Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Playing Indian

As a child growing up in rural Nevada, it was hard to ignore the impact the “wild west” has had on the patchwork of American culture. Surrounded by ghost towns and silver mines, I was constantly bombarded by visual images of “Cowboys and Indians”. More often than not, the “Indians” were depicted poorly or worse yet, in that sad stereotypical way born of Disney and Warner brother’s cartoons.  For the sake of irony, I wish I could say that as a boy, when we played “Cowboys and Indians” that I wanted to be the cowboy but that is simply not the case. I was always the “Indian” in that game, and in my eyes we were always the victors. Despite the popular misconceptions about the history of Native people, I considered my very existence a victory. As an adult, I find myself twenty years in the field of public history, focusing on the Native American colonial experience and challenging popular misconceptions of the past every single day.  

Guy Johnson and David Hill by Benjamin West

My first encounter with modern Native American reenacting took place at Johnson Hall, the home of the famous 18th c British Indian Agent, Sir William Johnson. I attended as a spectator with my daughter who at the time was 9 years old, and we walked around their spring “Market Fair”, soaking up the ambience of the g Sir William Johnson. I attended as a spectator with my daughter who at the time was 9 years old, and we walked around their spring “Market Fair”, soaking up the ambience of the grounds. There were lots of people dressed in a wide array of “old timey” clothing. It all looked so real to my untrained eye and I easily became swept up in the spirit of the event. At one point, we spied two men, nearly naked wearing only loincloths and painting each other in red and black with their bare hands. My daughters’ eyes grew into saucers and I hurried her along the path until we were well removed from the intimate scene. I masked my own shock from her however and quickly explained to her that the men were preparing themselves for the reenactment. ‘It was history’ and ‘that’s how Indian people looked in the past’, I explained; she seemed unconvinced and still a little shaken afterwards and looking back, even my own words seemed weak and uncertain. My mind was spinning, but rather than reject the whole thing because it was so foreign I decided to find out more.

I never did try and talk with the painted men at that event. They were like ghosts that you might spot in the darkness. Sometimes I would catch a fleeting glimpse of them in the crowd of costumed re-enactors but more often they blended into the fabric of the event and would sit quietly in their own space. I was seriously curious about them but felt a bit hesitant to ask them questions as they seemed so alien and unapproachable to me in their colored intensity. Now, I know them well and call them my friends but that first encounter left me with far more questions than answers.

In modern native communities, traditional clothing is worn for ceremonies, social dances, dance competitions, and occasionally for public performances; and in all of those instances, the dress is far more conservative than a lone breechclout and paint. In fact, if someone did show up dressed that way, it would be considered quite rude and they would likely be escorted away or more likely, something worse. The painted men were something I had never encountered before in person and rather than denounce them, I tried to find out more about them. This curiosity would draw me into a global Native American history network which was almost entirely comprised of non-Natives. I had found a sub-culture of the living history community that I was certain most modern Native people were entirely unaware of. At that moment it became my goal to understand all I could about this phenomena, and perhaps in the future, to bring those two worlds together.

Fort Johnson

My next substantial encounter with a “Native” re-enactor would happen on my turf however, and I was a little better prepared this time. One quiet afternoon while working the front desk at Ganondagan State Historic Site a very tall man walked into the visitor’s center with what appeared to be a hari-krishna style haircut. He had a quiet demeanor and carefully picked through our literature and then found what he was looking for: our artifact case. He asked some simple probing questions about the archeological material that didn’t raise my interest but I quickly became aware that he had a deeper understanding of the material than the regular visitor. I had one the most satisfying discussions about Native American material culture that day. He encouraged me to attend a conference in Ohio where there were more people like him, I think he meant more people obsessed with woodland material culture but perhaps he just meant more people with funny haircuts? In either case, he was right. It took me another year before I attended my first “Eastern Woodland Indian Conference” but when I finally did I was blown away.

What I found was a community of people who had been studying Native material culture collectively for years. They had been gathering for nearly a decade by the time I was able to attend and had established a tight community of dedicated attendees. The conference was organized by Alan Gutchess (current Director of the Fort Pitt Museum), who, for whatever reason had a lifelong interest in Native Americans and had grew up in the living history world.  

Note: at some point I need to get Alan on the “couch” and root out that story as the results of that passion had an impact on my own life that I could never have foreseen. The real question is whether I should curse his name or praise it for drawing me into an obsession lasting nearly a third of my life. 

The attendees and speakers of this conference were incredible. I had no idea that there were other people looking into the material culture and history of the Eastern Woodland people! I had been working in a vacuum for the past 10 years with no one to share my thoughts and ideas with but now I felt I had found a home. Furthermore, they were putting into practice and use many of that very material they were studying. They used them in living history events and for historic films. I was simply amazed at the level of understanding many of the folks had and even more impressed with the quality of the lectures that were given. The world I had found opened up to me possibilities I could never have imagined. I owe a debt of gratitude to all the scholars both professional and otherwise who though enough of the past to study it and share their knowledge with me. 

The one thing I did not find in this community however, was many Native peoples. This truth really had me question my own involvement in the community. Why is it that other Natives are not drawn to this? Are there simply too many other pressing matters that keep people from diving in? Is there a prejudice perhaps that keeps Natives from feeling comfortable? These questions that I had would soon be answered. TBC.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reenacting the the past...

I have been running a living history event at Ganondagan for the past 6 years. It was my attempt at bring the world of "re-enacting" to my site. It was a real education for me in regards to the logistical and interpersonal political aspects of assembling some seriously dedicated and obviously deranged folks who dedicated their lives to understanding the past. It was a recipe for total success.

Mssr. Ryan Clarke as a hired gun.

I had attended some of the northeasts largest events at Ft Niagara and Ft. Ticonderoga and knew that I didn't want to try and replicate that scene. Besides, my own narrow time period had far fewer participants and it would be impossible to even try and come close to the same numbers. I decided to go for quality as opposed to quantity. This was a good choice. We have a dedicated group of professional re-enactors that assemble like a team of superheroes from all corners of the Northeast each year, add to that the small group of Native people who have come to love living history (I'll post in the future on our newly formed society of Haudenosaunee living historians) and we have a pretty cool thing happening. 

The LaSalle event is focused around the 1669 encounter between the Seneca's living at Ganondagan and a small exploratory group of French lead by the famous Marquis de LaSalle. The entire story is recounted by Galinee in his journal which is conveniently online. if you care to learn more about the events you can find it here: Galinee's journal

Mssr. Garrett MacAdams(L) as LaSalle and Mssr David Ledoyen (R) as the interpreter
Belinda Patterson (Tuscarora) and Nathan Kobuck (Bellwood, PA)

One of the most interesting aspect of our event is that the Native participants are the ancestors of the folks who were there and furthermore, we have French Canadian participants who are also the descendants of the people of New France as well. Amazing right? But, as I have learned recently, we are far from unique. 

Back in 1937, the Rochester Museum and Science center put on it's own reenactment of the LaSalle encounter as well as the Denonville invasion of 1687. in fact, it was more designed to commemorate the 1687 invasion as it was the 250th year anniversary of that attack. Want more about Denonville? 

Ain't the internet grand? de Baugy's journal

The RMSC event took place in Ellison Park and the crowds were very good. I wish there were more people these days interested in their past. 

I think sometimes people want to believe that reenacting is something new or that they were at the inception of the whole thing when they dressed up as riflemen during the bicentennial of the Revolutionary War. That is hardly the truth. In fact, Americans have been dressing up as their ancestors almost as soon as those ancestors put them in trunks! There were civil war parades going on where the children of the veterans wore their fathers clothes! 

I do think there is a certain unhealthy obsession in America for war and the remembrance of wars. Our history is all too often punctuated by war. Our historic sites are overwhelmingly battlefields and forts. Which is why the LaSalle encounter was so perfect for my site. We are a domestic site at heart. Where for the majority of the time it was occupied no battles took place. In fact, when the French did decide to implement their plan of attacking the Haudenosaunee's western door, the battle didn't happen in the town. It took place a couple of miles away! 

So, maybe the LaSalle story wasn't enough for the Rochester crowds of 1935. They had to include the French invasion to bring the crowds?

These images are pulled directly from the RMSC collections website. I want to promote their work so please go visit the website, but be sure to put both Ganondagan and the RMSC on your "to-see" list of places when you get to upstate NY. You won't regret it. 

Freeman Johnson - Seneca
 These images of the participant are so amazing to me. I find it so comforting to see that I am continuing  a tradition that people thought so much of 80 years ago. 
LaSalle? or Denonville? 
One ki, 


Thursday, January 10, 2013

“An Short Essay on the North American Fur Trade”


Michael J. Galban

The fur trade, as it existed in North America altered forever, the natural flow of life for every Native American group who participated in it, but probably not in the ways you might guess. It is not only the “new” products which became available to the Native peoples that created this profound change. It was also the inevitable shift that occurred to Native ways of thinking and ways of viewing the world which would have a great impact on Native people. While it is certainly true that new European materials, practices and technologies that had never before been available to Native peoples had a large impact on their lives and life ways but that is only a portion of the story. It is equally important to consider the trade in ideas, concepts, and perspectives that Europeans and Natives comingled and also the devastating and lasting impact of alcohol on native communities that must be considered. 

Within the complex and diverse indigenous culture groups across North America, there lays a core of belief regarding conservation of resources and local sustainability. The world of plants and animals, fish and fowl were not viewed as commodities to be bought and sold but as gifts for which proper gratitude is owed. Respect for the other entities of the land is a fundamental aspect of Native belief systems. Hunting and fishing rituals are meant not only to ensure a good harvest but also as an acknowledgement of the reciprocal relationship that human beings have with the gifts of creation. It is well known that symbolic offerings and codified ritual gestures were used by Native inhabitants of the Great Lakes since time immemorial and this did not change during the colonial period but in order to accommodate for the growing demand for furs native hunters had to adapt. 

However, some ancient native concepts would survive. Ideas about conservation and subsistence would be carried into the fur trade period much to the dismay of traders who were under constant pressure to increase the number of furs and to generate higher profits for their investors. 

In Andrew Graham’s “Observation’s on Hudson’s Bay 1767 – 1791” we are afforded a rare glimpse into 18th c Native trade customs. 

one canoe brings down yearly to the Fort one hundred made beaver in different kinds of furs, and trades with me seventy of the said beaver for real necessaries. The other thirty beaver shall so puzzle him to trade, that he often asks me what he shall buy, and when I make an answer, Trade some more powder, shot, tobacco and hatchets., his answer is, I have traded sufficient to serve me and my family until I see you again next summer;” 

In the Graham account, we can see two very distinct approaches to the fur trade. The European, engages in the fur trade primarily for sustained profit while the Native, participates to satisfy their yearly needs without an interest in accumulating a surplus of goods. Native people had to be taught to desire more than they needed; it was not an innate concept for them. Gift giving customs would be one of the ways in which Europeans could introduce this idea. Normally, gift giving was between friendly people and a necessary protocol before any important negotiation or assembly. European trade companies used this as an opportunity to stratify their Native consumers. They would give more and better goods to leaders and proportionately more simple goods to those deemed lesser by the company. This caused tremendous strain on the Native communities who previously had no real understanding of hierarchical cultural scale. Leadership was often more respected for what they gave away rather than the amounts they could accumulate. 

It is perhaps not well known that the first real waves of European immigrants to North America were part of commercial ventures and companies and not persecuted religious groups like the tiny group of Europeans at Plymouth. The early English who arrived along the Atlantic seaboard for instance, are more properly known as the Virginia Company, a group of investors who had the resources and foresight to see the vast resources of the continent as untapped. Companies were granted authority to conduct business in N. America by their sovereigns across the sea and competition rapidly grew intense as the European powers scrambled to divide the continent like a slaughtered hog. 

Companies like the Hudson’s Bay Co. and the Northwest Co. were formed to generate profit for their investors and as a result, they viewed the continent as a cornucopia of saleable goods. During this early period companies were granted trade monopolies over certain territories. They established the static trading post as a model throughout the continent which acted like magnets for native hunters. This model would endure well into the modern period and at its inception would forever alter the way Native people lived.

The most obvious and visual change that would take place in Native communities was of course, the introduction of new European technology.  Of all the goods traded to Native communities many would be surprised to learn that fabrics would make up the largest percentage of trade goods. Already prepared clothing like coats and shirts combined with blankets and raw cloth made up the bulk of a traders supply. Following that, goods made from metal like iron, steel and brass made up the next biggest category. And finally “small goods” like beads, bells and other decorative items would make up the smallest portion of the traders inventory. This proportion would be the standard throughout the colonial period in N. America. 

                                                        Benjamin West's "Penn's Treaty"

The introduction of new European products would certainly make life easier for the average Native family but it would not force them to begin to live as Europeans. Trees were still felled but it was now preferable to use a steel-bitted ax as opposed to the former fashioned from stone. Soups of wild game, rice, and other edibles would now be cooked in a brass kettle in contrast to the former clay pots and stone bowls. We can see this pattern repeated throughout the trade. The old mode supplanted by the new but without the alteration of the original intent. The core of native life ways would remain intact long into the colonial period, but the dependency on trade goods would intensify as time went by. Native people grew hesitant to return to the ancient practices as would anyone who finds that new technologies can make life easier. But this would not translate initially to more luxury time. Hunting and trapping for trade would gradually be incorporated into the annual cycle of life. A significant amount of the year would now be spent trapping exclusively for trade as opposed to simply subsisting independently. 

By simply participating in the fur trade, the dependence on the system is immediately evident. A hunter acquires a musket to ease his life and to provide security for his family and community. But eventually, he will need lead for ammunition and gunpowder for ignition. Flints wear out and need to be replaced and repairs and even spare parts will be required over the life of the firearm. This sort of cyclic dependency would be widespread throughout native communities in the colonial period. And the Native consumer is now trapped in the system and forced to evolve and adapt to a new way of life.

Beyond the material effects of the fur trade, the ceremony of gift-giving was the vehicle by which alcohol would be introduced into Native society. In the days before European contact, Native people had long developed a formalized arrangement of giving gifts to other groups to establish and re-establish old bonds and friendships. It was a simple yet profound gesture that was essential for any meeting or council to continue. Furs, pipes, and tobacco were all part of the ritual gift giving process. This ancient custom of gift exchange and friend making would become greatly corrupted as alcohol became the biggest part of that exchange.

                                                        Simcoe 1796

Company traders would cement relationships by giving out alcohol to their consumers before every transaction. Alcohol became so engrained in the trade that Native hunters would consider it an insult if they were not offered alcohol and would bring their business elsewhere. In the late 18th century the competition between trading companies translated into tens of thousands of gallons of alcohol being poured into Native communities in the Great Lakes as a purely commercial effort to create an addiction and dependence. Duncan McGillivray of the Northwest Co. writes in the 1790’s of the use of alcohol, 

“the love of Rum is their first inducement to industry; they undergo every hardship and fatigue to procure a Skinful of this delicious beverage, and when a nation becomes addicted to drinking, it affords a strong presumption that they will soon become excellent hunters.” 

Whether or not these early traders could foresee the devastation alcohol would continue to have in Native communities or not, their intention to use it as a tool to force production is without doubt.

By the early 1800’s Native communities in the Great Lakes have long adapted to the fur trade system. It was very rare in fact, for anyone to recollect a time before the trading companies. A dependence on the goods provided by the companies grew and after the wars for control of the continent finally waned in the mid 1800’s. Settlers in waves washed over the old hunting grounds and Native communities found themselves having to adapt to a new paradigm which no longer included the trade system.

The effects of commercial fur trade are still being resolved. Alcohol, greed, and disregard for the land are now all a part of the history of N. America. Despite the negative impacts of the old fur trade, Native people continue to work to hold on to those honored ways in communities all across the continent. It is of great importance to try and fully understand this pivotal slice of history if we are to learn from the mistakes of our past and work together to preserve our future. 

Monday, January 7, 2013


Welcome to my new blog. Let me introduce myself and the intentions behind this blog. My name is Michael Galban and I am a middle aged man of mixed race. My father is Washoe/Paiute and my mother Italian/Sicilian. Quite a mixture right? I was born in Ontario, California and raised both in New York State and Nevada. I was brought up with a strong understanding of my Native identity, coincidently much of that came from my Mother, who for a time in the 70's, even ran a Title 9 Indian Education program.

 Note: Indians always seem to start at the beginning it seems so bear with me on my whole "journey of life" part of the text. It'll get better in the coming weeks I promise. 

 So, my point is, that I traveled quite a lot as a kid. I attended many schools some good, some bad. Most of them found me as one of the only Native kids in the student body. That was sometimes a blessing, most times not. I got into plenty of fights as a result and found my escape in books. Fortunately, my folks had a pretty decent library for poor people. My mother made sure our house had scads of books on Native American themes and I flipped through them all. Who was I? This is an honest question that I had! I am a child of the television era - I watched all the cartoons and films of my day. I was nothing like those hollywood Indians. I couldn't ride a horse and my thick glasses would make wearing a headband bothersome. (believe me, I tried.) I found real inspiration in Fritz Scholder's work. We owned a book of his lithographs and I fell in love with the themes and style. He was even a California Indian!

 Note: Why is it poor people have some of the best filled bookshelves?

 I guess I was trying to find out what I meant when I told people that I was "Indian". So, after all that, I went to college for art and anthropology. It was a real eye opener. Again, I found myself one of the only Native students on campus. A roll I had perfected mind you. I started an Indian Student organization on campus so that I could participate in the consortium of college Student organizations here in NYS. Also, they would let me drive the college van to gatherings if I was an official group. At the inaugural meeting of the group, I presided over four new members, myself, a blonde hippy girl who simply "liked Indians", an outspoken red head who told us "she was a Native American because she was born in America" and a kid from India who misunderstood the flyer. Success.

 I spent my time at college learning how to drink massive quantities of alcohol, get into serious trouble with the law, chase girls and struggling to find my own identity as the "Indian artist" I desperately wanted to become. I had a good senior show that I worked hard at filling. I figured the easiest way to make the show look good would be to fill the walls. I did these massive canvases for the show. And when I look back at them as they lean against the basement walls in my house I shudder. Boy, are they bad. BUT...back then, I had great support from the college community and I thought they were pretty cool. But what did I know? Everyone told me they were great - and I was too myopic to see the truth!

 After school I had a couple of good showings - one time, I even showed with some very big name "Indian Artists" who, had they attended the show would probably have taken war clubs to my canvases. I fell into a long period of inactivity. I guess subconsciously, I may have realized that my work was going nowhere. Looking back, I felt like I was faking it. The work I was producing felt awkward and disingenuine but I couldn't have known that at the time. it took me a long time to really put my finger on what happened.

Note: Before anyone asks - I will not post images of my bad Indian art here. For those who attended those shows I am truly sorry. But I cannot in good conscience subject more happy minds to the torture of feigning delight for my benefit. I also, do not seek that type of attention anymore so you can forget it.

 In hindsight, it was a real blessing that I hung up my brushes. I would never have found my true passion. History. Yeah. History. Where did THAT come from? Well, halfway through my college years, I took a summer job at the request of a family friend. This new place was a historic site, where once sat a large Seneca town. I was happy to have a summer job that wasn't life threatening ( at some other time, I'll share my checkered work past) and I could hang out with Natives. Plus and plus. It was at Ganondagan that I found my love of the past. More importantly, it is my love of the work of our ancestors that really resurfaced. The memories of sitting at the bookshelves as a kid and flopping open the huge Norm Feder book on "Native American Art" and staring at the objects inside for hours came back to me in a rush. I couldn't get enough. I dove deep into the study of Indian objects.

It was all a part of my work at the site. My understanding grew as did my passion. I am still crazy about the old stuff. My focus began with woodland art - and continues to be an exciting and vibrant study for me. In order to really understand the work, i had to know the history. it was all applicable.

Now I read as much as I can. I visit museums to study their objects and have made connections in the academic world that have been invaluable to me. The study I have made of this has sent me to study all over the continent and across the ocean, put me in front of the camera as well as behind it, in the papers and having written some of the stories. I remain a far better speaker than a wordsmith but this blog hopefully, will help me find parity in that part of my life.

In short, this blog will look at woodland art, my life as an artist, my family, my love of history, and hopefully will bring everything together here, at the edge of the woods.