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  • Collecting among the MenominiCultural Assault in Twentieth-Century Wisconsin
  • David R. M. Beck (bio)

We do not want to have any disagreement with the American Museum people and yet we can not let them skin the state without making all possible effort to get ahead of them where it can be done. . . . I presume if they get wind of you they will try to jump ahead of where you are working in order to get first pickings.

Henry L. Ward, director of the Milwaukee Public Museum, to Samuel A. Barrett, curator of anthropology, July 12, 1910

Collectors and ethnologists launched an assault on the scale of an invasion in the cultural arena on the Menominee Reservation during the late nineteenth century. I began to consider the ways in which this assault has been incorporated into community memory in 1991, when I interviewed a distinguished tribal elder who vividly remembered a berry-picking outing with her sister and her mother decades earlier. On an otherwise beautiful day her mother returned from around the bend absolutely shocked and hurt because someone had opened graves and rifled them, scattering the remains. The person who told me this story did so when emphasizing to me what she referred to as “the desecration by anthropologists.” She used the word desecration very strongly in this context, and then she told me another story.

Frances Densmore, an ethnomusicologist who became renowned for her studies of American Indian music in its cultural role, interviewed this elder’s grandmother in 1925 to collect songs for a book she would publish in 1932, Menominee Music. When Densmore left she borrowed a family photograph, a portion of which she published in her book. [End Page 157] Densmore knew the photo had been lent to her, not given. She stated as much in a letter to Matthew Stirling, the chief of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE), when she requested he copy the photo and return the original to her. Stirling never returned the photo to the family from whom Densmore had taken it, and Densmore apparently never followed up. Instead of returning the original, which now sits in the museum files, the museum sent to the family a cheap print, which fell apart with age. That was the only picture the family owned of one of the family members depicted, and when Densmore published the picture, that individual was cropped out.

The elder asked whether I was returning to the Smithsonian, and when I said yes, she asked me to find out what had happened to the photograph. A copy of the photograph in the National Anthropological Archives with cryptic origin markings on the back and a series of correspondence within the institutional archives unraveled the answer related here, and I was able to purchase a new print and bring it back to the family.1

Though as my studies continued I would learn that the issues surrounding collection of material culture and knowledge are complex, with multiple power relationships between tribal members and various types of collectors, it was at this point that I began to think of the documentation I was coming across in museum records and archival collections as representing both assault and invasion in this community. This assault was remembered by elders who felt the emotional distress it caused their parents and grandparents. From the late nineteenth century through the early 1930s a succession of collectors, ethnologists, and other scholars scoured the Menominee Reservation for data and items of material culture, which they carted off to present to the American public through both publication and display. They did this with the cautious aid of Menominees they hired to provide interpretation skills and access to many of the tribe’s elderly and non-Catholic members.

Articles and books about various aspects of Menominee culture, from music to language to religion, resulted, as did a proliferation of museum collections. These form the bulk of the early-twentieth-century literature on Menominee history and culture as well as the basis for the Menominee holdings in such repositories as the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and the two great New York ethnological museums, the...


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pp. 157-193
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