Six Decades at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Barbara Hail – Curator Emerita

All Things Related

Hail at the Brooklyn Museum when consultant for TIPI exhibit, 2011.

In 1955 the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology transformed from a private collection with few viewers to a university museum with a diversified audience and a profound commitment to the indigenous peoples, world-wide, whose artifacts the museum held.  Douglas Anderson embedded this philosophy into our first mission statement, writing that we have a responsibility to the communities from whom our collections have come.

Rudolf Haffenreffer 3rd confirmed this tone of inclusion in his remarks to recent immigrants from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam whose arts we were collecting and exhibiting in the Fall of 1979, when he spoke at the opening of our Southeast Asian Festival. On a sunny October day, he stood outside of the museum, where colorful Hmong embroideries were hung for display and sale, and looked up at the hillside on which over 500 recent arrivals to Rhode Island were seated. He told them that he identified with them. His grandfather had come here from Germany in 1868 as an immigrant cooper and maltster and had made good in the New World, as he was sure they would also. He welcomed them to the nation and the state and the museum, and said that we were proud to showcase their arts of embroidery, sculpture, dance and music.

Bets Giddings, first curator of the museum, always emphasized the human aspect of the collections. She taught me that an anthropology museum is not just about the objects; rather it is much more about the people. She showed me how to regard a Navajo blanket, or a Hopi bread bowl, or a Lakota child’s beaded trousers from the viewpoint of its maker, to ask questions the artist may have asked: “Why do I need it? Where can I find the materials to make it? How can I make it beautiful as well as useful?  Is it important to the ongoing life of my people, or just to me?”

Hail showing the Haffenreffer staff the “Waterbirds” star quilt made by Claire Anne Packard, Yankton Dakota and Sicangu Lakota, just purchased at Northern Plains Tribal Arts, where it received “Best of Show.” 1994.

And so, through the museum’s collections, I sought the opportunity to meet and form friendships with some of the people who made these exceptional objects, or whose forebears had made them. When director Jane Dwyer organized our museum publication series, Studies in Anthropology and Material Culture in 1975, beginning with The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru (available for free online), and Burr’s Hill, she invited me to work on a volume of our Plains collection. I had spent much time in the Big Horn Mountains of northeastern Wyoming just south of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations in Montana, and welcomed the chance to work with Plains material. However, I soon found that, as with countless other Plains collections in museums, ours was poorly documented.  Many objects had been randomly purchased by nineteenth and early twentieth century tourists in the West, or had been obtained from other collectors, including George Heye, or at New England auctions, or from long-established suppliers of trade goods such as James Luongo of Plume Trading and Sales. Certain discrete collections with excellent histories stood out and I made a mental note to go back to them later. Meanwhile, I tried to devise a helping aid for methods of documentation that other small museums with similar collections might use, through which curators might place unattributed pieces in a framework of time and place. This was the secondary aim of the 1980 publication Hau, Kola! (available online for free), whose primary purpose was to make our collection available in print to a wider public.

In an effort to identify the origins of our collection I reached out to Native people I knew such as Kiowa artist Sharron Ahtone Harjo, Oklahoma skin-painter Wolf-Robe Hunt, and Northern Cheyenne bead worker Mary Underwood, as well as to museum colleagues who were Plains scholars: John Ewers, Richard Conn, James Howard, Evan Maurer, Candace Greene and Ted Brasser. I examined comparative well-documented collections in other museums, and compiled a list of these for others to consult. Looking at the late nineteenth century photographic record was also pertinent: W.H.Jackson, Charles Carpenter, Stanley Morrow, Walter McClintock, Fred Miller, F.A. Rinehart, and Henry Soule; as were primary sources such as written accounts of traders like Rudolph F. Kurz; artists’ renderings by Karl Bodmer, George Catlin, Frederick Remington, Charles Russell; and ethnographies by anthropologists James Mooney, Robert Lowie, Alfred Kroeber, George Dorsey, E.A.Hoebel  and George Bird Grinnell. Of course, it was of prime importance to thoroughly examine the piece itself, which could give up clues in the materials and techniques used.

Hail receiving honor shawl from Miss Kiowa. 1998.

After the intense effort necessary to document our collection through these multiple means, it became clear to me that in future my time might be better spent on those parts of our collection which actually had good history. And that one of the best ways to answer the many questions still unanswered was to go to the communities where the objects had originated, or to bring members of these communities to the museum. In both cases, discussions could be audio-taped for the museum collection files and for use in publications and education, and in documenting objects of interest to NAGPRA.

The first collection with good history that called out to me for study was that of Emma Shaw Colcleugh (1846-1940), a Rhode Island journalist and teacher who travelled extensively in the American West, Arctic, and Subarctic, and in Africa and the Pacific Islands. She financed her trips by writing descriptive and anecdotal reports about her travels for the Providence Journal in order to enlighten the “armchair travelers” at home.  Along the way, she made a small collection of 218 pieces, of which sixty-eight particularly interesting ones were from the Subarctic.  In 1930 she sold her collection to Rudolf Haffenreffer along with her collection notebook. Fortunately we had copies of her Journal articles, and access to other information from family members and former acquaintances.

And so, in 1985 and 1987, almost 100 years after her journeys in the central Subarctic, my art historian colleague Kate Duncan and I followed Colcleugh’s 1888-93 trail, in order to supplement the information she had provided to Rudolf Haffenreffer. We carried slides and color print images of the collection back to people in the Hudson’s Bay communities from whom she had collected. We began near Winnipeg, Manitoba, with its former Cree communities at Selkirk , Fort Garry and St. Peter’s Reserve; then north to the Cree of Norway House and Cross Lake on Lake Winnipeg, and The Pas on the Saskatchewan River; westward to Edmonton, Alberta and north on the Athabasca–Slave-Mackenzie river system to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca where a mixture of Cree, Metis and Chipewyan artists produced beautiful floral beadwork; on north to Fort Smith on the Slave River, to Hay River and Fort Rae (Dogrib) on Great Slave Lake and Fort Providence (Slavey) on the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. While Colcleugh had traveled by Hudson’s Bay Company steamer—she was only the second woman tourist it carried all the way to the Mackenzie River Delta and back—we had to approach these Hudson’s Bay Company villages by bus or plane, sometimes getting free rides from the Royal Mounted Police in a small Navajo seaplane.

Upon arriving in a village, armed with permits to interview from the Science Institute of the Northwest Territories and native band councils, we asked for the names of known bead workers, quill workers, moose hair tufting artists, woven hare-skin clothing makers and bark and babiche artists. These were the arts represented in the Colcleugh collection, and we wanted to find out how many of the traditional skills were still practiced and by whom. Invited into homes, we showed our slides on the white surface of refrigerators, while those who had gathered watched with intense interest, saying “yes, we still do that kind of work,” or “no, no one has done that since my grandmother passed away.” This process of photo-elicitation helped to revive fading memories, and the conversation would expand from the object to other remembrances of the old days.

Kiowa cradle-maker Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings with cradle she made for the Haffenreffer Museum. 1998.

One of our goals was to put together a contemporary collection of comparable types of materials so that we could study persistence and change within the same village over a hundred years’ period. A valuable addition to the collection was made by Joyce Smith, a fiber artist and our exhibition designer. She made a separate winter trip to Fort Providence in 1987 to film a video documentary of Rosa Lee Causa creating a woven hare-skin jacket. It shows Causa as she trapped the hare, cut the skin into long narrow strips, and constructed the loom for weaving the strips into a garment in a looped netting technique. At age 86, Causa was one of the few Dene women who still knew how to make articles of hare-skin. These contemporary examples joined a small collection of objects purchased between 1975 and 1980 from Chipewyan, Slavey and Cree people by former Brown graduate student William Tracy and his wife, Michelle. They hosted us in Edmonton, Alberta, helped us find Cree, Metis and Dene informants there, and Tracy contributed a chapter to the catalogue.

In 1989 we opened the Subarctic exhibit and published the catalogue Out of the North (available for free online). Director Shepard Krech, who had done extensive research in the Subarctic and Arctic, and I co-organized a symposium of scholars, and in 1991 their papers became Arctic Anthropology’s volume 28. We invited several Slavey artists from Ft. Providence, NWT to be honored guests. They arrived bearing packages of smoked jack fish and salmon, berries and sourdough starter. Museum staff, docents and Friends housed the guests in their homes. They stayed for two weeks and gave workshops in their arts, including that of weaving porcupine quills on a bow loom. We are still in touch with three of the women.

Gracelynn and Georgina GrowingThunder, daughters of Tahnee Harjo GT, with Kiowa doll cradle made by their great-grandmother Tahdo, and cradle made by great-great-great-great-grandmother Saintohoodle. 2013.

This kind of personal interaction with the makers and descendants of our collections can often be extremely satisfying to both sides and provides more complete cultural information than archival research alone. For the next project I wanted to take even a further step. By 1995 it was becoming clear that museums of anthropology, if they were to survive, should be inviting the indigenous makers and descendants of makers to speak for themselves about their objects. And so I determined that I would begin with our small collection of Kiowa material from Oklahoma that had come to Rudolf Haffenreffer in 1934 from a known collector, George Rowell of Stamford, CT, whose brother James had married a Kiowa woman. Rowell had purchased objects from the Oklahoma side of the family during the first quarter of the twentieth century. Included were three fully beaded lattice cradles, decorated hide clothing and narrative skin paintings. He had included the names of the makers of the cradles and the paintings.

When Sharron Ahtone Harjo had first viewed the cradles on exhibit at the Plains Festival, she had said “the Rowell family are my cousins and I don’t think they know their cradles are here.” She contacted Dr. Everett Rhoades, grandson of Maud Rowell, one of the makers, and the family came from Oklahoma to visit the museum. Through their delight in becoming re-united with their cradles our joint idea for locating and identifying known cradles in museums took root.

Fully beaded Kiowa cradles are exceptionally beautiful and highly prized, and extremely rare. Kiowas have called them “a house for the beginning of life,” “a gift of pride and love,” ”a safe haven for our children that connect us to our past.” We thought that an exhibit and catalogue of such cradles would be of great interest, and would help to bring attention and long overdue appreciation to the skills of the formerly unrecognized makers.  I believe that museums of anthropology have an obligation to the people whose collections they hold: to give back to communities the information that has been lost, to acknowledge early anonymous artists, to recognize current known artists, and to share with all communities the ongoing scholarship related to their creations.

With the help of Sharron and her father, Kiowa tribal elder Jacob Ahtone, I was able to contact numerous Kiowa families who still owned their family cradles. Others could show me photographs of themselves as babies in a cradle but had no idea where the cradle was now. It had “gotten away” during the hard times of the early twentieth century. I took their photos with me as I visited cradle collections in major museums, and sometimes I was able to recognize a match. What great happiness that caused! The neighboring Comanche people also made lattice cradles, sometimes but not usually bead-decorated. Since the cradles are basically alike in construction and since the tribal attributions are often confused in museums, it seemed best to study the Kiowa and Comanche material together. Tribal artist Juanita Pahdopony–Mithlo aided me in contacting Comanche families.

Jacob Ahtone accompanied me to Oklahoma and Colorado museums. He was always on the lookout for more of his mother Tahdo’s cradles. It is impossible to replicate his excitement in a museum storage room when he would cry out “that’s my mother’s cradle! I watched her do that leaf beading.”  Tahdo used a distinctive abstract oak leaf pattern, and a singular method of attaching boards to cover by lacing through 9 holes, the thong forming a square divided into quarters. 

Book signing, Kiowa-Comanche authors. 2000.

We formed a Kiowa-Comanche Cradle Committee of thirteen individuals from cradle-making families, some of whom were cradle-makers themselves. Each of them agreed to allow their cradle to be a part of the two-year traveling exhibit, Gifts of Pride and Love, and each agreed to write a chapter about their own family cradle, and/or to contribute to the DVD accompanying the exhibit (book available from N.Scott Momaday wrote the Introduction, telling the story of his grandmother who was a cradle maker. My part was to edit the chapters, write the historical overview, and be principal investigator for the NEH-NEA exhibit. We located a total of 36 cradles and doll cradles that could be traced to a particular family or maker. At each of the six venues, members of the committee participated in the opening programs, or stayed to provide workshops. Before an exhibit opened, Jacob Ahtone walked the gallery, smudging each cradle and praying that it would be safe until it returned home. Museum staff members were invited to these sessions, which enabled them to better appreciate the unique meaning of the cradles in the lives of their owners. The cradles are not sacred, but they are of great cultural importance, representing the old semi-nomadic way of life before Reservation days began.

Our entire small staff worked together to make this major exhibit happen. Candace Greene, who as a graduate student had served as museum proctor and is now a Smithsonian Curator, served as anthropological consultant. Rip Gerry, assistant project director and RISD graduate Jamie Verinis produced the DVD, Kristen Holly and Natalie Mumpower transcribed interviews of Elders, conservator Alexandra O’Donnell, and Stuart Parnes, guest exhibition designer, accompanied the exhibit. Because of the fragility of the beadwork, and the concerns of the private lenders, Alexandra was the only team member allowed to place the cradles in their exhibit cases and to remove them afterward. Lyn Udvardy and Patsy Sanford prepared educational materials, Thierry Gentis registered the collection and long-suffering office manager Kathy Luke handled the bookkeeping for the grant.

At the request of Jacob Ahtone, and as a final gesture toward equal participation in the exhibit between museum and tribes, a van load of exhibit cases and DVD equipment was delivered to the Kiowa Tribal Museum and the Comanche Tribal Center at the close of the tour. A life-size mounted photograph of their own cradle maker was given to each family.

Sikkimese student Sonam Denjongpa and Tibetan monk Llama Jiktse with prayer flags outside museum. 1976.

The enduring pleasure of researching anthropological collections hand in hand with the people who made them has resulted in lifelong friendships. Brown student Sonam Denjongpa of Sikkim added many of his personal possessions to our collections and created a Himalayan education program in 1976 which involved hundreds of school children. They came to the museum to see brightly colored silk prayer flags lining the driveway down to the education barn, where a Tibetan monk was waiting to teach them how to print their own flags by pressing white muslin over an inked hand-carved wood block. Sonam and his wife Maria have since created a school in Sikkim which espouses Sikkimese cultural, religious and artistic values—values they feared were being lost after the takeover of that country by India.

Margot Schevill chose anthropology as a second career, after years as a professional singer. As part of her Brown MA degree she apprenticed herself to a Mayan weaver in Guatemala. She returned to help organize and register the museum’s large collection of nineteenth and twentieth century Guatemalan and Mexican textiles, and to curate a major exhibition with symposium and catalogue entitled Costume as Communication (available for free online). She has continued to work closely with weavers and museum collections over the past quarter century.

Jennifer Edwards Weston, Hunkpapa Lakota of Standing Rock, North Dakota played a vital role in our education programs while she was an undergraduate student at Brown, re-writing the Plains section from an insider’s point of view. She is now Director of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, helping to reinvigorate that language among Wampanoag people.

David Gregg and Ann McMullen researched the museum’s archaeological and historic New England collections, respectively, as doctoral students, and contributed to Passionate Hobby (available for free online), the book celebrating Rudolf Haffenreffer. Ann chaired a committee of Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot and Niantic tribal Elders who were authorities on their own history, to inform the content of our Entering the Circle exhibit in 1992, which marked the 500 years since Columbus had arrived in the New World. David is now Director of the R.I. Natural History Survey and Ann is a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, S.I.

Elizabeth Hoover, of Miq’mac /Mohawk descent, served as proctor to the museum in 2000 while studying for her doctorate at Brown. Together she and I visited Mohawk communities in search of information about the museum’s Iroquois painted board cradles and also interviewed contemporary artists. Now a Brown Assistant Professor, she has been an advocate for environmental issues and is publishing a book on the present day food economy of Native people. These are just a few examples of the roles our former students are playing in affecting today’s larger social issues.

Finally, my friend Sharron Ahtone Harjo , whom I first met in 1967 when I was a judge at All American Indian Days in Sheridan, Wyoming, and she was Miss Indian America, has lectured and exhibited her paintings at the Haffenreffer Museum a number of times since the 1981 Plains Festival. Sharron’s daughter Tahnee, who was brought to the Plains Festival when she was three years old, is now a curator at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and a graduate student in Museum Studies at Harvard. Our museum is the repository for some of her exceptionable beadwork. The connections among all of us continue through the years, adding pleasure and knowledge to the understanding of the objects in our care. Museum anthropologists, students, collections, and indigenous artists are intimately linked, in the Indian tradition of seeing the world as “all things related.”


  1. Elizabeth Byers

    What a lovely time capsule of memories. The Haffenreffer Museum and its wonderful staff and friends have led remarkable celebrations of culture, art, and community over the decades. So many lives impacted! Thanks for this warm-hearted re-telling.

  2. Ellen WIlson

    How well I remember my years at the museum and the hands-on programs we developed and brought into the surrounding schools of RI and Mass both with trips to the schools carrying artifacts and the wonderful programs we devised by Bets and Barbara and me for the kids to learn of other coming to the museum and experiencing the well designed programs for a hands on experience with the different cultures presented in depth.

  3. Edward Hail

    Hail, mom! The good old Haffenreffer! I still remember having Thanksgiving dinner there with the family in the big tipi, roasting the turkey over the fire, the corn and potatoes in the ashes, and scooping and eating succotash with a quahog shell, all by flickering firelight seasoned with wood smoke. Time there and in the museum helped this young Anglo suburbanite see and honor the First Americans!

  4. Malinda Bergamini Chapman

    Thank you for sharing this! How proud you should all be of this wonderful work spanning so many decades and cultures. I am so thankful that you recognized a way to make it a living, experiential museum that respects diversity and tradition. Thank you for explaining all this work and for enriching so many of our lives.

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