Sara Komarnisky: I am working with a beaded belt, also known as 1938.36.1715. The belt is loom-woven of grey thread and seed beads to make a slim band with a repeating pattern of purple and yellow pointed-figures and diamonds on a black background. I measured the object, counted the beads, read the tag, and took photographs. As I worked, I thought about how the object traveled from Minnesota, across the ocean to Oxford, to become part of the Pitt Rivers Museum collections. I wondered who else has handled this object. I wondered who made it, and what became of them.
I was interested in working with this object because its catalogue record indicates that it was made by a Chippewa (Ojibwe) patient at the Ah-Gwah-Ching tuberculosis (TB) sanatorium in Minnesota (also known as the Walker Sanatorium). The beaded belt was given to Beatrice Blackwood by the Superintendent of the Occupational Therapy Department of the sanatorium when she visited the region on a collecting trip in 1939.
Before we visited the PRM in April, I had already learned a bit about art and craft made by Indigenous patients in TB hospitals in Canada. From the 1940s to the 1960s, northern Inuit and First Nations children, women and men who tested positive for TB were sent to sanatoria in southern Canada for treatment. Once they were well enough, patients were encouraged to make arts and crafts as therapy, and they produced carvings, paintings, beadwork, embroidery, tooled leather, and sewn goods. Their works were sold in gift shops, and became part of private and museum collections across the country.
This belt from the Ah-Gwah-Ching Sanatorium tells a similar story from the other side of the border, an object that can give insight into the role of hospitals in the creation of markets for Indigenous art, and as sites for the production of actual art and craft objects in the United States.
Laura Peers: This belt was acquired by Beatrice Blackwood who was then a staff member in the Pitt Rivers Museum who was doing a second tour of North America, I think she went to a conference around the outbreak of WWII. It’s said to have been made by patients at the Walker sanatorium at Minnesota, and given to Blackwood by the superintendent of the occupational therapy department. She’d been to Minnesota before on a previous trip.
Sara Komarnisky: Presumably Ojibwe, because, with objects from Canadian sanatoria, anyway, sometimes something will say “Inuit” in the museum record, but patients at TB hospitals came from a really large geography, and it can be hard to know.
Laura Peers: Speaking of mobility, by the time Beatrice Blackwood went back to North America, she had been to New Guinea. So in terms of globalization, she’d been to Minnesota from England, she’d gone to New Guinea, and she went back to the United States.
Beverly Lemire: That’s huge.
Laura Peers: There are diaries from Blackwood’s trips, but basically she knew people in Minnesota from trips she did in the 1920s, and found a way to meet with those people when she visited years later.
Sara Komarnisky: I was curious about why Beatrice Blackwood visited the sanatorium – was it a destination for the purchase of Ojibwe art and craft? Was this belt a particularly fine example of the type of art and craft made in the occupational therapy program, suitable as a gift for a woman from a prestigious international university?
Anne Whitelaw: I’m wondering if the gift came from women either working at the sanatorium, or attached to it as members of a women’s auxiliary group. These women’s volunteer organizations were so important for the circulation of Indigenous made arts and crafts. Women volunteered as members of auxiliary organizations, as museum docents, as members of the Junior league, and ran many of the ancillary functions of North American museums and galleries, e.g education programs, tea rooms and gift shops. They were points of connection for museums, for gift shops, so I wonder how much contact Beatrice Blackwood would have had with other women.
Laura Peers: That’s possible, but on her first trip certainly, she was the “lady from Oxford” and she was passed very carefully from one colonial official to another. So the Indian agent picked her up at the train station and took her to the school. The principal hosted her, who was a man. So she was dealing with men.
Sara Komarnisky: The belt may have been made by a woman as well. So, what can we learn about the position of women in the field (Blackwood) and in an institution (anonymous patient) in the 1930s? The belt was also made in an occupational therapy department in the 1930s, earlier than the occupational therapy programs in TB hospitals in Canada. What is the relationship between these programs? Can this belt also help to tell a story about the mobility of objects, of people, and of ideas – ideas about occupational therapy, of Indigenous art and craft, of museum collecting?
Laura Peers: So one of my questions is, did the hospital staff provide patterns and instructions for patients?
Sara Komarnisky: Yes, in the Canadian hospitals it seems they did do that. In fact they would use the same books in different hospitals, that’s my understanding. In terms of the pattern, or what’s depicted, you can’t get as good of a sense of who made it, because it’s potentially coming from a pattern book, or the instructor.
Anne Whitelaw: And there were ideas of what “Indian craft” should look like through those patterns.
Sara Komarnisky: Exactly.
Judy Half: The belts were often made on model looms then and the beads would have reflected the popular bead colors: purple and green (an industrial type of bead). Halford Hide (in Edmonton) still sells loom prepackages.
There is an older loom style that native people used, made of wood with carved sides or a stick with thread that ran across. The thread would have been raised above the wood with pieces of paper. This would allow a patient to bead more effectively on the loom.
Sara Komarnisky: That is important context to know. We can also look closer at the belt, knowing that it was made in an institution within a colonial system of care and assimilation. Many occupational therapy programs employed non-Indigenous instructors to transform the Indigenous wards into productive subjects, giving them “something to do” and crucially ”something to sell” as they convalesced.
What is also important to note is that people started to integrate their tribal designs (floral, geometric, animal motifs) onto loom-made beading. In the 1930-50's women were making loom headband, belts and side panels for jackets and so forth.
Beverly Lemire: I think we need to think about pattern making and patterns, because of course you see the same thing with so many categories of goods, quilts for example. Standardization, and yet, within this standardization, there’s the potential individual choice of colour – potentially there is a voice in the variations. Patterning doesn’t mean absolute standardization. At least I don’t think it does.
Sara Komarnisky: No, no not at all, and there are some pretty unique things, like, one object I saw from the Camsell Hospital, it’s a little carved oil lamp made out of soap stone, but the person who carved it added a flame made of plastic. My colleague told me that having a flame in there is pretty odd for this type of carving, it’s atypical. So you can imagine someone carving this thing and maybe coming across a really nice piece of red plastic and adding that in.
Judy Half: One of my eldest cousins was working at the TB hospital in Edmonton, the Charles Camsell. In that period they made little pairs of figures that were sewn together, a chief(dom) and woman. Later on, I saw both my mom and eldest cousin make these same figures. And, as a matter of fact, I am planning to film and spend a day with my eldest cousin to make a pair of this type of native woman and man.
Laura Peers: There is richness in this history. This is also actually a very typical Ojibwe kind of manufacture, probably made for tourist sale, but also partly made to be part of pow wow costumes and dance costumes, generally. They were doing lots of loom work and strips with plain backgrounds and stars and arrows. This is referenced in Frances Densmore's Chippewa Customs. But the colours on this are interesting. I’m not sure if it’s just someone experimenting with 1920’s colours, you know, the way quilts shift colours in the 20’s, or whether that was the only material available to her at the time, or whether the therapist said “oh, why don’t you try purple and yellow.”
Sara Komarnisky: Hospital staff may have provided patients with patterns, or suggestions about what arts and crafts were valued for sale or what Indigenous art should look like. But at the same time as these hospitals were agents of a colonial state, the occupational therapy programs may have been a much more nuanced “contact zone”. For Indigenous patients, did art and craft open possibilities?