This spectacular pouch (M740) combines a European cotton textile with a re-purposed trade silver armband, which is punched so that thin hide thongs can be threaded through and then netted. The hide netting is wrapped in porcupine quills instead of being knotted. The Thunderbird being it represents still looks out powerfully, two centuries after it was carried by one of Chief Tecumseh’s men in the War of 1812.
I first encountered this pouch in Ruth B. Phillips’ classic work Patterns of Power, in which it appeared with other late 18th and early 19th century Great Lakes items to place the Jasper Grant collection in context. Seeing it ‘in the real’ showed its visual and material (and spiritual) force, something that is never captured in photography. And it allowed us to make a discovery!
Captivated by the detail of the flowers in the little flowerpot on the trade silver band, I picked up a magnifying lens to look closer. Were those scratches on the band beside the flowerpot? They looked like letters! They were letters, and they spelled: PINESI.
Having worked with Ojibwe people for a long time, I know a little bit of Anishnabemowin, the Ojibwe language. I haven’t used it for a while, though, and while it was familiar—a bird name?—I knew just who to email from the research space: Alan Corbiere, Ojibwe historian and linguist. Alan was nearly as excited as I was to make such a discovery on a well-known piece, and his answer came back to us while we were still looking at the bag: it means thunderer or raptor. Normally used with a preverb to indicate a specific species, the word can be used on its on to mean Thunderbird, a powerful spiritual being in Ojibwe and related Algonquian world view.
So the bag shows a Thunderbird, and someone has scratched the word for it onto the silver trade band. Which must mean that the word was added by the person who acquired the bag, the non-Aboriginal collector, because the Aboriginal man who owned the bag would have known the word, and (even if he was literate) would not have felt the need to label it this way. The word documents the moment that the bag shifted across cultural boundaries, and moved from being a personal item of spiritual power to being something else: a memento of war, perhaps; a souvenir of time spent with Aboriginal warriors; an example of “savage” culture?
One of the compelling reasons we work with objects is this sense of other people’s hands on the same object, this proximity to past lives. We need cross-cultural methodologies that respect Aboriginal knowledge and protocols, in which Aboriginal language plays a key part in scholarly research, to begin to understand items such as the pouch. I had the sense that the pouch was giving us an opportunity the day we saw it. It will be interesting to see where we go with that.