Native Americans are living in our midst, as a wonderful combination of artistry and technology at the Penn Museum makes abundantly clear. Today more than 565 tribal entities are federally recognized, but many of them are struggling to prevent their culture and languages from dying out. Although these tribes seem to suffer no shortage of spokespersons dedicated to explaining their culture, most of us have been oblivious to what’s in our midst.
The Penn Museum is ideally suited to address this lapse. Its collection includes some 120,000 archaeological specimens and 40,000 ethnographic objects — hairbrushes, toys, tools, bowls — from Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean. Its current show, Native American Voices, begins with recorded narrations by active Native Americans. Use your finger to indicate your choice of speakers pictured on the entrance columns. Listen, then proceed into the first gallery with the circle of benches around an image of an open fire. (No toasted marshmallows, sad to say.)
The surrounding cases display more than 250 objects of Native American culture: clothing, baskets, drums, weapons, tools, and — a surprise to me — lacrosse sticks. My gym teacher never told us that the game originated with the Iroquois. Lacrosse wasn’t the only game on this continent. We can view the Cherokees’ wooden sticks and ball, used for their own variation of stickball. Gambling, with dice cast on a large round tray, was very popular with women of the Yokuta tribe. They played for money, generally at funerals. Maybe they were celebrating the passing of a male overseer.
Ancient clay bowls made by the Pueblos in the Mesa Verde, Colorado seem contemporary with their graduated striped patterns and graceful profiles. Stone blades by the Lenapes in Bucks County date from 50 B.C. back to 1000 B.C. A group of them were found buried in shallow ground.
More recent objects are the saddlebag decorated with beads and eagle feathers made by a Cheyenne around 1840 and colorful, high moccasin boots for women of hide and glass beads made by the Plains Native Americans around 1890. Look for the colorful young boy’s pants of hide with beads by the Lakota or Sioux in South Dakota, and the Kiowas’ cradleboard for carrying a baby on your back circa 1875. The upright carrying position is just what today’s medical profession recommends to prevent SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
The exhibition includes many objects created by the Lenape people of the Philadelphia region — the presumed ancestors of all the other Algonquin speaking groups, many of whom were forcibly moved to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Canada.