When art historian Megan A. Smetzer took on the challenge of helping to digitize the Hood Museum’s huge collection of North American art, she never imagined that the work would lead her full circle back to North Vancouver.

Yet when Megan found herself looking at a headdress frontlet and tunic embroidered with a sisiutl—a two-headed mythical serpent of Kwakwaka’wakw origin—she felt sure she could find out more about its original owners. She sent a message to the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.

Unbelievably, the museum was able to locate a photo of a man wearing the exact same headdress and tunic. Believing that this individual was probably the original owner, they then located the man’s descendants, now living in North Vancouver, and put them in touch with the Hood Museum of Art—just one of the many intertwining stories that make Megan’s work so fascinating.

Megan, who teaches art history at Capilano University, specializes in the art of the coastal Northwest. In 2011, she wrote an essay for Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum on Expressing Identity in an Intercultural World for the museum’s Native American Art catalogue. The Hood museum then asked her to be part of a grant application that would allow the museum to digitize its entire collection of North American Indigenous art—some 7000 pieces. Most of this collection has remained undisplayed since the early 1900s.

Fortunately for Megan, the Hood was awarded the $150,000 grant. Curator of collections Katherine Hart sent her catalog records of around 400 hundred objects from their Northwest Coast collection.

Using her network of contacts, she spent a week researching the various pieces to locate more detailed information on the items’ origins and possible owners. The Hood Museum then flew her to Dartmouth, New Hampshire, where she spent another week amongst the items themselves, adding to their records and creating video pieces about her most exciting discoveries.

According to Megan, the Hood Museum’s Native American art collection, while not as well-known as some, is “quite extensive,” especially for a university museum. Digitizing the collection will make it accessible to the communities where the pieces actually came from.

“There’s a lot of knowledge that these communities have that they may be willing to share, and vice versa,” she says, noting that some pieces could also be repatriated back to the clans from which they came. The collection is particularly strong in Tlingit material, Megan’s area of specialization. A Tlingit tunic from the collection was already repatriated back to an Alaskan clan in 2002.

Nuanced and respectful

In fact, Megan was able to locate archival photos taken at the turn of the 20th century of a button robe currently held in the Hood collection—a rare achievement. The photos lead her to believe the robe came from Wrangell, Alaska. The Hood is trying to track down the button robe’s originating clan, with a view to potentially repatriating the important piece.

In addition to this, museums are working to become more culturally sensitive and more respectful in how they handle their Native American collections, Megan says.

In her work at the Hood Museum, she was able to identify several items as potentially shamanic materials. Protocol requires that shamanic items not be seen by just anyone, so the museum is working to confirm this and to house the items away from open shelving.

This kind of respect also means accurately identifying holdings so that Indigenous scholars and practitioners of the art forms can study them. As part of her work, Megan was able to help the Hood Museum to correctly identify baskets that had been previously classed as “Eskimo” in origin. To Megan’s eyes, however, the baskets appeared more like Tlingit work.

“These baskets were driving me crazy,” she says. The woman who had donated the items had included detailed notes and sketches with them—something that rarely happens, Megan says. The notes indicated that the baskets were “very, very old, acquired from a gold miner who got them in Alaska.”

Megan began researching, and while flipping through a book, found a photo of baskets nearly identical to the ones in the Hood collection. The author who had written that chapter just happened to be a retired curator who lived down the road from Megan’s mother in Fairbanks, Alaska. She sent the curator photos of the “Eskimo” baskets, and was thus able to confirm that the baskets are almost certainly of Chugach origin, one of the Alutiiq peoples.

“Women’s work”

The Hood collection is also rich in items of particular interest to Megan: souvenir materials from the early 1900s, such as baskets and model totem poles. These pieces haven’t been widely studied, she says, because they aren’t seen as ‘authentic’ in origin.

But Megan believes there is a lot to be learned from these tourist items about the interaction between settlers and Indigenous women attempting to make a living in an “oppressive” era. She is particularly interested in women’s work, such as Tlingit women’s beadwork—a subject on which she is currently writing a book.

“Souvenirs were an amazing way for women to feed their families,” Megan says, “better than working in a cannery.” Women could make $300 over a summer making and selling tourist items, she explains, but might make only $100 over a summer working at a cannery.

She is excited that a new generation of young Indigenous artists is taking up the challenge to recover women’s history and “correct the imbalance brought about by the imposition of patriarchal structures such as religion and government” on the traditionally matrilineal cultures of the northern Coastal peoples.

“Women’s history is so under-researched,” Megan says, “but there’s so much richness there.” 

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