Dolls as Ambassadors of Native Culture 
from the Pequot Museum, Mashantucket, Connecticut

Neetôpáwees (nee-top-a-wees) is the Pequot word for “little friends.”  Join the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center on a journey of discovery to learn why our neetôpáwees are called ambassadors of culture. The historical and contemporary dolls show some of the important roles that dolls have played in Native North American tribal communities for a very long time.

While most of our dolls come from Eastern Woodlands cultures, others are from a wide range of North American tribes. One has traveled all the way from St. David’s Island, Bermuda – learn why this doll is so important to Pequot history.

The Many Roles of Dolls

The earliest dolls found in North America represented a spiritual power in healing and ceremonies. These dolls are often called medicine dolls, and because they are considered sacred, they are not included in this exhibit. Over time, some dolls took on the role of guardians and protectors. 

Other dolls performed different roles. They were given as gifts, sold as souvenirs, and offered as toys. Sparking imaginative play, the dolls allowed young people to act out the skills needed in the adult world.

Mákooôkanash | Gifts

Gifts are frequently exchanged when tribes visit each other. Gift giving serves as an important way to show respect and reinforce social relationships, but most importantly, it is a way for Native people to honor one another. As gifts, dolls act as little “ambassadors” from one tribe to another.

“They were given to friends and people who had some specific interest in them or people that perhaps we wanted to honor in some way for something they had done.”

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan)

Tree of Nations

In 1999, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center wrote to Native American tribes across the United States asking for Christmas tree ornaments for what would be the Museum's Tree of Nations. 

Several tribes sent dolls to represent their nation. Every December the decorated tree is displayed in the Museum's Gathering Space.

The Tree of Nations is on view every December at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.

Ahkee | Land 

Native American doll makers have a long tradition of using materials gathered from the natural world. Many of these materials are used for other activities, from food and clothing to houses. 

For example, people use birch bark for containers, canoes, and housing.  Corn is grown for food and the husks woven into mats and containers; palmetto leaves are woven into baskets and used as roofing. What dolls are made of tells us much about the natural resources available to the creators.

The Houma people of Louisiana have made dolls from Spanish moss for a long time. To process the moss, artist Janie Verret Luster explains, 

“The old way of (curing the Spanish moss) was to put it in the Bayou … taking away the air supply it would start to die and then after … two or three weeks … submerged in the water, you would take it out and put it on the banks of the Bayou in a good sunny location and the sun would dry (it) ... that grey would eventually fall off ... it takes anywhere from … six to nine months … for it to turn completely black.”

Môyákanah | Clothes

Most Native doll makers dress their creations in traditional clothing – clothing they are familiar with and that reflect their culture. Every part of the clothing is made in miniature detail, from the use of Native tanned hides and wool trade cloth to intricate bead and porcupine quill embroidery.  Sometimes, small versions of everyday items such as bags, pouches, jewelry, hunting tools, and cradleboards accompany the dolls.

“[The clothes on my dolls are] similar to what my great grandmother would have worn back in the olden days … she always wore the skirts … and the blouse.” 

Janie Varret Luster (Houma)

I know some people like to have dolls made in certain styles and dresses because someone that they loved … had passed on so they use them as a picture … to remind them of this event or this person … and I think that … would probably be, going back, to historical times where they didn’t have cameras and they didn’t have anything to remind them of something that might have happened or a loved one … and I would imagine a doll would have taken the place of that picture. 

Debra Doxtater (Mohawk)

Uyuhtôqatash | Stories

Stories are everywhere – even dolls have stories to tell. Some tell ancient stories of Creation while others honor important community members from the past and present.  Still other dolls have stories that pass on wisdom and traditions. Through dolls we learn and remember important lessons and people.

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan) shared this story about her uncle, Harold Tantaquidgeon and his guardian dolls, which he carved out of wood.

“Harold was always very concerned with protecting the Tantaquidgeon Museum in a spiritual and physical sense. He took his job of protecting the museum with guardian dolls and other forms of protection very seriously. These dolls are not play things, his dolls are not toys for children, his dolls were much more serious and they were dolls with a job to do.”

Tôn Nutuyeemun | What We Do

Doll makers take inspiration from the world around them, often posing their dolls in ways that reflect Native cultural traditions. Some dolls show activities, including hunting, fishing, trapping, and preparing meals. Other dolls celebrate the importance of music and dance in Native lives. Our dolls reflect important cultural activities that make us who we are as Native people.

Why are some Native American dolls made without faces? 

Many tribes have stories about why some dolls are made with no faces. The stories vary but all have important lessons. 

Some Native people believe that dolls without faces encourage children to imagine all sorts of possibilities.  Other lessons include to not judge others by our differences but appreciate our similarities, and to teach about the dangers of vanity and forgetting your responsibilities.

The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) have different stories around the lesson of vanity. 

One is that the cornhusk doll was created in order to bring happiness to the children. Everywhere she went the people told her how beautiful she was. The cornhusk doll began spending too much time admiring her reflection in the still waters of ponds and puddles. She spent so much time gazing at her face that she forgot about her primary duty – to bring happiness to the children, and this angered the Creator. She did not heed the warnings of the Creator to stop admiring herself and so her face was taken away.

“I always wanted to draw a face on the cornhusk, but (my father) wouldn’t let us.  It wasn’t until years later that my dad was teaching at a school in Yonkers, up in the Bronx, and he brought in our cornhusk dolls, and one of the kids asked him about the cornhusk doll and how come there’s no face, and I remember him telling them that it was because we are all made different.  When you have two cornhusk dolls and they can’t see each other, then they would think they were the same.” 

Willow Casanova (Mashantucket Pequot)

Credits: Story

Support — The Pepsi Bottling Group
Support — Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation
Expertise — Erin Hall, Pequot Language Advisor
Expertise — Russ Handsman, Consultant
Expertise — Michael Kickingbear & Carol Swiftwaters Johnson, Single Feather Media
Mount Maker — John Litwin, ArtifactIntact
Expertise — Trudie Lamb Richmond, Consultant

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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