The people of the northeastern seaboard—now the U.S. and Canada—were among the first to encounter Europeans. In the early 17th century native groups and representatives of European states recognized each other as sovereign nations, signing treaties governing trade and the acquisition of land. But over time those relationships broke down. Europeans disregarded treaties, undermined local leaders, and invaded native territories.
Native American nations became deeply involved in European power struggles, forging military alliances with French, British, Dutch, and Spanish colonists and sustaining heavy losses. In addition, Native American populations were decimated by unfamiliar diseases such as smallpox and measles. In 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, forcibly relocating 100,000 people from the Northeast, the Southeast, and the Great Lakes to "Indian territory," west of the Mississippi. Under fear of reprisals by the U.S. military, native people were compelled to attend government and mission schools, to convert to Christianity, and to stop using their own languages.
Nevertheless, Native Americans at times succeeded in controlling trade relations with Europeans. They manipulated political alliances and resisted military incursions on their lands. As objects in the Hall demonstrate, contact was a process of interaction and cultural interchange, not simply conquest. Today, Native American nations are actively involved in the rediscovery and reinvention of pre-contact traditions.
ON DISPLAY IN THE HALL
The Three Sisters
Corn, beans, and squash provide a healthy, balanced diet. They also demonstrate the sophistication and sustainability of the agriculture practiced by Native Americans for thousands of years. Many varieties of these staples were grown together in mounds, placed about three feet apart. Cornstalks provide support for bean vines, and squash leaves give shade, trap moisture, and prevent weed infestation. Bacteria on bean roots provide the high levels of nitrogen required by corn. Corn, beans, and squash are considered gifts from the Creator: planted, eaten, and celebrated together, never to be apart.
Housing design reflects social organization, climate, and available materials. Models show contrasting architectural styles:
The Natchez house, from the Mississippi Delta, has mud walls and a thatched roof. People slept on platforms under large, domed ceilings.
The open-sided Seminole chickee was built on stilts.
Wigwams, built by the Ojibwe from the Great Lakes region, were easy to disassemble and transport.
The large Iroquois longhouse was the center of communal life and home to many families from the same clan—a matrilineal group of three to eight families. The clan mother made all major decisions, including nominating the male leader of the clan. Separate, related families occupied sections within the longhouse that could be curtained off. Platforms created sleeping areas and storage spaces. Vegetable gardens, orchards, and fields surrounded groups of longhouses. Today, longhouses—a key symbol of the Iroquois nations—are used for ceremonial, political, social, and cultural events. (see Hiawatha Belt)
Wampum and Metalwork
Wampum and metalwork provide contrasting examples of the impact of contact. Wampum—strings of beads made from marine mollusks—are sacred Native American objects. Before contact, wampum was traded but not used as money. Dutch settlers adopted wampum as currency in the inland fur trade and began its manufacture. Metalwork was introduced by the Dutch and French who traded silver coins and medals for land. Native Americans were soon producing silver jewelry for ornamentation and trade.
Wampum beads are hand-cut from shells and then ground, polished, and bored through the center. The white and rarer purple beads are made from the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria). White beads are also made from univalve whelks (family Buccinidae). Commemorative belts (see Hiawatha Belt) record important events and, like the beads, have a high spiritual value. The Museum has returned objects from the wampum case under the terms of NAGPRA.
By the mid 19th century, European and Native American commercial jewelry designs were almost indistinguishable, as artifacts in the Hall demonstrate.
False Face Masks
False Face Masks are sacred ceremonial objects intended to be seen only by their creators. The empty exhibition case in the Hall contained masks that the Museum has removed from display (see NAGPRA).
The styles and materials of the clothing on display illustrate northeast Native American responses to the commercial and aesthetic demands of contact with Europeans. Before contact, clothing was made of furs and tanned skins decorated with painted designs or dyed porcupine quills. After the arrival of Europeans, new materials—broadcloth, calico, silk, and glass beads—became available and popular.
For centuries before contact, Native Americans made beads from shells and bird bones. Trade with Europeans introduced glass cylinders. Native Americans were highly discriminating, demanding the finest and most expensive imported glass. With the new materials came innovation. Abstract, geometrical patterns gave way to figurative and floral motifs incorporating and transforming European design. Beaded clothing was soon a popular tourist item. Today, beadwork, valued for its artistry, is considered quintessentially Native American.