than landscape. Up until that point, Heriot was a dedicated landscape artist. In his nearly one hundred piece legacy, the vast majority of work was devoted to landscapes. It will be only a small fraction of this large portfolio which we will focus on. 

Heriot was driven for a time to depict the native inhabitants of North America seemingly unprovoked. What prompted this new drive? I suspect it may have come after his return to Great Britain in 1797, where perhaps his viewers may have clamored for more than just his view of the land. The desire for information regarding the "new world" was great in Europe and always had been. Artists and writer who brought back knowledge of the Native peoples or even object made from their hands were given much attention back in Europe. 

It seems that after his trip back to Great Britain, Heriots subject matter almost entirely changed from the grand views of Canada to the intimacy of people. Canadians and Indians would now dominate his canvas for the next 6 years. Up until that point figures in his work were only played minor characters in his compositions. They appear as props would only to bolster the grandeur of the epic views. The figures are diminutive and the scenery vast and mirror the earlier works by North American artists of a similar genre like James Peachey and Thomas Davies. 



Metis Falls on the Lower St. Lawrence by George Heriot


Heriot would even place Indians into the scenery in much the same way as Davies might. The figures would appear small like a footnote against the backdrop of natural immensity. They are engaged in all manner of common daily activity. They appear engaged and busy but lacking any excitement or drama. It is simply a slice of life in lower Canada after the  tumultuous American War for Independence and the dust of conflict has settled. 


City of Quebec from Point Levy - Heriot 1792 National Gallery of Canada

Quebec from the Beaupoint Ferry by Thomas Davies 1787 


The new beginning for Heriot would find him making frequent visits to the Huron (Wyandot) people at Lorette, which was just a short way from Quebec at the time. The Native community was well familiar with visitors by the late 18th c and a thriving tourism business had arisen. They would sell native "curiosities" and even hold dances for visitors. (see "Trading Identities" by Phillips) He observed the people and saw the retention of cultural practices among them, but by the late 1790's the Native people of the Quebec area wore clothing similar to the amalgam of dress we see in Canada at the time. They wear woolen capotes, trade shirts, and even fur felt hats. Heriot later would make an attempt at chronicling that style of dress in his most famous work "Costumes of the Domiciliated indians of North America" but perhaps at too great a cost?


In his works from 1799 - 1805 we see a flurry of work with Native Americans at the forefront from Heriot. He produced at least ten known major works with Native Americans as the central theme. This rapid proliferance came with a cost. I becomes evident that Heriot needed to borrow liberally from earlier works to flesh out his obvious lack of understanding his chosen subject matter. Heriot would begin to look at other artists work that had Native Americans as a focus and began to borrow heavily from their portfolios. No one would be safe, Lafitau, Romney, White were all subject to Heriots notice. 

It is not my intention to disparage Heriots work but simply to bring forth enough evidence that it becomes likely that certain details of his work cannot be fully trusted as a documentary source for his location and time. I also expect that once the entirety of his portfolio is seen and reviewed that the two full length portraits shown in this paper perhaps need further study to offer a more firm attribution.

The most obvious artistic plagiarism can be seen in the following work entitled "Dance for the Recovery of the Sick". I am not the first to make this connection but there is far more going on in this piece than just the appearance of John White's "Conjuror".





To students of Native Americans in Art, the connection is obvious. We see a man with winged headdress mid leap dancing at the head of the troop. It is clear that Heriot borrows this figure from John White's "The Conjuror" watercolor of 1585. White was responsible for many images of Native peoples he observed during his time at Roanoke Island at the closing of the 16th c. His work was widely publicized and emulated for centuries to come. Later Theodore DeBry would make the impact permanent by engraving White's drawings and further widen their popularity. 






Also in the foreground we see another interesting and convincing figure holding a rattle which appears to made from a turtle. It seems plausible to have such a figure depicted in a Native dance and we are tricked into believing the scene to be a true and authentic representation. But in fact, it is another borrowed image but from another artist a full century later that John White. 


In, an image published in the Champlain's "Voyages" 1618 (the plate between p. 99-100), an artist depicts perhaps a ceremonial dance where paired dancers are following a leading pair with one individual holding a rattle. The rattle is of particular importance here as it is not a true representation of what an Iroquois turtle rattle looks like. It was a misinterpretation from the original copper plate that was echoed in the much later heriot image. Anyone who has seen such an instrument would not make that mistake when rendering an image of it and it is not nearly possible that two artists would make the same mistake almost 200 years apart when one of them was purportedly an eyewitness! The scene is believed to be of a Huron dance. It is clear that Heriot was privy to this image as well and used it to cobble together his own impression of what a "true" native dance might look like.





























Heriot was fond of depicting dance scenes in his Native American series. He remarked in his journal "Travels Through the Canadas"

"We assembled together in the evening, a number of males and females of the village, who repeatedly performed their several dances, descriptive of their manner of going to war ; of watching to ensnare the enemy ; and of returning with the captives they were supposed to have surprised. The instrument chiefly in use in the dances, is a calibash filled with small pebbles, call ed chichicoue, which is shaken by the hand in or der to mark the cadence, for the voices and the movements. They are strangers to melody ia their songs, being totally unacquainted with mu sic. The syllables which they enounce, are yo, he, haw. These are invariably repeated, the be holders beating time with their hands and feet. The dancers move their limbs but a little way from the ground, which they beat with violence."

He also mentions his distaste of the music and of the dance which is surprising after realizing how much attention he gives them in his works.






We find in "Dance of the Indian Women" by Heriot 1807, a historical game of hide and seek after it is clear that we can see a  version of the famous image of "Tyendenega - Joseph Brant" by George Romney from 1776. 




























In "Dance on the Reception of Strangers" 1804-05 It appears to be an original depiction of an adoption ceremony, which is of course accurate as a traditional practice of many of the Iroquoian peoples in this period. But contrasted with a much earlier work by Father Joseph Lafitau, Heriot seems to have abandoned all attempts at originality and simply renders the Lafitau image in his own hand. 





Native American Adoption Scene from Father Joseph Lafitau 

























This brings me to the original images that brought me into the world of Heriot. We see a version of the figure buried within "Reception". His back is turned and he appears to be dancing along with the others. 



























We see his distinctive "kilt" or dance skirt and long queue of hair wrapped and trailing down his back with ribbons and metal brooches fixed in the same positions. The crossed bands or straps also give the figure away. He lacks the body paint, silver armbands, moccasins, tomahawk and ankle cuffs but without a doubt Heriot was recycling the figure to lend some credibility to this image.

This figure appears in still another painting by Heriot entitled "War Dance" from 1804-05. The figure in this case is pulled directly from the original watercolor. He stands in the exact body position with all the accoutrements seen in the full length portrait. The only detail not rendered is the body paint seen in the portrait. Heriot may have purposely omitted the paint to emphasize the "nakedness" of the Native peoples. Or more likely, in an attempt to subtly divorce the figure from its original source.


The curious fact about this figure is that not only does it appear in two heriot images as well as an as to yet anonymous full length portrait but it appears in yet another painting from the Canandian archives.



I saw this image first published in an obscure secondary source book on the American Revolution nearly 20 years ago when my interest in the colonial period began. I had assumed it was a later rendering of the watercolor image and gave it little attention. But recently, George Hammel sent me the entire image with the caption below. The caption as well as the attention to detail in this black and white image lead me to believe that it is the source of all the later images of this particular man. It fits within the known clothing styles of the second half of the 18th c. The appearance of the pipe tomahawk dates the image in the post 1740 range and the silver armbands with engraved cyphers fit as well. He wears leggings with the seam visible along the side, and the otter skin pouch worn at his back. The simple fact that the color image does not have these details and the fact that this B&W image is a finished piece with the title below are all signs of it's originality. It is the progenitor of all the later versions. 

The hairstyle was a mystery until I remembered seeing a similar style worn by A Mohawk Indian in this 1651 image by Megapolensis.

Mohawk (Maquaes) Indian with two palisaded villages. 
From the pamphlet by Johannes Megapolensis,
“A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians,” published 1644.


This image incidentally gets confused with an image of "Virginia" Indians in this depiction which was done only a year later. They are clearly the same person.



The hairstyle in this case is attributed to the Mohawk living at the Mohawk River area and may be an "older" style but believable and with some convincing evidence for it's cultural affiliation.

The last image I am including comes from Heriot in 1807. It is almost a relief to see a more accurate depiction of the people of his area after his earliest attempts at portraying Natives as naked painted and wild. But even this more believable image is not without controversy. 




"Costumes of the Domiciliated Indians of North America" 1807 Heriot


It remains his most published image of Native Americans and perhaps his most accurate. When simply looking at it without any other context, the laymen would gain a fair assessment of life in the late colonial period for Northeastern Natives. But looking at it critically, and from a basis of deeper understanding of the period and other artists we see perhaps the truth behind Heriots work. 

Consider this detail. Knowing now, how much heriot pulled from other artists works is this woman simply really what Heriot saw or is the earlier image from actually the inspiration?   Or is there another image perhaps that Heriot saw which is the original? 



Is the "Habit of a Wiendot Woman" in the image below from the 1780's the actual woman and the Heriot woman simply an inspired image? It is clear we must consider nearly all of Heriots work with native American themes as having been inspired by other artists. 




The last little mystery in the world of Heriots images is this intriguing watercolor from the Royal Ontario Museum. Could this be the original image that Heriot uses in his "Costumes" painting? The R.O.M. claims it was made by Catherine R. Prendergast in 1810. Prendergast is more well known through her marriage to William Hamilton Merritt who was captured at the Battle of Lundy Lane in the War of 1812 and subsequently carried on a courtship by remote as a prisoner of war. He met Catherine prior to the war while on a business trip to NY. The Prendergast family was a prominent business family at the time. At the time of this writing I could not find any information as to what Catherine's occupation was or where she spent her time. Nor could I find any connection to her possible artistic career. It is entirely possible that she was simply the owner of the image at the R.O.M. but perhaps a reader might have a clue. I have some letters of inquiry floating out in cyberspace and if more information regarding the image surface i will add an attachment to this post. 




I hope this paper convinces the readers that George Heriots work in regards to his Native American subjects shouldn't be viewed as an accurate and authentic vision of Native peoples. The overwhelming evidence points to an amalgam of depictions and a real caricature of Native life.

Michael J. Galban