Person to Person: Communicating Identity
Through Wisconsin Folk Objects
Ethnic objects inspire some artists to create works of art that imitate the forms, but not the functions, of the original artifacts. Made to be shown, not used, these folk objects evoke ethnic traditions and identities in an aesthetic way.
Potawatomi Chief John Young with Bandolier Bag
Marshfield, Wisconsin. The bag in this image is heavily beaded. WHI 33313
Beaded Bandolier Bags
The beaded bandolier bag may have originated as an adaptation of European and American ammunition pouches. These distinctly Native objects were fashioned using exclusively European materials. Prized mainly for their decoration, beaded bandolier bags were worn on special occasions such as dances and treaty signings. Many were created as gifts for tribal or intertribal gatherings. The wearing of more than one such bag often identified a chief or other person of high standing.
Made in Wisconsin, the 1910 heavily beaded bandolier "bag" lacks an actual pouch; it is only in the "form " of a bandolier bag. With its enormous scale, wide straps, and extensive beading, this artifact was intended for ceremonial functions. Appliquéd glass beads on canvas and velvet cloth form multiple stem and leaf floral designs, typical of Ojibwe beading.
Compare the large bag to the much earlier 1840s Wisconsin Ojibwe beaded bandolier bag that has an actual pouch. Note the differences in scale and degree of decoration.
Ojibwe Beaded Bandolier Bag, c. 1910
Gift of Mrs. Howard T. Green.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1960.44.75
Ojibwe Beaded Bandolier Bag, ca. 1840
Gift of Lac du Flambeau head speaker Medwesang.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1954.1545
Norwegian Food Container (Tine), ca. 1880
Gift of Marie Stephens.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1947.230
The tine is a container for transporting food and was a common household object in Norway. Tines often were rosemaled or had modestly carved designs. This tine's elaborate carving and small size emphasize that the object is a nostalgic reference to a tradition no longer practiced yet still strongly associated with Norwegian identity.
May Yang with Her Son, John Lee, 1981
Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The child is carried in a traditional Hmong baby carrier. Source: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Permanent Collection
The long cloth straps of Hmong baby carriers are designed to wrap around the mother to hold the baby in place. Carriers are given to brides by their mothers to promote the birth of many children. According to Hmong tradition, a person's soul wanders off when his or her body becomes ill. In order to protect a baby's soul, which is considered more prone to wandering, the baby carrier is designed with protective features. The tufts of yarn are meant to disguise the carrier and baby as a flower, preventing disturbance of the infant's soul by evil spirits.
Hmong Baby Carrier, ca. 1986
Created by Mai Lee.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1996.118.3
John Mink Holding War Club, 1941
John Mink is of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe. Source: Milwaukee Public Museum, 5747
This highly stylized "dress" war club was not designed for battle, given its elaborately carved handle and its mirrored head taking the place of the solid, carved ball characteristic of actual war clubs. Obtained at a Wisconsin Ojibwe camp in 1890, this object is strictly ceremonial in nature.
Ho-Chunk Tomahawk Pipe Ax, late 19th century
Gift of Guido Rahr.
Wisconsin Historical Museum object # 1956.8357
Tomahawk Pipe Ax
Here the paradoxical symbolism of a weapon (war) and the smoking of tobacco (peace) are combined into one object. Battleaxes were converted to ceremonial smoking pipes by drilling out the handle and adding a tobacco bowl. The refashioned object often cemented friendships and sealed treaties. The blade of this pipe ax possesses a pierced bleeding heart, a motif often associated with European trade goods but commonly seen as a decorative element on tomahawk pipe axes as well. The bleeding heart has multiple meanings including longing and sadness, symbolism appropriate for an instrument of war communicating peace and reconciliation.