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An Assumption: Algonquin Peoples Are Extinct

Written by Joan Lester

As part of my participation in the salvage paradigm, I also lent support to the specific assumption that Native people in New England were extinct.

Creating a Curriculum Unit: The Algonquins

In 1964, as part of a grant from the United States Department of Education to develop multimedia curriculum units (MATCh Kits—Materials and Activities for Children and Teachers), staff member Binda Reich, who had a degree in anthropology from Harvard, and I created The Algonquins kit. Our project team also included two teachers and two practicing anthropologists. We confidently described peoples' lives in the past tense and freely made assumptions about spiritual activities. To help children interact with these long gone people, we created a broad range of activities (setting traps, trying on clothing, hafting an arrow, drilling a bead) that would help them gain a better picture of what we believed such a life might have been like. Our anthropological sources for these activities were wide ranging, incorporating cultural information from tribes as far north as the Naskapi in Canada and as near as the Narragansetts in Rhode Island; we treated all these distinct peoples as a monolith, lumping them all into a single culture area. We were again marginalizing and freezing people into an unreal and static "ethnographic present." We were again assuming that as "scholars" and teachers we had the right to speak for and serve as the sole interpreters of a culture that was not our own. Since we assumed that Native people no longer lived in New England, it never even occurred to us to try and locate past or present Native voices from this region. We wrote our own stories, without knowing that there was a rich and ongoing indigenous oral history and without even searching for earlier recorded voices.

How could we so totally leave out past Native voices and ignore the Native people actually living in New England? How could we turn such a presentation of Native lives over to "experts"? We were honestly unaware of the continuing Native culture in New England and totally dependent on the two practicing anthropologists, Jonathan Jenness and Fred Johnson, as the "experts" who would provide information and insights about a now vanished culture. It is deeply disturbing now to realize that we relied only on broad generalizations, cultural borrowing and the knowledge of anthropologists to present people who actually still lived in New England.

The First Algonquin Wigwam

Mike Spock believed in interactive learning and suggested that an exhibit was needed to more fully engage visitors in a recreation of past Indian life. I chose Pueblo culture (a favorite topic in school curriculums), but indicated that since I had never been to the Southwest or seen a Pueblo, I could not create an interactive exhibit that might require the creation of a Pueblo environment.

In 1967, Mike suggested that Sing Hanson, the proposed exhibit designer, and I take trip to the Southwest. This journey, intended to create an interactive exhibit, led us in an entirely different direction. Upon our return, we announced that now that we had met and spent time with Hopi people, including Susie Youvella, Fred Kabotie and White Bear Fredericks, it no longer felt comfortable to create an exhibit that would put people like themselves on display. It felt like voyeurism, and a violation of their hospitality. Instead, I proposed that we create an Algonquin wigwam, and describe the life of people long gone. Thus, we would still provide the visitors with an interactive Indian exhibit without "exhibiting" living people (or so I thought).

That same year, we hired Don Viera, a craftsman from Plimoth Plantation to build a full-size, walk-in wigwam framework to use for school talks in the museum's annex. It was filled with opportunities for hands-on activities and role-playing. Our goal was to engage visitors so that they would gain a better picture of what we believed such a life might have been like.

The school program exhibit was extremely popular, and the class thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the skin-covered benches, trying on clothes, grinding corn, drilling beads, hafting arrows, and role-playing rabbit hunts. Staff even painted their faces with "genuine" Native designs. I was asked to give a paper at the American Anthropological Association. In "Doing Things the Way the Indians Did"'(1969), I suggested that using replicas of cultural objects, rather than simply looking at authentic objects in glass cases (mute testimonies to once active lives), helped visitors to understand their meaning and to connect with the people who had created them and had now vanished.

At the risk of being repetitive, it should be obvious that the exhibit froze people in the ethnographic present, and ignored and thus silenced the indigenous histories of struggles, resistance and survival here in New England.

Of course, the exhibit also ignored contemporary Native existence. Ironically, the wigwam exhibit led to my first encounter with Native people from New England. One day in 1969, Ralph and Hazel Dana, Passamaquoddies, and Lavinnia Underwood, Cherokee, from Boston Indian Council, appeared at the wigwam and asked me why I was teaching only about the past when they were still alive. To be honest, still stuck in the salvage paradigm, I didn't believe that they were really Indian and replied, with some measure of pride, that I was "teaching anthropology!"

The Second Algonguin Wigwam

In 1968, when the museum converted an old auditorium into a new Visitor Center, the wigwam was reconfigured as a public exhibit, covered now with interior and exterior mats, sleeping platforms, and fully stocked with foods, clothing, skins and supplies people needed to create a home. This enriched learning environment now offered hands-on activities for the general visitor, but continued to present the message that Native people in New England were extinct.

A Hopi Curriculum: Acknowledging the Vitality of Hopi People

With a successful interactive wigwam exhibit in the Visitor Center, Sing and I agreed to develop a curriculum kit that would present the contemporary vitality of Hopi people. Instead of the broad generalizations and past tense of The Algonquins, we selected the public aspects of the Katsina ceremony to get across our message that Hopi people were still here and still actively involved in their culture. The vehicle that expressed this was a beautifully illustrated storybook, designed by Sing, that described only what we, as non-natives, had been allowed to observe at the Katsina dances. It included drawings of people preparing for and attending the ceremonies, and interacting in a more personal way with each other. The kit included hands-on objects purchased from the Hopi themselves, such as hair ties and sashes, katsina tihu (what we then referred to as dolls), bullroarers, and piki bread, as well as objects from our own collection. We made every effort to honor the hospitality and welcome that had been shown to us on our trip to the Southwest by not knowingly violating Hopi etiquette or beliefs.

Next: Studying at Harvard: Replacing the Salvage Paradigms