Art of the Americas to World War I
Anishinaabe, possibly Mississauga Ojibwa, Shoulder bag (missing strap), c. 1800, tanned leather, porcupine quills, dye, glass beads, silk ribbon, metal cones, and deer hair, Possibly made in Ontario, Canada; possibly made in Michigan, United States; possibly made in Wisconsin, United States, 30.5 × 22.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
TORRENCE: This bag is one of the most famous objects in the Diker Collection, because it was photographed in 1845 being worn by the Reverend Peter Jones, who was a Mississauga Ojibwa man who was also the first ordained Native American Methodist minister. He traveled to England as a diplomat trying to secure the lands of his people. He was photographed in Scotland and it’s the oldest known photograph of a Native American that has survived, and this bag is hanging prominently on his left side, so it’s an object that has great historical dimension. It’s missing its shoulder strap. It dates from probably around 1800 and it’s typical of bags of this type that were produced throughout the Great Lakes area, mostly by Anishinaabe women, and they were made specifically for men to carry personal effects. It’s constructed of black dyed leather and ornamented with porcupine quills with fringe of metal cones and dyed horse hair across the bottom. It’s a classic depiction of Anishinaabe or Woodlands world view, ornamented with images of spirit beings or manitous. The most predominant form is a thunder bird, or a thunderer in the middle, which is the principle power of the upper world in Anishinaabe world view. To its left there is an image of a turtle, which represents the underworld and those powers that were strongly associated with healing, and then to the thunderer’s right is a human figure, that might very well be a protégé of a thunderer in human form. Perhaps it represented the owner of the bag, we really don’t know. Bordering the edges are wavy lines that are sometimes interpreted as water. I think more accurately it may be that they represent the transmission of cosmic power, sacred power. It’s essentially a drawing in porcupine quills on leather. Quillwork is a time-consuming, exacting process, and one would think that the result would be rather mechanical. Actually, this whole image is filled with life. Those figures seem animated, they seem engaged with one another. They really are alive.