Wampanoag Perspectives on Museum Objects with Elizabeth Perry and Meredith Vasta


Meredith Vasta, Elizabeth James Perry, Jennifer Berglund


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 two super interesting people. Meredith Vasta, a collection steward at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and Elizabeth James Perry, a textile artist, marine biologist and member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe. They recently worked together on an online exhibit called "Wampanoag Voices: Beyond 1620", a project that's in part a reflection on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower, and the ensuing consequences to native people, but more so a celebration of the vibrant native communities of our area. Elizabeth analyzed two historical Wampanoag objects, an eel trap, and a sash worn by a guy named King Philip. I wanted to ask them both about the creation of this exhibit and the relevance of these objects within Wampanoag culture today. Here they are. Elizabeth James Perry and Meredith Vasta. Thank you so much for being here.


Meredith Vasta 01:39

Thank you. Thanks for having us.


Elizabeth James Perry 01:41

Thank you. This is good.


Jennifer Berglund 01:47

Meredith, how did you all select these items for this online exhibit? And tell us from your perspective, what did you know about these objects before Elizabeth took over?


Meredith Vasta 02:02

When we started this project, we really wanted to look for items that were clearly connected to specific communities. I mean, sometimes when things come into the museum, it might just say it's from Massachusetts, or New England, or the eastern woodlands. But we were looking for items that were clearly connected to specific communities, and we do have a number of things from Mashpee and Aquinnah, so we knew exactly where they came from. We also had names of artists in some cases, and then we have a photograph as one of the items, and we have the names of the sitters in that photograph. And in those cases, it was really great, we were able to reach out to specific descendants to, you know, the descendants of those people who made the basket or are sitting in the photograph, and get their perspectives on it. For Elizabeth, we selected the sash and the eel trap, because we knew that Elizabeth was keenly interested in those, and had researched them in the past. The first item that we talked about, the eel trap, that was donated to the museum in 1917. The donor was a Dr. Lumbard Carter Jones, and he lived from 1865 to 1944. He lived in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and he was a graduate of Harvard University. He was also a big collector. Between the 1890s and the 1930s, Jones had donated over 800 books to the libraries at Harvard, and nearly 140 images and objects to the Peabody Museum from different indigenous communities all over. Some of the items collected, you know, I wish I knew more about this. I'm not sure if he purchased them or perhaps traded for them. I wasn't sure that maybe as a doctor, if he was trading medical services for items like these, but he got these at Mashpee directly from the community members there. Unfortunately, we don't know who made this eel trap, but we do know that he collected it before 1892. The sash on the other hand, about 130 years ago, in 1890, the American Antiquarian Society gifted a number of ethnological items to the Harvard Peabody, and one of them was this sash. The only documentation that came with it was this label sewn on the reverse side with old timey handwriting, that read, "belt of the Indian King Philip from Colonel Keyes." King Philip, or his name was Metacom, was a Wampanoag Sachem, and he was important and involved in King Philip's War, which started in 1675. At its core, it's this conflict between natives resisting the ongoing colonization and spread of white settlers. It was a really interesting question for us though. Is this actually King Philip's sash, or was that something that the American Antiquarian Society thought? Is that something that the Keyes family had as family history? You know, oftentimes there's tons of things, and I'm sure Elizabeth, throughout all your museum visits, you have found a number of things attributed to King Philip that sometimes when you are a quote unquote "famous Native American", you know, everything is Sitting Bull's, everything is Geronimo's, everything is King Philip's. So it was really a great question that Elizabeth and the staff at Peabody really wanted to explore. And they did some interesting research on it that really told us a lot about the age of the sash and possibilities of where it actually came from. But I'll let Elizabeth speak to her experience with that.


Elizabeth James Perry 05:44

So, the sash is interesting from a material perspective, and fortunately for me, a portion at least of early trade records where merchants were bringing goods from Europe and going to markets in places like Albany, Montreal, various points along the east coast, were bringing their items and trading with native people, you know, Native men, Native women at market. And so, there is accounts of a certain type of red Stroud blanket being produced. You can see where traders are very particularly saying they want a dark brown edge, they want a blue edge, they want a white line inside of the dark brown salvage edge, so as a weaver, all of those kinds of descriptions make sense to me, because I'm used to worrying about salvage edges and keeping the edges neat and straight and standard widths, and in all too. And so you can look at the width of the cloth, the type of dyes used the design work on it, and you can kind of narrow it down based on the communications going back and forth across the ocean to around circa 1710, I would say. That specific cloth is mentioned really briefly. It's in demand, and then there's no mention of it. And I think that there's no mention of it because the trader finally got his batch to the blankets, but I think he was told it was such a hassle to try to dye it without covering that white line on the edges, that it was too expensive and too risky because of the color runs, your native customers don't want it and they're going to send it right back. That's very expensive. So it was this experiment in in trying to cater to native tastes in New England. That's really interesting. I find it interesting this there's this combination. It's that interesting time period--17th century 18th century--where there's a such a strong combination of both indigenous materials and techniques, and motif work and color balance. And then also an influx of some trade materials from England or France or Spain, wherever it's coming from. And so you've got these white glass beads that are new. Before then, all of the beads would be produced here of local materials, including wampum, but also bone and other ivory, other materials like that. So the appearance would be a little bit different. You have the artist spinning the Indian hemp, which is an indigenous plant that we use for sewing and weaving and even some soft fiber basketry, twine basketry. And it's very strong. And so you can still see that on the sash today. So that's a nice touch. The technique that was used to actually stitch down the bead is quite patently Northeastern native, where instead of going down through the leather, down through the cloth, you catch the nap of a fairly thick material, so that you're not putting a lot of downward pressure and causing the surface of the fabric or the surface of the coil work beadwork to pucker in any way. It's very level, and even, and the tension is really nice. And I think that the materials last a little bit longer, there's not abrasion on the inside if you're wearing the fabric. If the stitching doesn't go all the way through to the inside, it may be rubbing against you every day, but the stitching isn't going to break instantaneously, which, if you're going to sew down thousands of beads, that's a nice little trick, for sure. And I think that there's there's other things that are really evocative. That beautiful red coloration, the idea that red connects us to the Earth, to our Mother Earth. That's the ground of the sash. And like the undulating design and the dark color punctuated by the white because it makes it pop, but also there's sort of that philosophical idea in native arts, including a native stamped basketry, of these undulating lines that are the path of life, and the dots, sometimes it's just the energy and the people in the movement of life along that path. And so there's this idea of movement and journey, and I think a certain amount of balance and harmony in that process. It's what's supposed to happen.


Jennifer Berglund 09:33

Do you think this piece saw a lot of battle?


Elizabeth James Perry 09:37

This piece, objectively, this was a very much loved article of gear. You can see where it's stretched, the weaving is stretched, you can see that there's wear lines. You can see places that have more increased wearing off of the dye because it was very lightly dyed in order to kind of get that light colored, undulating line at the edge, so they had to sort of cheat the process and not fully saturate the cloth so they didn't ruin those patterns. And so the die is actually wearing off in sections of the woolen yarn. I don't necessarily know, as an indigenous man in the time period, if you would literally wear your powder horn every day, but I think that there were times when there was a campaign. There was times when you had to move your community's safety, didn't know if you were being pursued. You needed to be ready, you needed to be wearing your powderhorn, you needed to have your piece with you. You needed to have your bow, you needed to have war clubs, at the time, were also used. Whatever you had in your arsenal was on your person, typically, because we weren't driving around in U-Hauls. It had to be portable, and it had to be handy, you know, if you're going to be successful in essentially keeping yourself alive. You know, it was a contest over not just supremacy, but it was a contest over really, really beautiful, really, really rich territory. You know, whether you're talking Wampanoag territory here in Massachusetts, or you're talking Southern Maine, Sacco River, which I suspect is probably the origin area of the sash.


Jennifer Berglund 11:26

I'm curious, why make this beautiful, intricate sash to be used in battle where it could be destroyed.


Elizabeth James Perry 11:35

I think part of it is maybe cultural differences even over time, and the same people, sometimes. Cultural attitudes towards material culture, and also sort of having the discipline within yourself, within your family, to remake literally everything you need. So people were routinely building a new house. The older one was wearing out, it was getting drafty, the bark was leaking. So you just took everything down. It was entirely biodegradable. You could recycle the poles to something smaller, and you had the resources, right, you had the resources. When you're hunting animals all the time, you have the fiber to spend the yarn, you have the plants in abundance to dye the yarn, you have the beads you're making, or the beads later on that you're trading for. There's enjoyment in the moment, but there isn't necessarily in a culture where utilitarian objects are made beautiful, it's fine to use those. You want them to be used and appreciated and loved that way. We didn't really necessarily make pieces to sort of house in this really careful, isolated fashion, protect it from the elements. I mean, I don't know what my ancestors would say to that phrase, like, climate controlled. What's that? That's very strange. And that sounds, that sounds like being dead. What is that? I don't want that. So, like, the idea of art, without humans to love it, the idea of making something without someone to honor. The connection is your relationship with a person, whether it's, it's maybe your son who's going into battle, whether it's your daughter, maybe, is a female, sunsqua, female sachem, and she has to represent the people every day, and she could get shot too, she could get ransomed by jerks. And, you know, they get their barrels of wampum, and they still behead her or something horrible. There's this idea of the connection, honoring the connection, loving that person and actually thinking of the work of your hands as having wholesome qualities, because you're being, in some ways, creative, like the Creator. You're creating something wholesome as part of creation, and you're hoping that that confers a little bit of of happiness and good memories and protection, I think, on the person that you're giving it to whether you're making your your child's first outfit for dance, or you're making your husband's battle armor, basically.


Jennifer Berglund 13:56

How did you go about your research with the eel trap? And what did you find?


Elizabeth James Perry 14:00

Yeah, the eel traps are just great. You know, I never get tired of looking at them. Each one is a little bit different because each artist or fishermen, fisherwoman, is a little bit different, right? They have their special material they like to use and their spacing and the weight and the strength. And the ages vary among the ones I think that have survived in collections. So there's always cool stuff. There's a range of materials that were used with both the sash and the eel trap, I think also it's the human connection, right? So it's thinking putting yourself in your ancestor's shoes, thinking about their day. I've got to replace my gear. The herring are going to be here pretty soon. Okay, let me go out. Let me get some ash. Let me get the cedar bark. I'm gonna sit down with my friends and process cedar bark for all of the traps we're making. You know, I'm going to have some really good food on the fire while I'm doing this work because you know, that's what I would do nowadays. I know perfectly well. My ancestors are no different in that respect. You're going fishing for God's sakes, you already liked the food and you're living on the coast. So, I mean, it's all about food. There's just so much, you know, that the experience of being in the woods at certain times of day, going out at dawn and getting some cedar, the smell of the swamp. It's very fragrant, almost like the scent of strawberries. It smells so sweet. I mean, it's mucky and muddy, and yeah, you could sink in up to your waist or whatever. But it smells amazing, and at sunset, it's warm, and it's soothing, and you've worked so hard cutting down trees and hauling them through muck and trying not to, you know, fall in sinkholes or whatever. Going from tussock to tussock, you have to even walk special just to get through the swamp without sinking in, so you're really tired. But then at the end of the day, you just get to sit down at the base of a tree on a tussock grass, and you take out maybe a snack bar in the modern time period. And you watch the sunset, and it's really very nice, and very satisfying, and extremely peaceful. And I don't think that changes over time. Through connecting with the spaces and the materials and the techniques, I think I'm experiencing life the same way people have here in the northeast for thousands of years. There's a big difference between recapturing traditional ecological knowledge and growing up with it. And it's actually really important that I think my generation does as much as they can because we have the opportunity and the time and the access still to collections, things still survive in collections. Who knows how long they'll be there? To recapture a lot of that technology and make it a whole heck of a lot easier on the next generation because Wow.


Jennifer Berglund 16:25

Meredith, I'm curious, what did Elizabeth's perspective as a Wampanoag artist and researcher bring to this project?


Meredith Vasta 16:35

Elizabeth has always brought such incredibly rich experience to the table. And I think especially as an artist, she sees materials and dyes and techniques in such a different way than I do as not an artist. She brings such different questions to the table. It's almost like eavesdropping on a conversation between a contemporary artist and the artist who made that historical item. You know, it's this conversation and this learning experience that transcends time and space. As you can hear from Elizabeth, it's such a personal experience when you get to work with descendants of the artists who created these items that are now at the museum. I mean, her connection and interest is clearly not simply academic. It is profoundly personal. And it is core to who she is as a Wompanoag woman.


Jennifer Berglund 17:32

Elizabeth, I'm curious, after doing all this research, after spending so much time with these objects and exploring techniques, what did you come away from all of this feeling or experiencing?


Elizabeth James Perry 17:43

I came away from it appreciating the abundant resources that past generations had. I think nowadays, as a modern native person. On Martha's Vineyard, the tribe owns less than 1% of the land on Martha's Vineyard, right? And so when you're an artist, and literally all of your materials come from the lands you live on, and you only have access to a tiny portion, and of that portion, some of it is prone to pollution runoff from the road. There was a dump, or there was asbestos on a building, or, you know, there's so many concerns. As an informed citizen, but especially as an artist, when you're working with your hands and sort of living with the materials and really processing and making materials, you know, your sanding materials or shaping them and making the chemicals in them airborne, potentially, or absorbing them through your skin. So it really gave me an appreciation for how important it is to keep the environment clean, to manage your resources and make sure that there's resources for the next generation because it's not necessarily under these conditions going to happen automatically. I really, really admired the technical expertise. It's taken me so many years to even begin to see the tip of the iceberg for the technology, for knowing the best time to get the dyes, the best mordant to use, the the nicest fiber plants, the best way to process that material and coax out something really beautiful that's very strong and durable and long-lasting. It takes so much discipline, and it takes really paying attention to the seasons because if you snooze, you lose, as they say. So like, you know, if you wait till something's gone by, it's not like you can go back and just go to the store and get those because you miss the harvest. You have to be there and be really present, be connected to the tides, be connected to the seasons. If winter's coming early, you got to be thinking, "okay, if we get a lot of snow and it dumps on the milkweed, I'm not getting any milkweed to do my spinning. Can I live with that?" If not, then I take a day off work, and I get my milkweed. You have to get real with yourself about what your needs are and you have to plan on what you're doing. It's not necessarily so simplistic to make something when there's literally three seasons of a year you have to gather just to have all the materials at the same place at the same time.


Jennifer Berglund 19:59

So it sounds like you really developed a greater understanding between the connection, between culture and environment?


Elizabeth James Perry 20:05

I would say. That's a good way to put it.


Jennifer Berglund 20:10

Meredith, would you say that working with Elizabeth changed your thinking about the ways in which we as a museum should be looking at objects? Why or why not? And how do you think this experience will influence future projects?


Meredith Vasta 20:24

I mean, I've been lucky enough to work with Elizabeth at the Peabody, but also at my previous museum, and she always changes the way I think about things and the way I look at things, I mean, her scientific, cultural, and historical knowledge is such a tremendous resource. And again, it's centered from such a beautiful personal place. When we're working together, I love talking with her and understanding the manufacturer, the creation, the dyes in such a totally different way, and I think her appreciation for the natural world, especially as an artist, really has rubbed off on me a lot, and now when I take walks, when I go to the Arboretum, I'm always looking at things and thinking, "I wonder how indigenous people use this in the past and in the present?" How do folks use these plants now, or, you know, do they use them for dyes? And so I really look at the natural world so much differently. In the past, I think museums didn't see indigenous people, whose items they stewarded, as partners or collaborators. And in recent decades, that's really been changing, and I think it's more common now to include community partners in exhibits. I think some of the most successful exhibits I've experienced, and learned from really cast their net a little wider and have different perspectives, but I also think centering the interpretation from the home communities perspective is critical. In this online exhibit, we wanted to reflect on these past events, but it was so important for Wompanoag voices like Elizabeth's to provide the interpretation.


Jennifer Berglund 22:00

How do you think museums like the Peabody that contain these important cultural objects, how do you think they should be working with native communities and native artists to highlight those objects?


Elizabeth James Perry 22:17

So I think that an interesting movement has happened, I think, across the nation, right? Where institutions are taking a look at practices and taking the time to acknowledge whose indigenous land they're situated on. And I think it's sort of the very first orienting step, acknowledging whose land acknowledging whose territory, who's here, reaching out, creating respectful relationships. There's a variety of ways of sharing knowledge that museums are now involved in, sometimes at the request of indigenous communities who shared generously of their knowledge, materials, techniques, genealogy, history, and the museums are keepers, but not necessarily understanding that there's still a community that would still really value that knowledge. Tribes need that, you know, for a variety of ways and ways that that I can't really articulate fully. There's just these amazing chances to reconnect. I think that the relationships are key. The relationships will be the foundation where you can move forward together in a good way. I think when there is distancing or mistrust, things don't work out well. It's a different sort of depth of knowledge and perception, I think, that we have to contribute to museum collections that are perhaps different from what you have in a ledger, book, accession file, whatever.


Jennifer Berglund 23:47

Thank you both for being here for the podcast! This has been so fun!


Meredith Vasta 23:53

Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for spending time with us today. And also for being part of this online exhibition. I mean, I'm so thankful to have you participate in this and share your experiences and your knowledge, and it is so, so appreciated.


Elizabeth James Perry 24:10

Thank you for having me. This has been really nice.


Jennifer Berglund 24:18

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Elizabeth James Perry, Meredith Vasta, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology for their wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening! If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!


Transcribed by https://otter.ai