Penn’s Margaret Bruchac Uses Unique Approach to Identify Native American Objects

Early American history is marked by multiple displacements of Native American peoples due to multiple removals from their original Indigenous territories. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists participated in other forms of removal by collecting Indigenous narratives and objects for museums.

This process of “salvage anthropology” was intended to rescue endangered cultural objects. Yet, according to Margaret Bruchac, one of the newest members of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anthropology, museum collecting often interfered with the continuity of Native American cultural practices. Using what she characterizes as a “radical” approach that relies on multiple lines of evidence, Bruchac aims to better identify Native American cultural materials in museum collections.

Bruchac joined the faculty at Penn last year as a target of opportunity hire, selected specifically for her expertise in Native American studies and museum anthropology. Bruchac is of Abenaki descent and has extensive experience in archival research, cultural performance and historical interpretation. Even before she entered graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she was in demand as a museum consultant for Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association and other New England museums. At UMass, Amherst College and Smith College she conducted provenance research specifically for compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“I went to university to get the credentials for the museum work that I was already doing,” Bruchac says. “There, I uncovered the depth of data and detail that was necessary to facilitate repatriation.”

Repatriation, or the return of patrimonial, sacred and funerary objects to tribal nations and descendants, is an important side benefit of Bruchac’s primary goal: to restore an unbiased understanding of Indigenous peoples, objects and communities.

Her approach, which she refers to as “restorative methodologies,” involves tapping into multiple data streams, including oral traditions, material analysis, university archives, anthropological publications, craft technologies and social memory.

“It sounds like common sense, but, as it turns out, it is rather radical,” she says. “I try to untangle misperceptions and weave various forms of evidence together to gain a more holistic and accurate picture of peoples, objects and meanings.”

Recently, Bruchac’s attention has been focused on wampum, beads made from quahog and whelk shells that were used by a wide swath of northeastern Indian tribes for ceremonial, decorative, diplomatic and governmental purposes. Over several weeks this spring and into the summer, Bruchac is traveling with graduate student Stephanie Mach and research assistant Lise Puyo to museums in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada to survey wampum collections and to track the relations among collectors.

Bruchac has already unraveled some mysteries surrounding particular wampum objects. When two wampum belts went up for sale at Sotheby’s in 2009, for example, she dug through archives, closely examined the belts themselves and interviewed Haudenosaunee tribal leaders. Her research pointed to Frank Speck, one of the founders of Penn’s Department of Anthropology, who had purchased four Kanehsatake Mohawk wampum belts from a Frenchman in 1913. Speck sold two belts to his colleague Edward Sapir and two to George Gustav Heye, founder of the Museum of the American Indian. Bruchac also uncovered evidence of a 1970s state investigation into the secretive sales of more than 80,000 Native objects from MAI into the private art market. She then charted the transactions that led up to the Sotheby’s notice.

“Remarkably, all of this was documentable,” she says. “That’s where restorative methodologies come in because sometimes artifacts can circulate so far from their Indigenous origins, and so many false meanings can be attached along the way.”

Bruchac’s approach has already solved one mystery at Penn. A wampum belt currently on display in the Penn Museum’s “Native American Voices” exhibition is labeled simply “circa 1800, culture: Haudenosaunee.” Bruchac traced this belt’s history to a very particular diplomatic act. Oral traditions said that just such a “path” wampum belt had been given by the Oneida to the Stockbridge Mohican to ensure their safe passage through Haudenosaunee territory in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Bruchac discovered that, in 1797, the Stockbridge handed a Haudenosaunee wampum belt to the Rev. Elkanah Holmes for a similar purpose; the records described this belt precisely. Holmes’ descendants concealed the belt after his death and eventually sold it to a collector, who sold it to the Penn Museum.

With a similarly thorough tack, Bruchac is working on a book manuscript titled “Consorting with Savages: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists” (University of Arizona Press) that examines working relationships between anthropologists and Native Americans in the early 20th century.

“My premise was that we could recover a better understanding of how anthropology as a discipline emerged if we could figure out what the social relations on the ground were between specific Native informants and specific anthropologists,” she says.

The book profiles iconic and decades-long partnerships between anthropologist-Native “informant” teams including Franz Boas and George Hunt, William Fenton and Jesse Cornplanter, Mark Raymond Harrington and Bertha Parker and Frank Speck and Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan woman who studied at Penn and became Speck’s longtime collaborator.

“What I’ve found so far changes not only our perception of the intellectual savvy of Native informants, but also the influence of Indigenous knowledges that shaped Speck’s approach to research,” Bruchac says.

Bruchac chairs a faculty working group on Native American Studies at Penn, and she also serves as coordinator for the new Native American and Indigenous Studies minor, which she plans to eventually develop into a program. Down the road, Bruchac foresees a research center devoted to this field of study. As part of that initiative, Bruchac and her faculty colleagues are organizing two conferences for the fall of 2014, one with a focus on wampum and another that will discuss how to incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the academy. 

“It can be a challenge to peel back stereotypical myths and interweave different forms of knowledge,” she says, “but I know that Native American histories will be more accurately represented and that the Penn community will be enlightened as a result.”

Learn more about Bruchac's latest work on her blog, "On the Wampum Trail."