Archive for the 'fur/hair' Category

Object: Lion’s Mane Headdress

Object: Lion’s Mane Headdress

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Lion’s Mane Headdress

Oromo

Ethiopia

1960s-1970s

Lion skin and mane, red cotton fabric

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E/1975/5/001 Lion Mane Headdress in the Sam Noble Ethnology Collection

 

This striking artifact comes from Ethiopia. On first glance you might think you are looking at a glamorously highlighted wig. However, looks can be deceiving. This headdress is actually created by using the scalp and mane of a lion. Due to the declining lion population in Ethiopia, headdresses made from lion manes are rarely, if ever, created in modern times. Today, fur from other animals are used, such as horse hair. Headdresses made from animal furs or plant fibers are worn by many Ethiopian ethnic groups. It is possible that this style of ornamentation was inspired by or traded between varying tribes in the region. However, this headdress is likely attributed to the Omoro people, specifically the Shoa Oromo.oromodia

The Omoro is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, making up a population of roughly 30 million. This area is largely supported by an agricultural economy with coffee and spices being the largest exported goods. In this regard, many aspects of labor in the region are unchanged from earlier centuries. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the cultural integrity of the Oromo people. Between 1870 and 1900, a colonization of the region subjected the Oromo people to cruelty and genocide. These cultural clashes continue in some areas today, where even celebratory gatherings can turn to violence.

 

Still, despite these struggles the Oromo people have continued to work to protect and preserve cultural traditions. As the tourism industry grows in the area, many Oromo people have found both an economic and cultural outlet by entertaining tourist groups with traditional song, art, and dance. Traditional Ethiopian dance or “eskista” is performed by both men and women. Eskista dancers generally form rows or line up in groups and actively engage everyone in the room with their shoulders shakes and shimmies. Eskista dances can consist of a single dancer or a large group of both men and women together. Traditionally, different kinds of eskistas tell different stories or teach a myriad of life lessons. Each tribal or ethnic group has their own variation of movement and regalia.

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A children’s illustration highlights the traditional dance attire worn during the Shoa Omoro dance.

Eskista translates roughly to mean “dancing shoulders” in Amharic. This perfectly describes the traditional dance style of the Shoa Oromo which includes rapid shoulder , head bouncing, and the flipping of hair. Traditionally, the male performers don a lion headdress. Male performers usually wear light colored fabric and carry a stick.  Traditionally, the female performers wear a brown two-piece dress with fringe or shell decoration. While dancing, they use their full-bodied hair to enhance their dance movements.

Check out this Shoa Oromo dance below with a traditionally styled headdress on the male performer. This dance makes me smile!

 

 

 

 

Sources and Additional Reading

 

http://www.gadaa.com/aboutOromo.html

http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/02/africa/lost-lion-population-discovered-ethiopia/index.html

http://www.allaroundthisworld.com/learn/africa-2/ethiopia-for-kids/ethiopia-eskista/#.Wfd8flynFns

http://saba.air-nifty.com/mocha_ethiopia_dance_e/introducing-ethiopian-fol.html

https://www.hrw.org/report/2017/09/19/fuel-fire/security-force-response-2016-irreecha-cultural-festival

 

((Christina J. Naruszewicz))

Musha Ningyo: Japanese Warrior Dolls

The Sam Noble Ethnology collection has a set of Japanese Musha Ningyo (warrior) dolls that were created for Gogatsu, or “Boys’ Day” held annually on May 5th. Girls have Hina Matsuri, the Doll Festival, held on March 3rd. Unlike Hina Matsuri, a doll display is not required for Gogatsu. The most important festive item is a banner or windsock in the shape of a carp attached from a pole near the home (Figure 1). Traditionally, one fish is raised for each boy child, however since 1948, the Gogatsu holiday was rededicated by the Japanese government to include all children (Kodomo no hi). Ever since, families hoist a carp banner for each child. The carp symbolizes strength for its determination to swim upstream. Even though dolls are not required for Gogatsu, many dolls have been purchased and displayed for the occasion. The most popular are soldiers and infamous generals, legendary rules, and boy heroes. Tigers, representing Japan’s relationship with Korea, and a white horse, symbolizing the Emperor, are also common. A doll that represents an armed soldier or lord is a Musha ningyo. The five dolls described below are a mix of famous boy heroes, generals, and legendary rulers.

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Figure 1. Carp windsocks, courtesy of BBC Two YouTube video: Children’s Day Festival-Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands

 

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Figure 2. Kintaro Doll

Kintaro (Golden Boy) is a popular young hero who is displayed during Gogatsu to inspire boys to have courage and bravery. He is known as the Japanese “Hercules” for his incredible strength. Kintaro was known to uproot trees to create bridges over torrential mountain streams. Kintaro was the son of an officer of the imperial guards who fell into disgrace and took his own life. His mother, Yaegiri, described as a beautiful courtesan, escaped to Mount Ashigara. Some accounts say that she raised Kintaro, while others suggest that she abandoned the infant and he was nursed by mountain witches, yama-uba. Kintaro’s first companions were the wild animals of the forest. There are stories of Kintaro racing against the animals and he is often depicted as either riding a bear, welding an ax, or judging a wrestling match between the animals. Most depictions of Kintaro have the character welding an ax, but this doll holds a rope (Figure 2). Unlike the other dolls, Kintaro’s skin has a reddish tone, indicating the character’s relationship with the natural elements. When he became an adult, Kintaro was approached by Raiko’s (legendary heroic leader) retainer, Watanabe no Tsuna. Tsuna recruited Kintaro to be one of the Four Guardian Kings, protectors of Raiko. Kintaro’s name was changed to Sakata no Kintoki and as one of the Four Guardian Kings, they are credited with exterminating all the monsters, ogres, and demons in Japan.

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Figure 3. Momotaro, front side.

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Figure 4. Momotaro, back side. 

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Momotaro Doll

Asia: Japan

Wood, Textile, Porcelain, Hair/Fur, Other Metal

Momotaro is another highly popular boy hero. A childless old elderly couple found a the boy in a large peach. They name him Momotaro (Peach Boy). He becomes a valiant youth, and befriends a monkey, a dog, and a pheasant. Together, they traveled to Devil’s Island (Onigashimu) to slay the demons and bring home treasures. Here is a version of the story, written in 1908 by Y.T. Ozaki: Momotaro, or The Story of the Son of a Peach. Momotaro’s legend became an emblem of modern Japanese nationality in the late 19th and 20th centuries. According to Dr. Klaus Antoni, professor from the University of Tuebingen, Momotaro’s legend was used as war propaganda for young school pupils. Devil’s Island is alluded to be Hawaii and the devils to be the American soldiers. There were also two animated films Momotaro’s Sea Eagles in 1943 and Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors in 1945 (Figure 5), which was also the first full-length Japanese animation film. Both were directed by Mitsuyo Seo, who was ordered by the Japanese Naval Ministry to make these propaganda films. Both films are available on YouTube. Click on the film titles above to watch the films.

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Figure 5. Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, photo courtesy of Crunchyroll. 

After WWII, Momotaro’s status as war propaganda diminished and the legendary character remains as a popular model for courage and bravery. This Momotaro doll (Figure 3) holds a standard in his left hand with Japanese Hirigana characters for Nihon ichi, meaning “Japan #1.” There is a peach on the end of the standard, and a symbol of a peach on the back of his vest (Figure 4). He wears a bright orange samurai outfit and a Kabuto helmet. Underneath his helmet, Momotaro’s hairstyle is a chonmage (topknot), often associated with the Edo period. Unlike Kintaro, this Momotaro doll has pale white skin, indicating youth and purity.

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Figure 6. Minamoto no Yoshisune Doll

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Minamoto no Yoshisune Doll

Asia: Japan

Paper, Textile, Porcelain, Hair/Fur

Like the Momotaro doll, the Yoshitsune doll is wearing a bright orange samurai outfit and has a similar Kabuto helmet (Figure 6). However, Yoshitsune is wearing more armor and is holding a tassel in his left hand. Minamoto no Yoshisune was a great young general of the late 12th century. When Yoshisune’s father, Minamoto Yoshitomo, was killed in the Heiji Distrubance (1159), Yoshisune was raised in a Buddhist monastery. According to a popular legend, he encountered Benkei, a warrior monk on a bridge.  They crossed swords. Benkei was defeated by Yoshisune and became his retainer (Figure 7). When Yoshisune was 15, he left the monastery to join his older brother, Minamoto no Yoritomo. Yoshisune became a general quickly due to his talent of military leadership in the Genki and Heike wars between the Minamoto and Taira clans. Thus, he became popular in the Emperor’s court. Yoritomo became jealous of Yoshitsune’s popularity and branded Yoshisune as a traitor. Yoshitsune tried to raise a rebellion against his brother. When he failed, he wandered Japan for several years as a fugitive before his forced suicide. Yoritomo brought Japan under his control and became the first Shogun.

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Figure 7. Yoshisune and Benkei Japanese Print, courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art

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Figure 8. Jimmu Tenno Doll

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Jimmu Tenno Doll

Asia: Japan

Porcelain, Textile, Hair/Fur, Wood, Plastic

Jimmu Tenno is known as the first emperor of Japan (Figure 9). He is the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Not much is told of this quasi-historical figure. As told in the Kojiki, “Records of Ancient Matters,” the oldest accounts of the myths surrounding the origins of Japan, one of Jimmu’s retainers dreamt of a magic sword, sent by Amaterasu, to give to Jimmu. The retainer woke up, located the sword, and presented it to Jimmu. Jimmu used the blade to pacify the central Land of the Reed Plain (Yamato), built a palace there, and married a local princess of divine ancestry.

The Jimmu Tenno doll wears two of the Sacred Treasures of Japan around his neck: The Divine Mirror and the Yasakani no Magatama jewels (Figure 8). The sword on his back might be the third treasure, the Kusanagi sword. These treasures are signs of his divine ancestry. This doll is noticeably more realistic than the others. Also, instead of samurai armor, he is wearing brocaded clothing in an ancient Chinese style, another indication of his legendary status. The bird next to Jimmu’s foot, a kite, was originally on his hand.

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Figure 9. Jimmu Tenno Japanese Print, courtesy of Toshidama Galley. 

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Figure 10. Toyomi Hideyoshi and Kato Kiyomasa Dolls. 

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Toyomi Hideyoshi Doll

Asia: Japan

Wood, Textile, Porcelain, Hair/Fur, Metal, Paper

Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1590-98 was a general of peasant birth, not of samurai descent (Figure 11). He completed the 16th century unification of Japan after more than two centuries of feudal warfare. He prohibited the use of swords by farmers, merchants, and monks and introduced the shi-nō-kō-shō which froze class distinctions by separating warriors, farmers, artisans, and tradesmen. Each class lived in different areas of a town or village. The purpose was to promote order in a feudal society. Since he was originally a peasant, Hideyoshi was illiterate and considered uncultured. He secretly educated himself, wrote poetry, and learned the intricate rituals of the tea ceremony. He fought in numerous battles, and invaded Korea twice, until his death at the age of 62, but he did not ever proclaim himself as Shogun.

The Hideyoshi doll (sitting on the horse) has a helmet with a metal sunburst fanning out from the back (Figure 9). Much like the Jimmu Tenno doll, Hideyoshi and the second man, who is probably Kato Kiyomasa, Hideyoshi’s general, look realistic, including flesh-tone skin rather than the distinctive white pale completion of Momotaro and Yoshisune.  Kato Kiyomasa is from the same town and not from samurai descent. He was a formidable fighter and leader, and aided in the invasion of Korea. The prints of Kiyomasa show him with a long, thick beard, and wearing a distinctive silver conical helmet with antlers (Figure 12).

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Figure 11. Toyomi Hideyoshi Japanese Print, courtesy of thinklink. 

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Figure 12. Kato Kiyomasa, Hideyoshi’s general Japanese Print, courtesy of The British Museum 

(Caitlin Severs)

References/Further Readings

Antoni, Klaus. 1991. “Momotaro (The Peach Boy) and the Spirit of Japan: Concerning the Function of a Fairy Tale in Japanese Nationalism of the Early Showa Age.” Asian Folklore Studies. 50.1: 155-188.

Barbanson, Adrienne. 1961. Fables in Ivory: Japanese Netsuke and Their Legends. Tuttle: North Clarendon, Vermont. Pg. 76.

Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Minamoto-Yoshitsune

Kigawa, Michiyo. “Kodomo no hi: Children’s Day Celebration,”

http://aboutjapan.japansociety.org/kodomo_no_hi_childrens_day_celebration#sthash.71W2Z76N.dpbs.

Kuwata, Tadachika. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Toyotomi-Hideyoshi.

Shoaf, Judy. 2015. “Gogatsu or ‘Boys’ Day’: Hero Dolls,” https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/japanese-dolls/gogatsu/.

Shoaf, Judy. 2015. “The Uses of Japanese Dolls,” https://people.clas.ufl.edu/jshoaf/japanese-dolls/doll-uses/.

Willis, Roy G. Ed. 1993. World Mythology. Henry Holt and Company: New York. Pg. 121-122.

 

 

 

Japanese Koguma Helmet

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Figure 1. Example of Koguma headgear worn by the imperial troops during the Japanese Civil War, or Boshin War. Image courtesy of the Sam Noble Museum of Oklahoma Natural History, Ethnology Department. 2017. Photo by Christina Naruszewicz.

Accession #- E/1955/17/006

Helmet/Head Gear

Japanese 1860s- (Approximately 1868-1869)

Materials: Lacquered Paper, Copper Fasteners, Fabric Lining, Horse Hair

This striking head-gear survives from an important period in Japanese history. These helmets are often referred to as “Bear Wigs” due to their wild and disheveled appearance. Worn in battle during the Japanese Civil War, or Boshin War (1868-1869), this style of head-gear identified the officers of the Japanese imperial troops. In addition to identifying officers on the battlefield, these types of “Bear Wigs” also represented different regions or clans depending on the color of the horse hair used.  Officers hailing from the southern region of Tosa Jinshotai, wore the Shaguma  helmet. The Shaguma helmet utilized dyes to create a vibrant and terrifying red wig. Officers from Choshu wore the Haguma helmet  which varied from white or cream. Finally, officers from Satsuma wore the Koguma  helmet, typically made from dark or black horse hair. Can you guess which region the helmet is from in figure 1.?

BoshinCampaignMap

Figure 2. Map of troop movement during the height of the Boshin War. Notice that the regions of “Choshu”, “Tosa”, and “Satsuma” are listed. These Samurai domains fought to return power to the Emperor, by joining the Imperial troops.  Image courtesy of http://www.newowrldencyclopedia.org/entry/Boshin_War

To understand the driving forces behind the Japanese Civil War, one must go back at least a decade. Beginning in 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his “Black Fleet” at Edo bay. Over the course of the next decade, more foreigners arrived, slowly eroding centuries of Japanese isolationism. However, not all of Japan was happy with the handling of foreign missionaries and traders. This was especially true for factions of young samurai and nobles in Japan from the regions of Tosa, Choshu, and Satsuma. These samurai felt that the reigning military Shogunate allowed the new foreign arrivals too much authority in making trade agreements.

A fissure between the two authoritative powers in Japan developed. On one side sat the political military power of the Samurai. This formed the Shogunate, or system of government headed by generals. Seated at the head of this political system was the Shogun, an reigning individual who, for centuries, controlled feudal Japan with absolute authority. On the other side of this military state, sat the imperial power of the Emperor. At this point in Japanese history the emperor was largely reduced to a ceremonial or religious figure. Although the Shogun ruled Japan entirely, it was still only through the acknowledgment or blessing of the emperor that this power was bestowed. Yet, the Boshin War would upheave this centuries-old power structure.

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Figure 3. Image of unknown imperial officer posing in uniform with “Bear Wig” helmet.

Rebellious samurai turned their backs on the Shogun, eager to return the emperor to complete rule. Supporters believed the teenaged Emperor Meji would restore Japan to isolationism, casting out the barbaric foreigners. Despite greater numbers and military skill, the shogun struggled against the relatively more modern weapons of the imperialist troops. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Tokugawa Shogunate abdicated his power to the emperor. This gesture would end the feudal Shogun’s power in Japan forever. When the war was fully resolved and the imperialists declared victory, the Emperor Meji ushered in the self-named, Meji Era. Interestingly, the imperial court did not pursue the removal of foreign agendas in Japan. On the contrary, Emperor Meji pushed Japan further towards globalization, seeking to modernize his country so that it could compete on an international level. Emperor Meji wrote into law the first compulsory education for both and girls, and met many heads of foreign state as equals.

 

 

Can you find the imperialist officers in this wood block print of battle?

Where does the color of their “Bear Wigs” tell us they are from?

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Figure 4. “Battle of Ueno”,  Kawanabe Kyosai, 1874. Wood Cut. Image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

[[Christina J. Naruszewicz]]

bibliography /Suggested Readings

  • Gonick, Gloria. Matsuri! Japanese Festival Arts. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2003. 
  • “Boshin War”, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Boshin_War
  • Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • “Perry In Japan”, http://library.brown.edu/cds/perry/people_Perry.html

Object: Kachina Doll

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Hopi, Arizona
Materials: Cotton Wood root, Horse Hair, Paint, Feathers

The Hopi live in what is now northeastern Arizona. Their reservation includes twelve villages on three mesas. Agriculture is one of the central aspects of Hopi life. Though they live in less then ideal conditions for farming, the Hopi have adapted to the arid climate by practicing agricultural methods such as dry farming and using irrigation. This does not mean, however, that rain is not an important part of Hopi life. It is in fact extremely important and something to be prayed for. One of the ways it is prayed for is through Kachina dances. Kachinas are spiritual beings that act as messengers for the Hopi, each one controlling a different aspect of the universe.

This carved figure is a Hopi kachina doll, created to represent a spiritual being in Hopi religion. There are over 400 kachina deities in Hopi religion. Traditional knowledge is an important part of Hopi culture. Hopi elders pass their knowledge on through the telling of stories. These stories include lessons on what it means to be Hopi. Kachina dolls are used to teach children about ritual knowledge. This kachina doll is a duck kachina, also known as the Pawikya kachina. It is believed to be a messenger to the rain gods for the Hopi people. This doll was created so that young Hopi children could learn about this deity’s role in the universe. Some kachinas teach children lessons on how to behave. When children misbehave, they are threatened by the idea of being taken away by the Soyoko kachina. This deity inspires good behavior in misbehaving children.

Hopi carvers produce kachina dolls using the root of a cottonwood tree. Traditionally, dolls are carved using a single piece of wood. First, the bark is removed to form a smooth surface. Several different tools are used in the carving process such as hammers, chisels, and knives. Once the carved surface is sanded smooth, the carver is ready to paint. Customarily, kachinas are painted using native mineral or vegetal pigments. However, kachina dolls made today for the open market are painted with modern dyes and paints. The duck kachina is decorated with clouds to represent its role as the rain messenger. Each doll is painted with its own unique symbols. Details are added last such as the red horsehair and feathers attached to the duck kachina. Other attachments include headpieces, weapons, and jewelry. For a closer look at the Kachina carving process watch this video.

Work Cited

2009. Agriculture. Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. http://www8.nau.edu/~hcpo-p/youth.html

2013. Reporter’s Notebook: Hopi Sacred Objects Returned Home. National Public Radio: All Things Considered. http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=213560746&m=213598104

Bohl Gerke, Sarah.
2008. Nature Culture and History at the Grand Canyon: Hopi Reservation. Arizona State University. http://grandcanyonhistory.clas.asu.edu/sites_adjacentlands_hopireservation.html

2010. Hopi Katsina Dolls: 100 Years of Carving. Heard Museum. http://www.heard.org/katsinadolls/faq.html

[Katherine Taylor]

Object: Headdress

E/1945/2/1
Hair roach headdress
Unknown tribe
North America: Plains
ca. 1900
Materials: Hair, bone, feather, cloth, and metal

The hair roach headdress has been a popular form of personal adornment amongst Native American tribes since at least the 19th century. The origins of this style headdress are unclear but some have suggested it was influenced by the red crest of the Pileated Woodpecker, or the style of “roaching” a horse’s mane, or was an adaptation of the “Mohawk” hairstyle.

Hair roaches like this one are made by attaching bundles of hair to a base cord. The base cord is then sewn together in concentric loops, starting at the inside of the roach and working outward. A “spreader” holds the hair of the roach open and helps to attach the ties that are used to secure the roach to the wearer’s head. The size and shape of the spreader affects how the hair of the roach stands and changes the overall look of the roach. Spreaders can be made of rawhide, bone, or metal. This example of a child sized roach from the Sam Noble Museum has a bone spreader, possibly from the scapula of a bison and the hair appears to be either deer or horse.  In modern Fancy Dance regalia, feathers are attached to the spreader on either a “rocker” or a “spinner.” These attachments are designed to make the feathers move more vigorously when dancing.

The following video demonstrates how to care for and store a porcupine hair roach headdress. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Saddle

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Saddle
Cheyenne (Believed to have belonged to Henry Roman Nose)
North America: United States
ca. 1870s
Materials: Wood, leather, sheep skin, metal

Paleontologists have discovered fossils of early horses in North America as far back as the Pleistocene epoch, 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago. However, sometime around 8,000-10,000 years ago horses became extinct in the Americas. Horses were only reintroduced to the American continents in the 16th century by Spanish explorers. The Spanish brought a number of types of horses with them over the years and many of these animals escaped into the wild. These horses are the source of the wild mustang herds that would eventually become so synonymous with the American West. Within roughly a century of being reintroduced to North America, horses were adopted by many Native American tribal groups.

While Native Americans borrowed some horse riding techniques and technology from the Spanish they were also quick to develop their own distinct types of tack. Two of the major types of Native American saddles were the pad saddle, and the wood (or woman’s) saddle. The pad saddle may have been adapted from the Spanish pack saddle and consisted of two leather cushions stuffed with grass or animal hair that were sewn together and  secured to the horse by a leather girth. Some pad saddles had a piece of rawhide between the two pads that would act as a seat for the rider and covered the girth attachments. Stirrups could also be hung from this rawhide strip. This type of saddle was preferred by men for hunting and warfare.  The wood (or woman’s) saddle was made of a wooden frame covered in rawhide and often decorated with beading and fringe. The frame was made of two roughly rectangular pieces of flat wood called sideboards that were connected by two forks of wood that formed the pommel and cantle. The top of each fork was bent outward, away from the rider. The entire frame would then be covered in rawhide, padding was added under the sideboards, and a girth would secure the saddle to the horse. Some wood saddles also had a strip of rawhide attached between the pommel and cantle for the seat, others placed a buffalo robe or blanket over the saddle frame for a more padded seat. This type of saddle was typically used by women. It could also be used to teach young children to ride and was helpful for attaching packs and materials to the horse for transport. One variation of the wood saddle is the so called “prairie chicken snare saddle.” This type may have been a modification of the wood saddle and appears to have been developed later. In this type of saddle the sideboards and girth were the same as that of the wood saddle. However, the pommel and cantle were formed out of elk or deer antlers and some had D-shaped flaps attached to facilitate attaching packs. This type of saddle was a multipurpose type that was used by older men, children and some women as a riding and pack saddle.

This saddle at the Sam Noble Museum is a variation of the wood saddle type and is reported to have belonged to Henry Roman Nose. Roman Nose (aka Woquini meaning “Hook Nose”) was born in 1856 and became a formidable Cheyenne warrior. In 1875 he was arrested along with other warring Cheyennes at the agency at Darlington. After his arrest he was sent to Ft. Marion in St. Augustine, Florida where he learned English. He was later moved to Virginia where he converted to Christianity and was baptized as Henry Caruthers Roman Nose. He learned tinsmith at a boarding school in Pennsylvania before returning to his homeland in 1881, eventually settling in Blaine County, OK. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: Tsantsa


E/1949/10/1
Tsantsa (fake)
Shuar
South America: Ecuador or Peru
Unknown (likely early 20th century)
Materials: Leather, hair, fur

The South American Shuar people, called Jivaro (meaning savage) by Euro-American traders, practiced ritual head shrinking for many years. Today tsantsa, or shrunken heads are displayed in museums as treasured artifacts of warfare; however, to the Shuar the head-shrinking ritual served a more important purpose. To the Shuar, the tsantsa is used to trap the muisak or avenging soul of slain persons. Tribal conflicts between the Ecuadorian Shuar and their Achuar neighbors often lead to deaths. In order to keep the muisak of a slain person from harming the warrior who killed him, the Shuar practiced a ritual head shrinking. The head of the slain person would be collected and taken back to the Shuar camp, where the skin would then be removed from the skull. The resulting skin pouch would be filled with hot sand or rock to dry and shrink the pouch. The eyes and mouth would then be sewed shut, the mouth with 3 loops indicating the 3-night ritual process of feasts and dancing. Charcoal from balsa wood would then be rubbed on the skin to create a blackened, oily appearance. The Shuar believed that this process would contain the avenging spirit inside the head, preventing it from harming the warrior responsible for his death. After the rituals were complete, the Shuar had varying uses for the tsantsa. Some warriors kept their heads, usually in a private location, only displaying the tsantsa in special circumstances. Other Shuar disposed of their tsantsa in the forest as the ritual purpose of the tsantsa was fulfilled, and the Shuar did not attribute any monetary value to them.

In the late 19th century, Victorian expeditions searching for gold discovered the tsantsa. Intrigued by the gruesome artifacts, traders exchanged guns and steel blades for the heads, many of which found their way into museums like the Sam Noble. While the Shuar were not actively producing tsantsa due to legislation and Catholic missionary influence, the market for the heads encouraged the tribesman to create tsantsa “fakes.”  These counterfeits include heads that are from non-human specimens such as monkeys  or heads made by non-tribal people, many coming from unclaimed bodies in the morgue. We believe the tsantsa in the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Museum to be a shrunken head not of a human, but of some sort of primate.

These fakes are still on the market today and can be easily spotted if one knows what to look for. For one, the lips of true tsantsa would have been sewn with heavy cotton strings, making three loops. Many fakes were sewn with thin string that indicates their lack of authenticity. Also, the real tsantsa have very fine nasal hair; Skin that was taken from a goat to be formed into a fake tsantsa would not have such hair. There would also be a stitch at the top of the head for a thread-loop for the slayer to hold or hang the head by, which most fakes lack. Also, fakes would lack the smooth oily skin achieved by rubbing it with charcoal.

While the ethical debate surrounding the display of human remains in museums continues, there are still many museums that display their collection of tsantsa heads. These museums include (The SNMONH cannot vouch for the authenticity of these heads) the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida; Museum Of America Madrid, Spain; Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, England; and the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, Memphis, Tennessee. It is important for visitors to remember that these heads should not be taken out of historical context and in no way offer complete representation of the Shuar culture. Many museums recognize the sensitive nature of these artifacts and have removed their tsantsa from exhibition. Have you seen tsantsa heads in any other museums? We would love to know what you thought of them.  Should tsantsa heads remain on display? Comment below!

For more information see:
Rubenstein, Steven Lee
2007  Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads.. Cultural Anthropology 22(3): 357-399
Rubenstein, Steven Lee
2004   Shuar Migrants and Shrunken Heads, Face to Face in a New York Museum.  Anthropology Today 20(3): 15–19.
Shah, Tahir
2001  A Price On Their Heads. Geographical.
[Chelsea Pierce]


Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.

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