Dr. Margaret Bruchac, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Associate Faculty in the Penn Center for Cultural Heritage, shared insights from her research on shell bead wampum belts and collars held by northeastern museums and tribal nations. Dr. Bruchac directs a new research project---titled “On the Wampum Trail”---that combines archival research, material analysis, and Indigenous consultation to recover the object histories of wampum belts in museum collections. Many museums identify wampum as a relic of forgotten traditions, private property, and/or decorative art, with minimal provenance data. To address this loss of context, Bruchac applies a restorative methodology that includes detailed material analysis and close examination of the influence of collectors and curators. She consults with members of the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee and other tribal leaders to understand Indigenous knowledge and traditions. The identification and recovery of objects in museum collections has practical implications on the social, material, and political relations of contemporary Indigenous communities.
In the summer of 2014, with the support of a Penn Museum Director’s Field Research Grant, and accompanied by research assistants Lise Puyo and Stephanie Mach, Dr. Bruchac initiated a broad survey of wampum collections in the United States and Canada. During this first round, the team closely examined more than 50 woven wampum belts and collars, in addition to a sampling of archaeological collections, ethnographic objects, and individual beads. They are particularly interested in modes of wampum construction, signification, and curation that reflect the evolving relations among Native American communities, non-Natives, and museums. Future field trips will include visits to museum wampum collections in New York, Washington, and Europe. For further information on this research project, and glimpses into the findings thus far, check out the blog, “On the Wampum Trail” at: http://wampumtrail.wordpress.com/
Margaret M. Bruchac (Abenaki) is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Associate Faculty in the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, Consulting Scholar to the American Section of the Penn Museum, and Coordinator of the Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. Her wampum research is part of a larger project investigating the social negotiations between Indigenous informants and museum anthropologists that shaped representations of Indigenous objects. This research has been supported by grants from the American Philosophical Society, the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for Excellence in College and University Teaching from the National Research Council of the National Academies, and the Penn Museum. Dr. Bruchac’s recent publications include research articles in: Anthropology News; Curator; The Museum Journal; Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology; Historical Journal of Massachusetts; and Museum Anthropology, among others. Her forthcoming book manuscript, Consorting with Savages: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists, is under contract with the University of Arizona Press.
Image: Margaret Bruchac with Condoled Chief Curtis Nelson, Wampum Keeper at the Mohawk Nation of Kanehsatake at Oka,Quebec, Canada, examining a wampum belt given to Kanehsatake by the Six Nations circa 1730. It was stolen from Kanehsatake and collected by Frank Speck in 1913;and was recently repatriated. Photo by Lise Puyo.