Date posted:  February 15, 2016

Gilcrease Museum received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to fund a project to create the largest, multidisciplinary, searchable online catalogue of ancient Mississippian ceramic vessels. The award, a Museums for America (MFA) grant in the amount of $150,000, was one of 211 given across the nation. Seven Oklahoma institutions received grants, with Gilcrease Museum receiving the largest award in the state.

In the award letter, IMLS noted that it “recognized innovation and cultural significance” in the Gilcrease proposed project titled “Native Artists and Scholars Bring Past to Present: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Mississippian Culture Pottery.” The project will create a database and searchable terms that will be developed in collaboration with tribes who trace their ancestry to the sites and region from which these collections come, as well as archaeologists, ethnologists and tribal artists who are continuing the ceramic traditions of their people. By adding diverse perspectives from information experts, subject-matter experts, and cultural experts to guide the cataloguing, this project will result in a robust public catalogue with records and images that are easily and comprehensively searchable using scholarly terms and design motifs.

This project is a part of the larger initiative to digitize the Gilcrease collection. Within the museum’s archaeology collection, these 3,500 objects from the Lemley Collection of Mississippian period (700 CE – 1650 CE) ceramic vessels are highly regarded and much in demand for study. Assembled during the first half of the 20th century by Harry J. Lemley, a federal judge in Arkansas, the collection is comprised principally of objects from Missouri and Arkansas. Upon his death, the collection came to Gilcrease Museum where these items have quietly been in storage since 1955.

IMLS reviewers described this as a model project for the nation because of the way it will help reconnect pre-Columbian cultures with their modern-day descendants. Even before the founding of the United States, Native American communities were systematically pushed aside and forgotten as an ever-growing population of Europeans moved across North America.

The most glaring loss of cultural connection is with those groups located in the American southeast and the woodlands. It was not until 1890 that Cyrus Thomas, working for the Bureau of Ethnology, formally acknowledged a connection between Native American mound building communities and modern Native American communities such as the Osage, Caddo, Tunica- Biloxi, Quapaw, Muscogee, Cherokee and Choctaw, as well as many others. Prior to this, Americans believed that a “lost race” of people was responsible for building and creating the Mississippian mounds as well as the many objects of unprecedented design, beauty, and skill, frequently found with these structures and other ancient sites. Today, museums, scholars, and Native Americans strive to rebuild and reclaim this lost past. This project will be one of the best and most pertinent ways to achieve this goal.

With the growth of technology and the digital distribution of information, the discovery of artifacts being made by tribal descendants and academics has illuminated the once forgotten past and brought new energy to native artists and community members hoping to reconnect with their heritage. For example, after encountering pottery made by their ancestors, native artists such as Jeri Redcorn and Kaw Win Hut (Chase Earles) of the Caddo Tribe, set about the task of reverse engineering the techniques and have learned to make this pottery, from digging the clay, forming the vessel, inscribing the designs, to firing the finished pots. The effect on native artists in the region has been dramatic and is growing. Their work is now represented in numerous museum and private collections. In fact, one of Jeri Redcorn’s pieces now sits in the Oval Office of the White House.

The profound interest in making pottery according to old, rediscovered traditions can be seen in the activities of tribes in Oklahoma. Learning this skill is not only a creative outlet, but an economic opportunity.

This project will directly benefit the descendants of the original creators of Lemley’s collection — the Caddo, Osage, Tunica-Biloxi, and Quapaw nations. The body of knowledge for Mississippian cultures in general will be expanded and enhanced through the sharing of this data online as archaeologists, art historians, ethnologists and Native American community members explore the iconographic continuity, and research the trade and migration patterns across North America and possibly into Mesoamerica.

Other tribes in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, Illinois, and multiple other states are also connected to this material through the Southeast Ceremonial Complex (a term that describes multiple Mississippian groups connected stylistically, architecturally, and economically during the period) and will benefit as well. The primary focus of this project, however, is on the needs of native artists, archaeologists, and Tribal Historic Preservation offices. As this information is made available through a private site, we plan to re-indentify these works in a culturally-sensitive way which will encourage broader understanding of this important time period and artistic tradition.

IMLS is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums. The mission of IMLS is to inspire libraries and museums to advance innovation, lifelong learning, and cultural and civic engagement.