Not everyone can come in person to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery to see the wonderful permanent and temporary exhibitions that we have. With this in mind, I have put the temporary exhibition of Native American and First Nations material online so that it can reach a wider audience. This exhibition is part of the restitution work I am doing as part of my Headley Fellowship, and is generously funded by the Art Fund. The exhibition is complemented by some wonderful 19th century photographs, including 10 wall mounted portraits and over 60 images on a wall mounted monitor, which have been kindly supplied by the Smithsonian Institute Archive, Washington DC, USA.

From the Land of the Great Spirit

Exhibition of Native American and First Nations objects at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
19th century portrait images courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute Archive, Washington DC, USA

The European colonization of the Americas fundamentally changed the lives and cultures of the Indigenous peoples. It is estimated that Indigenous populations diminished by between 80% and 90% within the first centuries of European colonization. Most of these losses are attributed to the introduction of diseases into the Americas which the early colonists brought from Europe. Colonist violence towards Indigenous peoples accelerated the loss of lives.

Today in the USA there are 574 tribes and 175 indigenous languages, totalling 6 million people (2% of the entire population of the USA). In Canada there are 630 First Nations and 50 indigenous languages, totalling 1 million people (4% of the entire population of Canada). Many are reclaiming ancestral lands and rights and embracing their culture after decades of suppression. They are also approaching museums, seeking the repatriation of cultural heritage items.

The objects on display come from the former Derbyshire School Library Service. This innovative scheme, set up in 1936, collected museum quality material so that children in rural areas with limited access to museums could utilise artefacts and art in their classrooms. The service closed in 2018.

Many of the Native American and First Nations items were exchanged as gifts with European settlers and travellers. However, from research carried out by myself, it seems some items were taken under duress by government officials and missionaries to deny indigenous people of their cultural identity.

I have been awarded a Headley Fellowship, which will allow me to research the Native American and First Nations material further. I have opened dialogue with many of the indigenous communities, and Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is offering objects back to communities should they want them.

Indigenous communities face many difficulties when requesting the return of items from museums. Buxton Museum is taking a different approach by actively sourcing communities first to return these objects. As one representative of the Haida First Nation stated “You and your little museum are the first in England and the EU to ever repatriate back to the Haida Gwaii. Small museums can set big precedents”.

  • Ceremonial feasting ladle, mid-19th century

Made from alder wood and pigment  by the Haida First Nation, Haida Gwaii Island, Canada.

Ladles, such as this, were used in Potlatch ceremonies. The potlatch is a ceremonial distribution of property and gifts to affirm or reaffirm social status, that was celebrated during key events in a person’s life, or during seasonal festivals. The potlatch was made illegal in Canada in 1884, largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it “a worse than useless custom.” The potlatch was a key target in assimilation policies and agendas. The potlatch ban was repealed in 1951. The image on this ladle is that of a Pilot Whale, which is a symbol of the Eagle Clan.

Ceremonial feasting ladle, accession number: M1150c.5
  • Scraping tool, early 19th century

  Made from European glass. Arizona, USA.

        Blade, c. 4000 BC

Made from obsidian. Arizona, USA.

The indigenous communities of North America have a long tradition of working stone for tools and weapons. There was also a thriving industry in the use of obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass which provides extremely sharp cutting edges that do not dull with use. With the arrival of Europeans came manufactured glass, such as bottles, that were often thrown away after use. The Native Americans used these as a much more easily sourced form of glass to create tools and weapons.

Glass scraping tool, accession number: M1150c.4
Obsidian blade, accession number M1150d
  • Panel pipe, mid-19th century

Made from argillite by the Haida First Nation, Haida Gwaii Island, Canada.

Argillite became a popular carving medium after the decline of the sea otter fur trade in the early 19th century. These carvings enabled Haida to trade with visiting Europeans. They are seen as tourist art because they were firstly designed to be exported from the Haida community and created solely as a means of economic prosperity. As a result, argillite carvings contain imagery that encompass both Haida and European cultures. The carvings contain a lot of visual punning and joke making, both at objects and animals in general, as well as European culture.

Panel pipe, accession number: NA0012
  • Ceremonial feasting tray, mid-19th century

Made of argillite and bone by the Haida First Nation, Haida Gwaii Island, Canada.

Argillite is a type of shale that is only found on Haida Gwaii island, and the Haida have the sole right to quarry and work the stone. Argillite is carved into numerous items, such as boxes, jewellery, and feasting items such as this tray. The image central to this tray is that of a rockfish, which in Haida beliefs is seen as a spirit helper who carries a shaman on its back. To the top and bottom of the tray are depicted killer whales, which are believed to be the reincarnations of great chiefs. When a great chief dies, a killer whale customarily comes close to the shore to take the chief’s spirit. Both the rockfish and the killer whale are symbols of the Eagle clan.

Ceremonial feasting platter, accession number: M1150f.2
  • Axe head, c. 6500 – 1000 BC

Made from basalt by the Hohokam, Arizona, USA.

Known as “three quarter axes”, due to the groove only going around three quarters of the body, these axes were hafted to a wooden handle going around the groove. The axes were used primarily to chop down trees for use as building material. To reduce the amount of time shaping the axe, a stone that had been tumbled in a riverbed was chosen, and then shaped with a harder stone. Once shaped, the axe edge is then ground on a hard surface, using water as a lubricant, to achieve the sharp edge.

Axe head, accession number: M1150g.1
  • War axe, 19th century AD

Made from iron and wood by the Dakota, Missouri River area, USA

French traders introduced this type of war axe to the Plains Indians in the 1700s, and it became a favoured weapon for hand-to-hand fighting among tribes along the Missouri River.

War axe, accession number: M1150.7
  • Box with image of a beaver, late 19th century

Made from birch bark and porcupine quill by the Ojibwe First Nation, Lake Superior region, Canada.

The construction of boxes from birchbark was an essential element in the culture of Native Americans and First Nations in the regions surrounding Lake Superior. The geology of the area is short in supplies of clay, making pottery scarce for the people who lived there. However, the paper birch grows in profusion in this area, and sheets and panels of its strong, papery bark can be cut and carved from a tree for use. Birchbark boxes played a key role in creating durable packages and utensils for storage and everyday use.

Decorated box, accession number: M1150b.1
  • Moccasins, 19th century

Made from leather, glass beads and fur by the Sioux, Minnesota, USA.

One of the most common arts and crafts practiced by numerous Native American tribes included the decorative use of beads of various types. Generations before Europeans landed on the shores of the New World, Native American beadwork used primarily stone, shell, quills, and bone carved patiently with non-metal tools. As the decades went by and new materials like metal and glass were introduced by Europeans arriving on the shores, the beadwork patterns used on clothing, jewellery, and decorations became much more intricate and stylized.

Moccasins, accession number: M6642
  • Hem of a coat, mid-19th century

Made from leather and glass beads by the Cree First Nation, Ontario region, Canada.

Early 19th-century European observers and travellers made constant reference to the decorative beadwork on the clothing of the Northern Plains people, such as the Cree. Traditional patterns consist of abstract forms, as in this example. Later, through contact with European settlers, floral designs predominate. Beadwork was found on almost every item of traditional clothing, functional hide, and cloth work. The glass beads were purchased from European trading companies. Beaded creations were, and still are, an important source of income for many Cree women and families.

Hem of a coat, accession number: M1150c.1
  • Clothing fragment, early 19th century

Made from leather and glass beads by Great Plains Indians, USA, or Canada.

Beading was historically women’s work in Native Plains societies. Both women and men gained respect when their families were well-dressed, women for industriousness and artistry, and men as hunters and providers for supplying the skins. Girls learned to bead from an older relative or other elder of the community. Prior to contact with Europeans, beads made from seeds, shells and quills were used. Glass beads introduced by European settlers were highly prized and traded extensively.

Clothing fragment, accession number: M1150c.3

Baskets, early 20th century

Made from plant fibre by the Akimel O’odham, Arizona, USA.

The Akimel O’odham were noted for their complex basket designs. A popular motif is the “Man in the Maze” pattern. According to O’odham oral history, the labyrinth design depicts experiences and choices we make in our journey through life. In the middle of the “maze,” a person finds their dreams and goals. When one reaches the centre, we have one final opportunity (the last turn in the design) to look back upon our choices and path, before the Sun God greets us, blesses us, and passes us into the next world.

Baskets, accession number: NA0015
  • Canoe bailer, mid-19th century

Made from cedar wood by the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, North Vancouver Island, Canada

Canoe bailers are made from rectangular pieces of cedar bark. The bark is harvested from living trees in the spring when the sap is running, usually between May and June. A prayer, and sometimes an offering, is made to the tree for the gift of its skin. An incision is made with a bladed implement, and the bark is peeled off by pulling from side to side. It is better to peel the tree this way, because it will result in a wider piece. Only the width of two hands is taken so that no harm will be done to the tree.

Canoe bailer, accession number: M1150a.10
  • Moccasins, 19th century

Made from leather, silk and glass beads by the Huron, Lake Ontario, Canada.

The word moccasin derives from the Algonquian word for shoe. The sole is soft and flexible, and the upper part is often adorned with embroidery or beading. Though sometimes worn inside, it is chiefly intended for outdoor use. Moccasins protect the foot while allowing the wearer to feel the ground. There are different types of moccasins for different terrains. The Plains Indians wore hard-sole moccasins, given that their territorial geography featured rock and cacti. The eastern Indian tribes wore soft-sole moccasins, for walking in leaf-covered forest ground.

Moccasins, accession number: M1150f.9
  • Glove, 19th century

Made from leather and glass beads by the Sarsi, Calgary/Alberta region, Canada.

In the past, it was only women who made gloves, and only men wore them. It was important for each pair of gloves to be unique because hunters used them to identify the animals they killed while hunting bison. As soon as an animal was shot, the hunter would drop his glove beside it before continuing the hunt. This tactic was used to keep track of who shot which bison during the confusion of the hunt. After the bison were killed, the women looked to see whose gloves were lying beside each animal. They would only start skinning and butchering an animal that was beside their husband’s gloves. The meat was usually shared with others in the community.

Glove, accession number: M6643c
  • Tobacco bag, late 19th century

Made from leather and glass beads by the Manadan, Anishinabek and Plains Cree, Canada.

Bags, such as these, are used by numerous Native American groups to hold sacred pipes and tobacco. Designs on them are usually associated with the spirit world or nature. Two examples on display are decorated with flowers that show a European influence. They are often carried by medicine men and women who are the traditional healers and spiritual leaders of a community.

Tobacco bag, Anishinabek, accession number: M6643a
Tobacco bag, Plains Cree, accession number: M6643b
Tobacco bag, Mandan, accession number: M1150.2

Coup stick, Early 20th Century AD

Made from wood, leather and feather, from the Great Lakes area, USA or Canada.

During a battle, any blow struck against the enemy counted as a coup, but the most prestigious acts included touching an enemy warrior with a hand, bow, or coup stick and escaping unharmed, and without harming the enemy, except for the enemy’s wounded pride. After a battle or exploit, the people of a band gathered to recount their acts of bravery. Coups were recorded by putting notches or by tying an eagle feather to their coup stick.

Coup stick, accession number: M1150.6

Tomahawk, early 20th century

Made from wood, stone, leather and glass beads by the Plains Indians, USA or Canada

A tomahawk is a type of single-handed axe, traditionally resembling a hatchet with a straight shaft. Tomahawks were general-purpose tools used by Native Americans and later the European colonials with whom they traded, and often employed as a hand-to-hand weapon. The metal tomahawk heads were originally based on a Royal Navy boarding axe and used as a trade-item with Native Americans for food and other provisions.

Tomahawk, accession number: M1150a.14

Hunting paddle

Made from Yew wood and pigment by the Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nation, Vancouver Island, Canada. Mid-19th century AD

The paddle depicts a lightning serpent, known as Haietlik, on each side. This legendary serpent, which is covered in feathers and has a wolf-like head, was used by the legendary thunderbirds as a weapon in whale hunting. They are said to have tongues that shoot lightning bolts which renders a massive whale helpless. During early contact with Europeans, the Haietlik effigies were seen painted on the sides of canoes, paddles, and harpoons, for invoking their spiritual aid in whaling.

Hunting paddle, accession number: M1150.8

War club

made from Stone, wood, leather, and glass beads by the Navajo, Southwestern USA. 19th century AD

Stone-headed war clubs (known as Skull crackers) of this general type were used by Native Americans for hundreds of years throughout the western plains in a large area ranging from the Dakotas to Texas. Although of much the same form as earlier war clubs made for use in battle, this late example was intended only for ceremonial purposes.

War club, accession number: NA0008

The exhibition, From the Land of the Great Spirit, is on until August 7th. After that date a new and exciting exhibition will be on display called On Thin Ice: the Legacy of the Franklin Expedition. This will look at the ill fated Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage from the viewpoint of the indigenous Inuit. On display will be Inuit objects and prints from the School Library Service, the Franklin archive from the Derbyshire Record Office, and photographs from the Smithsonian Institute Archive.