On the morning of May 22, 2017 Rosemary Ahtuangaruak received an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities from Oberlin College for her extraordinary work as an Iñupiaq environmental, cultural, and political leader and human rights activist. Later that afternoon, Oberlin gained something very special in return: expert knowledge from Rosemary about a series of century-old cultural objects made by indigenous peoples of the Arctic and now housed in our Anthropology Department.
Rosemary is from the northern Alaskan village of Nuiqsut, where she has served as mayor, and she has spent her life advocating for the health of Arctic peoples and their lands. Her congressional testimony to oppose oil and gas development in culturally and biologically significant places in Arctic Alaska contributed to President Obama’s decision to ban oil drilling in large areas of the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. I was thrilled when, after the graduation ceremony, my colleague, Arctic cultural geographer Chie Sakakibara, brought Rosemary and her family members Lucy Brown and Mae Masuleak over to the Anthropology Department for a quick tour of the Arctic ethnology collection. This collection, a set of about 36 objects that Oberlin obtained in 1889 through an exchange with the Smithsonian1, is one with which Oberlin student Cori Mazer OC ’17 and others had been working over the past several months. Unbeknownst to me, Cori had also been a student of Chie’s, and Chie had invited her too to the gathering. Minutes later Cori arrived, still wearing her graduation robe, and accompanied by her delighted parents.
What was planned as a brief tour emerged, over the course of several hours, as a richly informed consultation, as Rosemary, with input from her Iñupiaq companions, shared detailed knowledge of traditional materials, techniques, uses, and meanings of nearly two dozen ancestral objects from communities across Alaska and Canada.
Before we get to the incredible consultation with Rosemary and her family, let’s take a step back. What, readers might ask, is an Arctic ethnology collection doing at an Ohio liberal arts college? Anthropologist Jane Walsh has shown how, in the nineteenth century, museums like the Smithsonian (then called the United States National Museum) regularly used their specimens as a form of currency, negotiating trades with other institutions in order to build and diversify their own holdings.2 In this Victorian-era economy of scientific collecting, transactions could span multiple continents. Portions of the extensive arctic ethnological materials gathered by famed Smithsonian naturalist Edward Nelson, for example, were disseminated to the Paris Trocadéro Museum, to recipients (possibly private collectors) in New Zealand and Australia, and, closer to home, to U.S. colleges and universities including the Harvard Peabody Museum, Wesleyan University, and Oberlin College.3 Over a dozen objects from the Nelson collection were housed in what was then called the Oberlin College Museum,4 a natural history museum which faded from use in the 1950s (not to be confused with today’s Allen Memorial Art Museum, established in 1917).
Since that time, the objects from Oberlin’s old natural history museum have been housed in departments across campus. They are now being brought together in one digital repository. This is good news for the Arctic collection, and for those who take an interest in it. This means students and faculty, but it also means individuals like Rosemary, members of indigenous communities who are interested in what collected objects can reveal about the lifeways of their ancestors. With ancestral objects scattered across daunting geographic and cultural distances, collection consulting visits like Rosemary’s are becoming increasingly common, as indigenous community representatives and museum personnel seek opportunities to exchange knowledge. The stories and information indigenous consultants provide helps museum professionals store, conserve, and handle collections in ways that are better attuned to the values and traditions of their source communities. A lively literature has emerged on how museums might trade traditional didactic exhibiting approaches with more inclusive and culturally attuned public engagement practices.5
For Native community members like Rosemary, museum consulting visits provide opportunities to view the types of garments, tools, and ceremonial objects they may not have seen since their youth, or have only heard about from their own elders. This is in part what made our commencement day consultation so memorable for everyone involved. Wassilie Berlin, a member of a group of Yup’ik elders viewing ancestral collections at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin in 1996 put it this way: “I’m thankful for the objects we have looked at which we don’t see at home anymore…While the white people push for assimilation, they apparently would also make it possible for us to see cultural objects in gatherings like these.”7
The chance to study, discuss, and re-connect with material culture from an earlier time can also lead to knowledge repatriation when the information and excitement is brought back and shared with the wider community. The “primary concern” of delegations like the Yup’ik elders in Berlin is not, Ann Fienup-Riordan explains, “to reclaim museum objects but to re-own the knowledge and experiences that the objects embodied.”8And so it was with Rosemary and her family members, who brought an infectious sense of wonder and excitement to their consultation of the items in the Oberlin Arctic collection.
Our session was educational, humbling, and sometimes emotional, such as when we encountered special objects like a shaman’s rattle whose residual power warranted a moment of prayer to clear the air.
I will not report here on every object we examined. Instead I want to convey some of the atmosphere and content of our consultation. This includes Rosemary’s commentary, expressed in either direct quotation or summary form below, and Q & A as we sat together over the objects. Interspersed are observations about the encounter and thoughts on its larger contexts from my own perspective as an anthropological archaeologist at a liberal arts college. Heath Patten’s photos and descriptive information compiled by Cori Mazer and Alice Blakely (both OC ’17) provide further details about the objects that others may find useful.
Quyanaqpak to Rosemary, Lucy, and Mae for helping commence a new chapter in the lives of these special objects.
There are four gorgeously stitched membrane bags in Oberlin’s Arctic collection, and I admit to a particular affinity for them. I’m not sure why. My paternal grandmother was a seamstress, albeit of cotton garments in a New York City sweatshop, rather than of animal tissues by the Bering Sea. Perhaps it’s my general fascination with organic technologies: materials made by nature and transformed by human ingenuity—antler into spear points, bark into cloth, or woven grass into baskets. For whatever reasons, these bags speak to me. They are semi-translucent, expressive, and visibly complex. They are also brittle, creased, and in desperate need of conservation. So for both of these reasons the first object we pulled for investigation was a drawstring pouch from the Aleutian Islands, and I was pretty sure it was made from seal gut.
“Heart sac!” Rosemary immediately observed.
Heart sack? I was confused. I knew it was a pouch or sack, but what was the heart part?
Heart sac—from around an animal’s heart, Rosemary explained. Pericardial tissue. Not seal gut, heart sac.
Instantly, the full import of this impromptu consultation came home to me. This gathering promised to be Rosemary’s gift, a labor of love to help educate others about her Arctic ancestors’ ways of life. The other non-Alaskans in the room felt the electricity too. We quickly launched into documentary mode, taking a series of notes, photos, and voice recordings.
The bag is large but close inspection shows it was made from at least three pieces sewn together, which suggests the tissue is from a land rather than marine mammal. This type of material is easily torn during hunting and removal from the animal. This fact, and the quality of the stitching, including a special technique used on the inside, demonstrate this is a very special bag, made for a community leader. It could have been used to collect plants or berries, or to hold personal items, dried meat, or spiritual items.
AVM: Would all seamstresses have been women?
RA: It was probably made by a woman, but shamans could also sew; they sewed all of their spiritual regalia, and the sewing itself was considered a spiritual act.
“You would try to think about it [obtaining a heart sac] but when you go out hunting you don’t go out thinking about how to kill the animal, it’s against tradition to be bold or braggart, taboo to name the kind of animal you want to hunt in advance, it can produce badness around the hunt. You must keep good thoughts, be responsible, not argumentative, take care of your equipment, be respectful of your community – all these were expected of the hunter.” – Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017
Materials: mammalian heart sac, eider feathers, braided caribou sinew strings, non-Native cotton flour sack, possible non-Native thread used around the cotton cloth.
This was my first such consultation, but object-rooted knowledge exchanges like this one are playing a role in a vibrant set of indigenous cultural revitalization movements taking place across arctic North America. The Alutiiq Museum is a tribal museum at the forefront of local heritage renewal efforts through their Alutiiq language, community archaeology, and arts programs. I’ve been fortunate to follow these developments since the museum welcomed me as a dissertation researcher over a decade ago, and I am constantly amazed at the depth and reach of their public programming. The museum is a rich repository of ethnological and archaeological collections from the Kodiak Archipelago.
Perhaps my favorite example of recovering knowledge through object study involves five Alutiiq women who recently travelled to Finland’s National Museum in Helsinki to view Alutiiq garments in the museum’s early 19th century Etholin collection. They returned to Kodiak with new insights into traditional Alutiiq skin sewing techniques which they shared with students in a number of rural high schools. Together, adults and youths completed an elaborate caribou skin parka, which is now on view at the Alutiiq Museum. The lengthy materials list reveals a blending of new and traditional, and includes sea otter skin, ermine, and goat hair, as well as artificial sinew, acrylic paint, and embroidery floss. In the past, the parka would also have been embellished with the beaks of puffins, which are now a protected species. How did the team manage to recreate the beaks?
They 3D printed them.
“This skin preparing knife was made by a very gifted flintknapper. You can tell because the blade is very thin, and the edge was sharped with one, expertly-placed blow. The knife was made for a skilled skin sewer who clearly cared about taking good care of her skins.” -Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017
AVM: So the flintknapper would have been different from the user?
RA: A few people might do both knapping and skin work, but normally tool-making was a man’s job in the Arctic. Exceptions would be two spirits, who embodied both female and male elements. They may have been occasionally made fun of in their home communities but also recognized for their special spiritual powers. Another exception would be a person who needed to learn both skills out of necessity, like a woman without close male kin.
AVM: What would happen if the blade broke? Could you make another and place it in the same handle?
RA: No, probably not. This blade is especially thin and would be hard to replicate. You’d probably need to make a whole new setting.
Materials: wood, stone
This brings us to another dimension of ancestral object conservation, a dimension reflected in Rosemary’s work as an Iñupiaq environmental leader. It is no coincidence that efforts to sustain and nurture traditional cultural practices are taking place across a bellwether region of global climate change. Sea ice is warming at an alarming rate along the Alaska North Slope, and there is increased unpredictability in the availability of resources that the area’s Iñupiat residents rely on for nutritional and cultural sustenance, like the bowhead whale.9 Alpine ice patches in the North American interior are swiftly melting, revealing fragments of prehistoric tools and weapons that were once locked in permafrost. In a terrible irony, these valuable records of past peoples and their environments are only emerging for study now due to the forces responsible for their imminent destruction.
In coastal Southwestern Alaska archaeologists and local Yup’ik residents are collaborating in a race against time to recover information at Nunalleq (“Old Village”), a water-logged site that contains perhaps the richest record of prehistoric Yup’ik materials ever found. Evidence of warfare at the 700 year-old site corroborates Yup’ik oral accounts of the famed Bow and Arrow Wars, a period of strife that may have been spurred by climatic changes associated with the Little Ice Age. As the researchers work, receding permafrost and coastal erosion are actively washing the site into the Bering Sea.
AVM: Would this have been made for a little girl to use?
RA: Yes, it could have been a child’s toy but it could also have been a shaman’s tool.
“If they [the shaman] were trying to go against somebody, they would have made something that looks like that person, with the same type of material they wear in their clothing, to give them the power against that person. They would even collect something from that person: like fingernails, hair, even a drop of blood, to add to the shaman-type doll, because it has to have a part of the body from when you’re using the shaman’s tools…[whisper] This is really neat…” -Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, 2017
Materials: wood face, cotton cloth and thread, seal skin and ground squirrel skin parka, feet are probably scraps of caribou fur from around the foot region of the caribou’s body, wolf fur trim at hemline and cuffs is, fur around face may be beaver; head scarf and thread are man-made (non-Native) materials.
The Arctic collection at Oberlin itself houses encapsulates a remarkable depth of ecological knowledge. To cite just one example, our visitors explained how an artisan could use the inner, summertime bark of a willow to create a red dye like that found on Ingalik (Deg Hit’an) servingware. A storage pouch from the Yukon River was crafted from salmon skin, caribou leather, sinew and dye; each material had to be gathered and prepared in specific ways before the bag could be assembled. The bowl and ladle that William Dall collected both feature a distinctive beveled edge that suggests the two pieces were carved by the very same hand. In contrast, an Iñupiaq arrow is tipped with baleen (the filtering material from a whale’s mouth) tied in a style that was likely shared by an entire community.
The consultation brought home the simultaneous utilitarian, social and spiritual functions these objects once played. In graduate school my professors offered a tripartite scheme to illustrate the different ways an object might “work.” A candle, for example, might have a “techno-function” (to light a room), a “socio-function” (to light a birthday cake), or an “ideo-function” (to light to alter).10 The scheme was never intended as an either/or framework but practically speaking, it is easier for archaeologists, who are often vastly separated in time, space, and traditions from the people they study, to focus their inquiry on reconstructing an object’s practical functioning. It’s humbling to contrast the consequent interpretations with the multi-layered meanings of even seemingly everyday objects when they are presented in context.
Object MCK.C1.ad.0098 for example, is a small container probably used for collecting berries. It has a sinew handle, a sturdy cedar body that has been steamed and bent into shape, and a bit of red staining in its bottom creases, perhaps from escaped berry juices. According to Rosemary, steaming the wood properly was a repetitive and time consuming task: the techniques were difficult to teach and learn, and many uncertainties in the process meant things could still go wrong. So, as with pottery-making and metal-working in many non-industrial societies, steaming cedar effectively called for prayer and song – in addition to technical knowledge and hand skills.
The picture that emerged that afternoon was of a series of cultural treasures. We marveled at the thinness of a carved bone spoon and the perfect stitches a Yup’ik seamstress used to craft a durable storage bag. Rosemary feels several of the pieces were made for someone very special like a whaling captain or shaman, based on their style, the materials used, or the special care with which they were made.
Rosemary’s insights also complicate our understanding of the “everyday” because even common items like a berry container or skin-preparing knife embody both utilitarian and spiritual notions of usefulness that are impossible to dissociate in their indigenous context. Yet their very existence at Oberlin as the subject of consultation is somewhat ironic given that most of these objects, even if beautifully crafted, probably weren’t made to last beyond one person’s lifetime.
Victorian scholars, permeated by a milieu of scientific racism and Western agriculture-based notions of land use and property, tended to view members of hunter-gatherer societies as simple and careless with respect to material possessions;11 they failed to understand how a highly mobile, subsistence lifestyle is incompatible with the vast accumulations of stuff to which 19th century natural history cabinets were the ultimate ideological testimony.
“… preserving, conserving, or even passing material things on from one generation to the next was not part of our culture; our heirlooms are our traditional Inuit knowledge preserved through our oral tradition.”12 -Robert Watt, President, Avataq Cultural Institute (2001)
Naturalist-collectors like Edward Nelson and the museums they worked for preserved cultural objects as physical records of cultural traditions. In doing so, they injected these otherwise transitory things with meanings formed around notions of scientific discovery and taxonomy-building. Today the legacies of ethnological collections are taking new forms as indigenous communities engage with ancestral objects in ways that are not always traditional – gathering over objects arrayed in museum back rooms or campus labs, closely observed, cameras flashing – but are nonetheless important pathways to renewing and sharing deeply-rooted cultural knowledge for future generations.
Rosemary Ahtanguarak’s consultation has helped us understand how the Arctic objects on Oberlin’s campus are irreplaceable repositories of cultural, environmental, and historical information, and it is essential that we (in the broadest sense) continue to learn through them.
Amy Margaris is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Oberlin College and de facto curator of the Oberlin College Ethnographic Collection. She teaches and publishes in the areas of archaeology, colonialism, museum studies, and material culture analysis. Special thanks to the editorial eyes of Libby Murphy, Chie Sakakibara and Jason Haugen.
1. Amy V. Margaris and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.
2. Jane Walsh. 2002. Collections as Currency. In Anthropology, History, and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant, pp. 201-209. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology Number 44, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
3. Jane Walsh, personal communication.
4. Amy V. Margaris. Forthcoming. Bark Blankets and ‘Esquimaux Implements from Alaska’: Revisiting a Historic Oberlin-Smithsonian Exchange.. Smithsonian Institution Arctic Studies Center Newsletter; Amy V. Margaris and Linda T. Grimm. 2011. Collecting for a College Museum: Exchange Practices and the Life History of a 19th Century Arctic Collection. Museum Anthropology Vol. 34(2):109–127.
5. For example, see Kevin Coffee. 2008. Cultural Inclusion, Exclusion and the Formative Role of Museums. Museum Management and Curatorship 23(3):261-279; Gretchen Jennings. 2015. The #museumrespondtoFerguson Initiatives, A Necessary Conversation. Museums and Social Issues 10(2):97-105; Miriam Kahn. 2000. Not Really Pacific Voices: Politics of Representation in Collaborative Museum Exhibits. Museum Anthropology 24:57-74; Ivan Karp and Steven D Lavine. 1991. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics and Museum Display. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.; and Caroline Lang, John Reeve, and Vicky Woollard. 2006. The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-first Century. Ashgate, Burlington, VT. I am grateful to Emma Baxter (OC ’17) for bringing many of these references to my attention.
6. Aaron L. Crowell, Rosita Worl, Paul C. Ongtooguk, and Dawn D. Biddison, editors. 2010. Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska. Smithsonian Books, Washington, D.C.; Sven D. Haakanson, Jr. and Amy Steffian, editors. 2009. Giinaquq Like a Face: Suqpiaq Masks of the Kodiak Archipelago. University of Alaska Press, Anchorage.
7. Ann Fienup-Riordan, editor, Marie Meade, translator. 2005. Ciuliamta Akluit: Things of Our Ancestors, pp. 403, 405. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA and Calista Elders Council, Bethel, AK.
8. Ann Fienup-Riordan, editor, Marie Meade, translator. 2005. Ciuliamta Akluit: Things of Our Ancestors, p. xxii.. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA and Calista Elders Council, Bethel, AK.
10. William L. Rathje and Michael B. Schiffer. 1982. Archaeology, pp. 65-6. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York; Michael B. Schiffer. 1992. Technological Perspectives on Behavioral Change, pp. 9-12. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
11. Robert L. Kelly. 1995. The Foraging Spectrum. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
12. Lucien Turner, edited by Stephan Loring. 2001. Ethnology of the Ungava District, Hudson Bay Territory, p. iv. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.