Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Vast in its Vastness

· October 4th, 2017 · No Comments

Today’s post is by Nathaniel Holly, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at William & Mary. He attended Robert Morrissey’s VastEarlyAmerica lecture at W&M, an annual event that the OI sponsors in conjunction with various departments on campus, on Monday, October 2.

Vast in its Vastness: Borderlands Hide Paintings and the Historical Processes of Early America by Nathaniel Holly

When I arrived at the Omohundro Institute’s Second Annual Vast Early America Lecture, I thought I was prepared for the vastness I was about to encounter. Glancing up at Robert Morrissey’s opening slide—which introduced his talk, “Hiding in the Tallgrass: Art and Identity in Early America’s Central Borderlands—my eyes immediately went to the “Central Borderlands” bit of the title and I lamented another lost opportunity. While geographical vastness is certainly an integral ingredient in what has made the Institute’s multi-platform drive for expanding the definition of what counts as early American history, there have been stacks of monographs and journal articles pushing our early American gaze westward, northward, and southward. How else, I wondered, can scholars expand our understanding of early America? Fortunately for the audience, Morrissey was prepared to answer that very question by boldly going where neither art historians nor historians had gone before.

At the outset of his talk, Morrissey forced the audience to consider the benefits of examining more expansive “bodies of evidence” by using a larger methodological toolbox. Although Morrissey alluded to the possibilities of environmental history illuminating some of the historical shadows that remain in the center of North America, his focus on a number of hide paintings revealed that early Americanists have much to gain by practicing inter-disciplinary scholarship. The “Trocadero Four”—a collection of four hide paintings currently housed at the Musée de Quai Branly in Paris—were at the center of Morrissey’s lecture. For Morrissey, these hide paintings offer historians a way to write native-centered histories that would be impossible if they only relied on documents created by Europeans. Simply by treating these hide painting as evidence worthy of consideration and interpretation, Morrissey demonstrated another way to expand our conceptions of early American history.

After a detailed discussion of these four hide paintings and their artistic similarities—they share geometrical designs, a color palette, and a tendency towards the abstract—Morrissey admitted that their provenance is less than reliable. As a result, historians have been reluctant to use these hides as sources. Morrissey, however, wasn’t discouraged. He continued his search for the identity of these indigenous artists by comparing Trocadero Four to some more well-known “bodies of evidence”: hides painted by the Quapaw and the tattooed bodies of Iroquois and Fox Indians. While each of these source share commonalities with the Trocadero Four, none of them are exact matches. The tattoos of the Fox and Iroquois closely resemble some of the arrow-shaped patterns found on the Trocadero robes. And the Quapaw robes share a color-palette and the thunderbird motif. For Morrissey, this means that the Trocadero Four were not created by the Quapaw, Iroquois, or Fox. Perhaps it was the Illinois who lived between and interacted with all of these peoples who painted the hides. But as Morrissey admitted, we can’t know for sure. What now? Morrissey’s detective approach resulted in some interesting comparisons and possible identities for the artists, but not the certainty that most scholars demand. Is this the limit of vast early American history—a series of qualified possibilities?

Yet what began as a classic “whodunit”—a search for the identity of those who created the Trocadero four—quickly transitioned into something much more ambitious. A howdunit of sorts. Rather than continuing an impossible quest for identity, Morrissey expanded his scope of inquiry and began a search for process. What were these hides used for? What could explain the “cultural hybridity” that the Trocadero hides exhibit? For Morrissey, the hybrid culture of the artists in question resulted from cross-cultural migration, diplomacy, and especially slavery. Not only were hides like these used to incorporate slaves and other outsiders into indigenous societies in this borderlands region, but the enslaved labor used to produce these sorts of hides also likely welcomed the sort of cultural borrowing that Morrissey uncovered in his search for the hides’ creators. The hybrid cultures that formed in this borderlands region were, Morrissey argued, a result of complex processes of exchange and mixing typified by indigenous slavery. Cultural adaptation, in other words, was not just a reaction to the arrival of Europeans. These hide paintings are evidence of a “different sort métissage” initiated by Indigenous interactions with one another.

By expanding his base of evidence to include indigenous hide paintings, incorporating the techniques of art historians, anthropologists, and historians, and asking big questions about how early America worked, Morrissey provided his audience with Vast Early American history at its very best. Indeed, his “vast” approach to early American history generally and the Trocadero hides specifically led to Morrissey’s creation of a Native-centered history that not only challenges our conceptions of what and where counts as early America, but also has the ability to dramatically alter the master narrative of early American history.

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