A selection of items from the John P. McGovern Hall of The Americas

Northwest Coast, ca. 1900.

Hooks were individually made and decorated with carved images meant to help attract fish. Fishing is still the primary economic activity for many Northwest Coast people, and fleets of modern fishing boats can be seen in some villages.

Inuit, Alaska. 1875-1900.

The rounded blade of a woman’s knife made it useful for almost every job from chopping ice to skinning game. Before European contact, ulus were made of ground slate, the same material of which chalk boards used to be made. Slate was the only rock available in the area that was useful for such purposes.

Paleoindian, North America, ca. 11,000 BC. Clovis points are among the oldest known stone tools in the North America, preceded only by the aptly called pre-Clovis points. Clovis points were used when hunting large game, like mammoths and mastodons. They were probably hafted onto a long shaft, to be thrusted into an animal at close range by the hunter.

Loan from the collection of William M. Wheless, III.

Artist: Calvin Hunt, Fort Rupert, British Columbia.

Kwakwaka’wakw, British Columbia, 1998.

Among the most magical of all Northwest Coast masks was a type called a transformation mask. The dancer could pull hidden strings and the mask would open to reveal a second, or even a third, inner being. This piece represents a raven that can change to human form. In Kuikuitl (Kwakwaka’wakw) mythology, it is believed that humans had once been members of the animal world, until one day they shed their animal skin and lost the ability to communicate with animals. Masks like this one recall that mythology. Shamans were believed to retain the ability to talk to animals and spirits, allowing them access to secret knowledge.

Colima, West Mexico, 200 B.C. – 200 A.D.

Dogs were one of the few domesticated animals in Mesoamerica. They served as hunting companions, pets, and food. Ceramic dogs like these are usually found as grave goods in so-called shaft tombs in the modern state of Colima, Mexico.

Artist: Tammy Garcia, Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico, late 20th century.

This modern art piece represents a long iconographic tradition in American Indian society. The artist named this piece Water element; its three combined symbols represent water, lightning and cloud elements. Tammy Garcia comes from a long line of Santa Clara Pueblo artists. Her great-great-great grandmother, Sara Fina Tafoya, was a potter. Her great-great aunt, Margaret Tafoya, was a noted potter of the early 20th century, along with her sister Christina Naranjo. Subsequent generations of potters in the family include Mary Cain and Linda Cain, Tammy Garcia's grandmother and mother respectively.

Ancestral Pueblo, (Anasazi), ca. 1200 A.D.

Eight hundred years ago, a very skilled potter created this large storage vessel (olla). By the time it came to the museum, it was broken into lots of pieces. A professional conservator worked, over many months, to consolidate and join the broken pieces. A new base and rim were painstakingly crafted so that the artistry and skill of the vessel’s unknown maker could be appreciated once more.

Central Mexico, 150 BC - 700 A.D.

A large number of impressive stone masks were produced at Teotihuacan. Although long believed to be funerary masks, none have actually been found in a scientifically excavated burial. Only a handful of stone masks have been found by archaeologists in excavations. They were not placed in tombs, but have been found among the public and religious buildings that border the Street of the Dead, a ritual avenue that traversed the city from north to south. Masks in the Teotihuacan style have been a prized item for European and American collectors since the nineteenth century and many have been faked to supply this lucrative market. The abstract, schematic expression and planar geometry of this large mask are typical of the Teotihuacan style.

Nazca, Peru, 400-500 A.D.

This parrot feather poncho was preserved for more than a millennium and a half by the desert. The feathers, prized as trade items, came from birds that lived in areas well beyond the Nazca region. We know from Spanish accounts that “in Cuzco there was a house in which are kept more than 100,000 dried birds, for from their feathers articles of clothing are made…” Rather than being a work tunic, this exquisite garment would have been a prized possession.

Tlingit, Alaska, 1880-1900.

Woven from mountain goat wool and cedar bark, Chilkat robes, also known as “dancing blankets,” were worn by high-ranking men and women on ceremonial occasions. Women created these intricate weavings, painstakingly reproducing crest designs that had been painted on wooden pattern boards. This type of weaving originated with the Tsimshian, whose word for the blanket is Gwis-halait (interpreted as “dancing blanket”). Its use spread to the Tlingit and Haida (and the Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw culture by means of marriage). The right to wear a Chilkat is inherited.

Nazca, Peru, 100 BC - 600 A.D.

Precolumbian Peruvian potters were quite creative. They would make vessels known as whistling pots. This polychrome spouted pot has a so-called stirrup handle, connecting the spout with a three dimensional rendering of a human head. A small hole in the top of this head ensured that a whistling sound would escape as liquid was poured in or out of the vessel.

Teotihuacan, 200-750 A.D.

Incense burners were very common in this central Mexican megalopolis. Predating the Aztecs by at least 600 years or more, the Teotihuacanos built some of Mexico's best known pyramids. This incense burner lid was decorated with molded figures sporting human faces wearing earspools and stylized butterfly nose ornaments.

Artist: Ed McDougall, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw, Alert Bay, British Columbia, late 20th century.

The potlatch ceremony was of the utmost importance to the wealthiest and most powerful chieftains among the tribes of the Northwest Coast. A backdrop to negotiations over hunting territories and trading rights, the ceremony involved the exchange (and sometimes deliberate destruction) of copper shields and Chilkat blankets. Considered an exotic item, copper was thought to hold supernatural properties. A gift of a copper - or even a portion of a copper - placed a powerful obligation upon the recipient; it compelled them to reciprocate with gifting a greater value of coppers than were received. The inability to do so would result in a loss of prestige.

Aztec, 1325 - 1521 A.D.

The Aztec skeleton represents Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, a god associated with the Venus star and the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs believed he devoured people out late at night. Such images were also used to teach children obedience. A test called thermoluminescence test confirmed that this artifact was made in the early 1500s.

Maya Lowlands. Late Classic period, 550-850 A.D.

The Classic Maya excelled in manufacturing exquisite symbols of authority, including the so-called eccentric. Made from chert, this ceremonial scepter represents the profile of K’awiil, the symbol of royal authority.

Loan from the collection of William M. Wheless, III.

Plains or Midwest, 1890-1920.

This type of headdress originated with the tribes along the Missouri River and spread westward to the Great Plains. Made from porcupine guard hairs and dyed deer hair, roaches are still an important part of the Plains male dancer’s attire and are seen at pow-wows.

Chancay, Peru, 1000 – 1430 A.D.

The Chancay culture inhabited the central coast region of Peru, centering its activities in the Chancay and Chillón valleys but also occupying the Rimac Valley and the Lurín area. This is a desert region, but its fertile valleys form resource-rich river oases. The Chancay people built large cemeteries to house their dead, although they buried them in different ways. The elite were buried in rectangular or quadrangular chambers with roofs of sticks and mud, 2 to 3 meters (up to 10 feet) deep, and accessed by a ladder. These tombs brimmed with offerings of ceramics, textiles, and artifacts made of precious metals. Ordinary people were laid to rest much shallower graves; these usually contained a bundle with undecorated fabric and a few grave goods.

Inuit, Alaska, 1875-1900.

Inuit carvers used a hand-powered bow drill to sculpt the raw ivory. The line of the bow wraps around the shaft of the drill. With the mouthpiece held between the teeth, one hand turns the drill while the other guides the carving.

Moche, 1 - 800 A.D.

Musical instruments were an integral part of ritual processions in the Moche culture. Moche ceramics show priests and warriors as well as skeletal individuals walking in line or dancing while playing panpipes, flutes, trumpets, and drums.

The Remojadas Culture (600-900 AD) is famed for the large quantity and variety of figurines its craftsmen produced. Molds were used to create a series of standardized figures; artists around the world still use this method today. Figures like this one were probably intended for burial, but the culture produced toys as well. Interestingly, figures of animals featuring wheels have been found at Remojadas sites. This discovery completely refutes early assertions that New World societies lacked the technology of the wheel.

Haida, Tlingit, or Tsimshian, Northwest Coast, ca. 1850.

The face of a seal decorates the head of this piece, which was probably used to club fish.

Plains Indian, possibly Lakota, late 19th century.

Cradles were a hands-free way of carrying infants. They ensured the child was close and safe while the mother went about her daily tasks. Cradleboards could be propped up against a tree or other hard surface or attached to a mother’s back with straps. The straps could also be used to hang the cradle from a saddle horn or a tree branch, where their gentle movements might rock the baby to sleep.

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