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Museums Work to Credit the Individuals Behind Native American Artwork

About two centuries ago, a Connecticut Paugussett woman wove a beautiful basket out of wood splints using the traditional method of local Native peoples. The basket was sold to a farm family, traveled to Ohio, eventually returned to this state and now rests in a museum here.

It’s extraordinary for having survived. It’s even more extraordinary because we know exactly who made it.

Museums across the world are now engaged in a phenomenally difficult effort to match individual names to pieces of American Indian art, to recognize their creators as artists rather than simply labeling these works as generic “artifacts” from a particular tribe or era.

This kind of historical detective work is tough for researchers no matter what Native American culture they are studying, says Stephen Cook, curator of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard. “Most Native American art collected before the 20th Century, no one ever recorded who made it,” Cook says.

In New England, where European colonialists, war and disease began destroying and scattering Native peoples as far back as the 1600s, the task is often impossible.

Which is what makes that Paugusset basket so remarkable. It was made by a woman named Molly Hatchett and now holds a place of honor in the Mashantucket Pequot Museum’s collection.

Cook says being able to definitely identify a particular piece of art or craftsmanship with a particular Native American artist or artisan “will help the entire field immensely.” Experts can then compare other pieces of pottery or basketry or bead work to the work known to have been produced by a particular individual who lived and worked in a particular time and place.

The Paugussets originally lived in the area where the Naugatuck and Housatonic Rivers joined, and it was in that general area where Molly Hatchett lived for many years, sold her baskets, and impressed people enough so that they wrote down information about her.

According to researchers at the museum, Molly Hatchett was described by contemporaries as a “tall and powerful woman, with piercing black eyes, and long black hair falling over her shoulder.” She lived and traveled in many places in western Connecticut, including in a home built for her on Two Mile Brook in Derby.

Only three or four of her baskets are now known, Cook says. The one in the Mashantucket Pequot collection is for hanging on a wall and was most likely sold to a local Connecticut farm family that eventually migrated to Ohio. The basket was given to the Western Reserve Historical Society in that state, which eventually returned it to Connecticut.

On the front of the basked is written: “Basket made about 90 years ago in Derby Conn. By a Squaw Named Mollie Hatchett.”

Cook says Hatchett is also known to have made small “basket rattles” for babies and given or sold them to friends or families living in her area. Now, when a similar style of rattle is discovered, it’s cautiously labeled as a “basket baby rattle in the style of Molly Hatchett,” Cook says.

A very few other Native American basket makers from Connecticut have also been identified, according to Cook, including a Nipmuc family called Cisco that worked in northeastern Connecticut near what is now the Massachusetts border.

Modern technology is helping investigators seeking to pin down where and when and who might have made individual pieces of American Indian artwork, says Cook, “especially in the area of material science.”

Techies can now tell a researcher the chemical compounds that were used in pigment mixtures that might have decorated a particular style of basket or pottery. Cook says those findings can then be compared to other pieces of artwork or possibly used to determine whether those pigments could have come from a specific location.

Connecticut’s state archaeologist, Nicholas Bellantoni, says there is even the possibility that fingerprint identification could be used in some extraordinary cases. There are pieces of Native American pottery at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at the University of Connecticut where marks that “suggest a thumb print” were left in the clay by the person who made the item.

The Internet has also become an essential tool for researchers.

Cook says Native American artifacts and artwork — particularly early New England examples — are often found in museum collections in other states, Canada, England, Scotland, France and other European nations that got involved in exploration or exploitation of North America. “Some of the earliest non-archaeological collections for southern New England are in England,” says Cook.

In the past, researchers often had no idea what was hidden away in the collections of distant museums.

Today, vast collections like that of the American Museum of Natural History in New York have been made available online, including original documents about when and where particular items were found or donated, and by whom.

“I can go through those collections online,” Cook says, comparing artifacts in the Mashantucket Pequot collection to see if they can be matched to those at other museums, saving vast amounts of time and expense.

Even where it’s impossible to put a specific name to a Native American artwork, researchers in the field have begun to follow the practice of European art historians in identifying particular pieces of artwork as being by the same master artist, even if the actual name is unknown.

Cook warns that the practice “is controversial even in European art” because of the danger of making mistakes and misidentifying an artwork. With Native American art, where there are often very few pieces of a particular type from a particular tribe or region available, the risks of error are even higher.

“It’s a very, very difficult thing,” says Cook.

All of which makes you realize how lucky we are to know as much as we do about Molly Hatchett and those baskets of hers.



Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun