Reflections of An Anthropologist: A Conversation with Peabody Curator of North American Ethnography, Castle McLaughlin

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Castle McLaughlin, the curator of North American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Castle is retiring at the end of June, after nearly 25 years at the Peabody. And so we couldn't let her go without her regaling us with stories about her fascinating life and career. Here she is. Castle McLaughlin, welcome to the show.

 

Castle McLaughlin 01:09

Thank you for having me, Jennie. I'm delighted to be here.

 

Jennifer Berglund 01:18

Throughout your life, you've been torn between two loves: horses and anthropology. How did that all begin, and where has it taken you?

 

Castle McLaughlin 01:30

When I was born, my parents had a ranch in Arkansas. They were both educated people from the East who wanted to experience ranch life. They divorced when I was six, and my father moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I spent most of my formative years they're off and on. But with my mother and stepfather, I traveled and lived all around the world. My father was very interested, he had a PhD in economics, and he taught at local colleges in the evening, just for fun, but his real passion was history, and his greatest passion was the American West. My father really instilled this idea in me that the West was the scene for drama that was just as profound as anything that ever happened anywhere in human life. And he constantly talked about colonial conquest of native peoples and lands. And that that was sort of the original sin of American history. But he also just really loved the landscape, I think, and he liked horses. He used to do things like he went through the Grand Canyon on a float trip, he took motorcycle trips all the time to the Southwest, he traveled around the West actively, and just he really loved the idea of the West. And he also liked reading about how others had framed ideas of the West. So, my father was both an intellectual and a very active person physically that liked to get out and actually experience these things. He wasn't sitting in a library reading, but he had a great library, and I used to love as a child sitting in his library chair and looking through his books on Native art. And he just encouraged those interests. He was an art collector and very interested in Native cultures. So he was taking me to powwows when I was, you know, four and five years old. Native people were always part of my life. And this idea that they were relegated to the past or mythic beings is very foreign to me, because they were my classmates. My stepmothers part Native, we went to Native events all the time. And again, my father was friends with a number of Native American artists and he really was into art. But the horses it's a mystery. I think I was just born one of those people that that really was the first word I said, and horses continue to be my greatest passion in life for, for reasons unknown. And I was fortunate because my parents cultivated that. So you know, I had a pony by the time I was five, and I spent much of my life with horses until I was in my 30s. So I rode just about every day and showed and trained and so forth. But really, I wasn't thinking of going into that as a profession. I thought I was going to be an artist and that's what I went to college for the first time. I was a Fine Arts major. Anthropology came about, although I knew about archaeology and had participated in field schools, even in high school, anthropology came about much later. When I took an anthropology class after I started college the second time, I just kind of had an epiphany, and I knew immediately that that was the discipline for me. And anthropology is great. For me, it was a way to kind of pursue a lot of interests within one discipline. So I've been able to study, you know, horse cultures, art has played a role in my life as a curator, for example, and certainly human animal relationships, writ large, and Native cultures and histories and many other things. So anthropology kind of pulls it all together.

 

Jennifer Berglund 06:03

What was your journey from your PhD, to curator?

 

Castle McLaughlin 06:11

Once I took that first anthropology class and kind of had an epiphany and knew that that's what I wanted to do, I knew it would be very difficult and very competitive. So, from then on, I completely devoted myself to my studies. I got a fellowship to Columbia University in New York, which is the oldest anthropology department in the country. I got all the way through it until I had nothing left but the dissertation. And then I got a summer job for the National Park Service, which I had applied for, for several years in a row unsuccessfully, and ended up I guess, kind of going sideways for a number of years. I arrived in North Dakota, and about two weeks later, I was hired to ride in a wild horse round up at another park. And I thought, Oh, this is going to be great. What a great life experience, never done this kind of thing on horses. And it ended up being just a very profound, life changing experience for me, and not wholly in a good way. The roundup itself was very violent, and I saw seven horses die that day.

 

Jennifer Berglund 07:27

Why were they doing the round up in the first place?

 

Castle McLaughlin 07:30

Oh, it's a long story. But the National Park Service regards horses as as exotics, non native species, and that this particular park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, had inadvertently fenced in a couple of bands of wild horses in the 1950s, and they'd been trying to get rid of them ever since. So they periodically rounded them up, and they tried many other techniques, you know, trapping, poisoning, and so forth. And when I arrived on the scene, the new policy was going to be okay, we'll keep some horses in the park, but we're going to get rid of these original wild horses, and we're going to introduce domestic stallions. And that way, we'll be able to sell their offspring, maybe for bucking horses is what they were thinking, instead of having them all go to slaughter buyers, which was pretty much what was happening.

 

Jennifer Berglund 08:27

And slaughter for meat.

 

Castle McLaughlin 08:28

Yeah, pet food. So I didn't obviously know any of this. But in being at the roundup, I wondered, you know, about the history of the horses, policy towards the horses, why the roundup was happening. And I ended up applying successfully for a grant from the Park Service. So, I spent the next three years doing that research looking at the history of the horses, their cultural history, both through archival records and interviewing local ranchers and residents of the area, as well as doing field work on the social organization of the bands that were in the park. I became invested in the horses because I became attached to them because I came to know them as individuals from following them around day after day. And I was fortunate enough to work with a rancher who had been a famous rodeo cowboy who had been observing the horses for about 40 years as a hobby. And so, he kept records every year of the band social organization and which mares had foals that year, changes in band organization. And so, he gave me access to those decades of research, and I was able to reconstruct a genealogical profile of the horses then in the park. Now, I would say that he's also the person that had the idea of introducing outside stallions and he ran the roundups for the park, but interesting person that had kind of ambivalent feelings about the horses. At any rate, I also got involved with efforts to preserve this particular population of horses. And through my research, I became aware that they had a very interesting history in that they descend in part from horses that were confiscated from Lakotas that surrendered at Fort Buford in 1881, when after the Little Bighorn fight, a number of Lakota and Cheyenne bands fled to Canada for a few years to avoid prosecution and forced settlement on reservations. They ultimately surrendered at this Fort, and as part of surrenders, they had to relinquish their weapons and horses. And so, the horses were confiscated, and the post traders would then usually sell them at auction, or they would be driven to someplace like Minneapolis or Bismarck and sold in an auction there. In this particular case, amazingly enough, a flamboyant French entrepreneur named the Marquis de Mores, who was a cavalry officer from Europe, and a contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt, they both were open range ranchers in western North Dakota. And really de Mores was in the cattle business. So he was always buying cattle. And he arranged to buy cattle from these post traders at Fort Buford. And then he found out that they had these Lakota horses, and so he bought them. And he drove them back across North Dakota to his property in the Little Missouri Badlands, which is now the location of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And for several years, he raised them on the open range. And, you know, as a European, he had kind of an idealistic and romantic view of these horses, he thought, you know, they must have a lot of stamina and other good qualities, whereas most people at the time were prejudice against Indian horses, because they didn't look like the kind of breeds that settler Europeans valorized. And of course, in the West at the time, there was this project of upgrading everything, you know, improving and civilizing the landscape by introducing crops and flowers and, you know, registered livestock and so, animals that fell through the cracks of those categories, and were just sort of scrubs were denigrated, and especially if they had any colors, which became associated with Native people, like paint horses, appaloosas, horses with a lot of white markings, buckskin horses, which was seen as atavistic, but de Mores had a completely different perspective. So, even though he only remained in North Dakota A few years after he purchased those horses, it made a big difference because what essentially happened is after he returned to Europe, not all of his horses were rounded up. Some continued to live as feral horses in the Little Missouri Badlands and they interbred over the years with other feral horses, especially during the Depression of the 1930s. A lot of ranch horses were not reclaimed, they were allowed to roam and join these wild bands. So, but interestingly enough, when I met the horses in the mid 80s, I later realized from historic photographs that I found, they looked very similar to the original horses demore had purchased. And one of those characteristics is the predominance of roan horses, red and blue roan horses, also their conformation and size, but the horses are their own best evidence. I think there's no question that in part, they descend from those Lakota horses. And so that became another incentive because they're one of the very few herds in the United States with a documented link to a historic native community. Because Native people, their horses were all taken and replaced through various Indian policies during the reservation era. So those original Indian ponies are all but gone.

 

Jennifer Berglund 14:54

I think it's really interesting that your interest in horses and anthropology started sort of coming together here.

 

Castle McLaughlin 15:10

You know, at one time I did consider doing my dissertation on the horses. Unfortunately, I was a little early for what's now one of the big growing paradigms, which is interspecies ethnography. So I just wrote up that study, and then did my dissertation field work on Native American ranching in North Dakota. I finished that dissertation in 1993. And then, I got a job as an assistant professor of anthropology at University of Missouri, St. Louis, and curator at Missouri Historical Society of the North American Collection.

 

Jennifer Berglund 15:56

And it was during this time that you first visited the Peabody Museum, right?

 

Castle McLaughlin 16:02

Yes! My mother and stepfather, by that time, had moved to Massachusetts. And I came to visit them in 1995, and insisted that we stop at the Peabody on the way to their house in Sudbury, because I'd never visited and I'd always heard about it. And you know, it kind of looms large in, in anthropological history. I was very taken by the Peabody in several different ways. There was something very compelling about the Peabody, but at the same time, to my eyes, in my view, the Peabody, when I walked through the exhibit galleries, it seemed about 50 years behind the times. And it affected me so strongly that on the plane trip back to St. Louis, I wrote an entire exhibit script in response to the Peabody exhibits, which I then was planning to develop in St. Louis. But I also thought I would, I wish I could, you know, I would love to be here. I had this sense that this was the place I was supposed to be. And I really consciously thought, I wish I could, you know, be at the Peabody and help change that museum culture. And amazingly enough, just a few months later, a postdoc fellowship in North American Ethnography at the Peabody was advertised nationally, and I applied for that, and the rest is history.

 

Jennifer Berglund 17:50

And this is an amazing story because your story comes full circle here, because the horses, yet again, make an appearance in your life.

 

Castle McLaughlin 18:02

Yeah, number of things have happened to me during my time at the Peabody that almost seem mystical or something. But one of them was the discovery of a 19th century Plains Indian quote, unquote ledger book at Houghton library, in, I think, around 2003-4. And they knew that this existed, but it was catalogued as a book, they didn't realize it was a hand drawn document, you know, it says, it's a collection of first person drawings by at least seven different men. And the scenes relate to the wars on the plains in the 1860s, and 70s. So they called me over there to look at it to, quote, unquote, authenticate it and in the beginning of the ledger there's an inscription by a book dealer, but it details the history of it as through the eyes of the collector, who was an eccentric newspaper reporter in Chicago. And at any rate, the information was that it was collected after the Little Bighorn fight from a funerary lodge on the battlefield by the soldiers who arrived three days after Custer's defeat, and had to bury the dead. So they disassembled some funerary lodges in order to use the lodge poles and the canvas or hide to convey wounded soldiers to the river. And this document was found on top of mail in a mail bag next to a dead warrior, and given ultimately to this news reporter who was embedded with the troops. But when I saw that inscription, I knew it was subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. So I went back to the Peabody and talked to my colleague, Trish Capone, who manages the repatriation department, and the then director, Bill Fash. And we basically immediately called the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, because according to the inscription, the warrior with whom the document was entered was Hunkpapa Lakota. We were thinking of ultimate repatriation. But Bill Fash, and the tribal chairman at the time, also suggested that we do an exhibit in the meantime, and I said, I really thought I should have a Lakota co-curator. And they, of course, readily agreed to that. And after some discussion, we agreed that we could invite Butch Thunder Hawk to be my co curator. And Butch is a longtime friend of mine, with whom I worked in the National Park Service all those years ago in the 80s. As we looked closer into the book, it became apparent that the story it told related to the formation of kind of resistance movement on the plains that began in the 1860s and continued to through the 1870s. That resistance to, you know, the United States military, and the encroachment of the United States across the West. And that resistance movement involved the formation of new, a new kind of social bands that were more intertribal. So as they they primarily involve Cheyenne and Lakota men and their families. And this was going to be the topic of my first dissertation back at Columbia for one thing, but for another thing, as I talked to people at Standing Rock and, you know, looked into the archival and historic record, and looked at the ledger drawings. One of the things that struck me almost immediately is that there's one man who drew I think it was 21 drawings in the ledger, that's always riding a blue roan horse. And blue roan is a rare horse color, but it's a dominant color of the Nakota horses that are descended, in part, from the horses confiscated from the Lakota that were involved in the very events depicted in this ledger. And so, as it turns out, you know, the title of this exhibit Wiyohpiyata. Wiyohpiyata is the Lakota word for the West. But it's not just a direction, but a constellation of forces that govern both storms and warfare, which are metaphorically related. And the colors of the West are blue and black. And so Lakota warrior societies and warriors liked blue horses, because they perceive them as being, you know, a part of Wiyohpiyata. And so I was able to it was perfectly appropriate to bring the what we now call Nakota horses into the story visually, in terms of mounting videos of blue roan stallions playing in the pastures and things like that, because most people aren't aware that blue horses exist. So we wanted to draw that connection visually.

 

Jennifer Berglund 23:58

How's the Peabody changed over the course of your career?

 

Castle McLaughlin 24:03

It's changed tremendously from when I arrived, it was essentially part of the department and run by directors who were senior archaeologists in the department. The identity was never about the public or people beyond campus. And the directors were always senior faculty. And it was a, you know, a part time job. They would spend a couple days at the museum every week for a couple of years. Ruby Watson in 1997, I believe, became the first woman, the first cultural anthropologist, and the first full time director of the museum ever, you know, and the collections are second in size only to the Smithsonian and it was being run as just kind of a dusty backwater kind of a library or storeroom for the anthropology faculty. And Ruby really was committed to opening the museum up. She was very committed to community partnerships. She was very committed to repatriation. And she also wanted to professionalize the museum. Not all of that took hold for a few years. I applaud the decision after many years to hire a full time museum professional, as the director in Jane Pickering. That's long been needed. The Peabody's got incredibly important collections, and it needs to be run in a professional manner by people that understand what the issues are in museums, what best practices are in museums, and can actually move things forward. And I think Jane can certainly do all that.

 

Jennifer Berglund 25:59

And you've been working with Jane recently on ethical stewardship. Can you explain what you've been working on together? And how you see that shaping the Peabody in the future?

 

Castle McLaughlin 26:13

chain is really reinventing institutional culture through this paradigm of ethical stewardship, which shifts the focus really to community collaboration and community recognizing our responsibility to descendent communities and recognizing the need for their input into how collections are managed, handled, stored, exhibited, and so forth. If not for COVID, I don't think we could have done so much. But when we were sequestered almost a year and a half ago, you know, Jane had already created the first ethical stewardship committee, which I chair, to think about developing a document that would lay out principles of ethical stewardship and guidelines for how to best implement it in all the many departments at the Peabody. All the concerns being expressed around ethical stewardship, about the need to get away from a Eurocentric perspectives on indigenous histories and culture, and work more collaboratively to increase diversity, both intellectually and in terms of personnel. So that's a huge change. And I think, very positive change.

 

Jennifer Berglund 27:46

You're about to retire after just short of 25 years at the Peabody. What are you most proud of?

 

Castle McLaughlin 27:57

I guess, broadly, I guess, just promoting collaboration with indigenous people and actualizing it through the projects that I've conducted during my time there. The project, everyone knows the project, that's dearest to my heart is Wiyohpiyata. And one of the reasons for that is because so many Native people have told me that they feel it to be a Native space. And that's exactly what Butch and I hoped to do. We didn't know if we could succeed in that, you know, we tried to create an experiential exhibit using sound effects. You know, lots of motion through video, through relationships between contemporary and historic objects, sound motion, video, still photography, just a mix of elements, and, and arranging them in a certain way seems to have almost kind of created a spark, which we really didn't anticipate. So it's almost like a living space. And I feel it, but many people have testified to that, to me, that that's how they perceive the space. And so, I think that was a very, my most successful exhibit ever. And I don't think I could ever top that. A lot of Native people are reticent to even come into museums, they don't enjoy the experience, and they feel anxious to be in a space like the Peabody which is so Victorian and so Eurocentric, just in the architecture and feel of the space. So having that space as a comfort zone has been a great contribution, I think.

 

Jennifer Berglund 30:03

What's next for you?

 

Castle McLaughlin 30:04

You know what, so I will not stop being an anthropologist, and I'm looking forward to getting back to the horses. I feel an obligation to write up the research I've done over the last 30 years about the Nakota horses, and that's going to be my primary and most immediate project to get started on. I've really loved my years at the Peabody and loved going to work every day, it's been such an honor to work with the collections and contribute to the life of the University. Probably what I've enjoyed the most have been my colleagues, the Peabody really feels like a family, in a lot of ways. And everybody there, as in my experience, has always been very interested in doing the right thing. So I've been blessed to spend the last quarter century in a really enriching community and interesting if troubled, problematic, historic space.

 

Jennifer Berglund 31:20

Castle McLaughlin, thank you so much for being here. This has been wonderful.

 

Castle McLaughlin 31:25

Jennie, thank you so much for the invitation. I've really enjoyed the opportunity to reflect a little on my past quarter century at the Peabody Museum.

 

Jennifer Berglund 31:35

We're gonna miss you Castle.

 

Castle McLaughlin 31:37

And I will miss the place and the people.

 

Jennifer Berglund 31:44

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and edited by Emma Knudsen. Special thanks to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and to Castle McLaughlin for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!