Burl Bowls and Birchbark Baskets: Decolonizing Indigenous Material Culture in the Native Northeast
The collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) contain a burl bowl tentatively attributed to Metacomet, or King Philip, the Wampanoag sachem who fought against English colonists in King Philip’s War (1675-1678.) The MHS carved their version of the bowl’s history into its basin when they received the object in 1803. Written in gold lettering is the description: “A Trophy / from the Wigwam of King Philip / When he was slain in 1676 / by Richard. Presented, by Elezr / Richard, his Grandson.” The story presented by the MHS is an improbable tale which says more about the colonial fantasies of nineteenth-century institutions than the object itself, which is likely Wampanoag, the Native Nation whose homelands span the east coast of present-day Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The burl bowl, carved from an elm tree’s outgrowth in the seventeenth century, is culturally and historically significant to modern Wampanoag communities. Yet it sits in storage in Boston, where most Native people are unable to engage with or interpret its history. This project explores decolonized museum practices for indigenous objects held in the collections of institutions throughout the Northeast. Decolonization is the process of questioning and removing the colonial lens which has dictated not only the history of indigenous material culture, but also how and for whom museums conserve Native objects. Using case studies of three sets of objects, a seventeenth-century Wampanoag burl bowl, an Anishinaabe miniature mokuk, or birchbark basket, and three of Passamaquoddy birchbark artist Tomah Joseph’s pieces, my analysis shows how institutions can implement decolonizing practices. These practices are at least threefold: privileging indigenous perspectives gained through consultation with Native people while curating exhibits, implementing conservation practices that make objects accessible to Native communities, and representing holistic history that tells the story of Native agency within the context of colonialism. Through a combination of historic and modern perspectives, I argue that indigenous material culture is a crucial source for understanding Native history in the Northeast. While colonial historians have often written Native people out of this region’s past and present, the study of indigenous objects from the seventeenth century through today provides evidence of the active presence of indigenous people at every point in time. Additionally, museums have participated in the disruption of the dissemination of traditional knowledge in Native communities by collecting culturally significant objects to display for non-Native visitors. Today, institutions with indigenous collections have a responsibility to ensure these objects are accessible to Native communities.