- Sep 2017
Mohegan oral tradition holds that "the People" came &om the East, over a desert, and then crossed "the great fresh water:'
Not only is the land imbued with spiritual significance, but the water is as well. Mohegan cosmology holds that the first humans crossed ‘the great fresh water’ to settle Mohegan lands. Water is an important part of their cultural identity. This is why building the DAPL is so careless and so devastating to the Sioux people. Not only does it violate treaties, not only could it potentially damage their water supply, but in a cruel imitation, it mimics a Native American conception of the creation of humanity. Could there be any more of a symbol of Western greed than an oil pipeline thoughtlessly constructed over the Sioux people's water supply?
The designs are not only aesthetically pleasing but also deeply culturally significant. The artistic renderings displayed on the basket are representations of both rhe abundant natural landscape and the Mohegan cosmology. As the Mohegan elder Gladys Tantaquidgeon explains, "To the Mohegan, designs and life are more than simple representations of narure. There is a spiritual force that Rows through all things, and if these symbols are true representations of that force, this spirit should be expressed in the designs:
The way that many Westerners use land is for almost purely exploitative reasons. In a capitalist economic system,land represents untapped resources which in turn represents profits not being made. Westerners, by and large, ravage resources and funnel it into this capitalist system where greed and cutthroat competition makes you the most money. If someone were to analyze an oil rig in the same way Fitzgerald analyzes a Mohegan basket, they would discover that one of our cultural values is a total lack of appreciation and respect for nature. Even though steps are being made by Americans and Westernized people to place a much larger emphasis on the protection of the Earth, our mines and drills and pollutants and factories paint a much different picture of abuse and exploitation of the planet's resources.
Native conceptions of land and how it should be used are totally different. Land is not a resource to be exploited. It inhabits the world of physical objects, but, as Gladys Tantaquidgeon said, the land is also elevated to a spiritual realm of utmost significance. In the same way that we analyze a Mohegan basket, we can also examine the land as a physical object that is reflective of Mohegan cultural values, and really all Native cultures including the Sioux tribe.
How does the inclusion of forms previowly not considered texts change conceptions of literacy and com· municative practices? How do we begin to read a basket's narrative:
This is the core of material culture analysis: examining an object that may not have been considered worthy of analysis because it’s seemingly just a chair, or an arrowhead, or a basket. The failure to study Ashanti stools with the same intensity and dedication that a historian might review a Roman official’s personal correspondence points to a historical ignorance towards the importance of cultural significance in analysis. The magic of material cultural analysis is that it allows us to examine the emphasis that a culture places on things.
When societies of the future write and communicate about the importance of the iPhone in the United State’s culture during the 2010’s, they may begin by explaining the technical details of precisely how the iPhone is engineered, or a physical description of its minimalist design aesthetic, but any study of the iPhone that doesn’t include the psychological impacts of being always connected, the zeitgeist of dating apps, and the way that the iPhone, an object, changed the way Americans work, play, and relate to one another would be incomplete. In previous eras of historical analysis, the iPhone may not have been studied this way, but anyone living in America today can tell you that as a matter of historical significance, this object we all carry in our pockets today can explain our current culture better than almost anything else.
More information about Ashanti stools here: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/africa-ap/v/sika-dwa-kofi-golden-stool
The iPhone Project: Multimodal Object Analysis http://represent.danieltlamb.net/multimodal-object-analysis/
Over the course of almost a full year, protestors gathered at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota to rally against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which, if constructed, would cross into Sioux lands and potentially cause irreversible damage to the reservation’s water supply. The fight against the pipeline was waged on two fronts, the reservation and the courtroom. The physical world and the world of words.
On a broader scale, the showdown at Standing Rock is just another example of a much deeper, older fight between Western and Native culture. A fight that started when Christopher Columbus landed his ships in the Bahamas, claimed it as property of Spain, killed and enslaved Native Americans, and began a process of Westerners stealing land and resources from Indigenous populations that continues into today.
The superiority Western people feel they have over Native people boils down to a critical misunderstanding of Native culture. Western culture and history is recorded as the achievements of rich white men. Native culture has a more communal, holistic approach to recording history, an approach that historically has been categorized as ‘primitive’, or with the racially charged term ‘savage’. Material culture analysis levels the playing field of historical analysis and allows us to examine a culture not just through written records, but through objects of immense cultural significance, objects that give insight into how a culture views the greatest polarities of life. Jules David Prown, the grandfather of material culture analysis, gave us a few examples of these polarities, like life vs. death, acceptance vs. rejection, and security vs. danger. I would like to suggest a few more that I think are helpful in thinking about the cultural divide between Native culture and Western culture: duality vs. nonduality, Capitalism vs. resources, advanced vs. primitive, and individuality vs. community.
This cultural divide, and our conceptions of where these two cultures side on these polarities, is the bedrock upon which Christopher Columbus committed Genocide, upon which Andrew Jackson ravaged lands, and upon which our government built a pipeline across what wasn’t ours. This is why material cultural analysis is so crucially important. The failure of Westerners to understand Native culture and see it as equal to our own, instead of inferior is the crux of one of our Nation’s greatest sins.
The Mohegan word for painting, wuskuswang, is the same word used for writ· ing, inducting painted baskets in a long textual tradition that includes decora· tive birch bark etching, beadwork, wampum belts, and the written word. Th
The Mohegans link the world of objects and the world of words in a way that is foreign to Westerners. We have rhetorical forms of communication that are visual, like a moving painting, written, like an academic essay, and spoken, like a rousing call to action. Typically, these categories are fairly static. We don’t often mix visual rhetoric with written analysis, except in fringe forms like a photo essay.
The Mohegans have no such distinctions. Their culture infuses communal activities, like basket-weaving, with written, visual, and spoken rhetoric, in a way that makes the finished product a truly all-encompassing record of their shared societal values and customs. This practice is foreign to many Westerners and people who are used to analyzing Western rhetoric, and is why material cultural analysis is so useful. It allows historians to examine a culture like the Mohegans through a lens that is not rich, white and male. As we see at Standing Rock, the failure to examine other perspectives that don’t cleanly fit into our standards of historical record result in devastating results for populations that aren’t rich, white and male.
Few late nineteenth-century northeastern Native baskets were signed by their makers
This is an example of Western individuality that isn’t as present in Native culture. The basket is a shared cultural document, the work of an entire village or population. They craft it together, they literally sing it into existence together. Western historical records, particularly physical objects are typically one individual’s possession or creation.This is not the case in Mohegan culture and represents an interesting polarity between Western and Native culture: individuality vs. community.
Our country was founded on the premise of individuality. The American Dream is centered on individuality. The power of one person to start a business, create a product, build a home. When the entire framework of our reality is built upon individuality it can be exceedingly difficult to imagine and understand a culture who operates as a cohesive whole in creating historical and cultural objects.
t was performed by women to the accompani· ment of stories and songs, which in tum become part of the basket, joining together two traditions, oral and textual.
The Mohegan culture fuses together the world of words, through oral tradition, and the world of objects, through communal basket weaving. This is demonstrative of a culture that embraces non-dual thinking, pushing past the binary culture so many Westerners embrace. The basket is a touchstone for all aspects of their culture and should be studied as a prime export of the Mohegan’s values and history.
Here are some examples of Mohegan songs: https://www.moheganlanguage.com//Listen.aspx?CategoryID=1
The first song is one that might have been sung during the weaving of the basket, the second is a lullaby, and the third is a song women sung while harvesting food. The lyrics of the third song say “Thank you God for the corn, thank you God for the beans, thank you God for the squash, thank you God for the Earth.”
he decoding of the text of a basket requires shifting from a Western to a Native perspective and situating both the basket and its text within a speci6.c tribal context. Size, form, style, and varying degrees of decoration all play a role in the making of the meaning and function. M
Moving from a Western to a Native perspective is not an easy prospect. It requires us to not just examine an object differently or use different research and analytical methods; it requires us to examine our role in all of it and confront our own biases.
Haltman writes this in Introduction to American Artifacts, “Composing and revising an objective-as-possible description frees one to move from a narrow focus on the object itself to a focus on the relationship between the object and oneself as its perceiver.”
If we don’t, then we end up knowing a lot about the object, but not actually knowing the object and the truth it represents. We end up being ignorant to that culture and its values, its philosophy, its activities, and its practices. This sort of ignorance serves to diminish the humanity of cultures that are different from our own and can have disturbing results. Cultural ignorance is complicit in cultural destruction.
Baskets, which were and still are ceremonial and utilitarian objects used for transportation and storage of items, prayer ceremonies, and traditional games, function as com-62. Wong, Sendi11g My Heart Back. The Mohegans • 53 municarive devices. In sum, by touching every aspect of daily Native life, both past and present, basketry is imbued with cultural and spiritual power. 6
In Western culture, we tend to be dualistic people. We like to separate and categorize things. An object has one purpose, and that is to be used. We use baskets as baskets, nothing more. Native cultures embrace a more non dualistic view of the world, in which a possession can inhabit both a utilitarian space, the world of of objects, but also function as a vessel for expressing shared cultural values
This is emblematic of a larger schism between Western and Native people over the nature of duality and nonduality. Native cultures are adept at having an object serve multiple purposes. There isn’t an obsession over specific duties and functions for specific things. This is a firmly Western idea of objects, and is one of the main contributors to our materialistic, consumer culture that we inhabit today. Native cultures would never own a lemon squeezer, or a garlic press, because these are things that only serve one very specific thing. They have no power to communicate a narrative or share a cultural value.
Background on Mohegans: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mohegan
The Mohegans occupied most of the upper Thames valley in what is now Connecticut, U.S. They later seized land from other tribes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The traditional Mohegan economy was based on the cultivation of corn (maize) and on hunting and fishing. Colonial settlements gradually displaced the Mohegan, and their numbers dwindled from imported diseases and other hardships. Many of them joined other native settlements.
Article on Modern Day (1990) Mohegans: http://articles.latimes.com/1990-11-11/news/vw-5965_1_mohegan-museum
The name Tantaquidgeon was a family name among the Mohegans long before the Mayflower came to New England shores. The name means going fast. Gladys Tantaquidgeon's aunt, Fidelia Fielding, who died in 1908, was the last speaker of the ancient Mohegan language. Gladys' father, John Tantaquidgeon, who lived from 1865 to 1949, was the last Mohegan basket maker.