Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 22, 1999
Ruth B. Phillips Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700–1900 Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999. 352 pp.; 38 color ills.; 171 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (0295976489)

Ruth Phillips’s study of souvenir art made in the Northeast describes a number of histories of longstanding, transcultural negotiation among the native and nonnative people in this region. Although the dynamic forces at work in the contact zone have been described as reciprocal before—Arjun Appadurai (1996) has aptly described the negotiation of imagined lives as “self-fabricated” and James Clifford (1997) has characterized the roles of native movers and shakers (formerly called informants) as active ones, forged by people who have “been around”—Phillips’s feat in this book is to link these notions with cases, so that we may now understand the complex postcontact construction of Aboriginal identity in the Northeast to have been affected by many series of specific transactions among native people, Victorian ladies, missionaries, and military men among others. The whimsies, wall pockets, and model canoes that they have left behind both in private collections and in museum storage facilities result from these cross-cultural processes, and Phillips deftly informs us that the forms, stylistic characteristics, and materials that may be observed in these objects were traded and transcribed by these parties in a fascinating succession of exchanges. The very nature of these arts, however, as hybrid and “impure” (it is difficult to differentiate a boot-shaped pincushion made by a Kahnawake Mohawk woman in the late nineteenth century from similar examples created by nonnative Victorians) has resulted in the impoverishment of the historical record. Their mixed origins and the conception of these pieces as craft items has prevented them from being considered proper objects for study or suitable for museum display until quite recently. As a result, some stories and records have been lost forever and the social reality that engendered these art forms has been denied. Phillips has restored many of these important histories.

In addition to extensive archival research and the apparently joyous hours that Phillips spent discovering embroidered pincushions and cigar cases in museum collections, she has also carried out field research, together with her collaborator Trudy Nicks, in three St. Lawrence-Great Lakes communities: the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake [caunghnawaga]; among the Mi’kmaq of Eskasoni on Cape Breton Island; and the Odawa-Ojibwa communities of northwestern Michigan and Manitoulin Island. The souvenir arts that contemporary women and their ancestors made in these places have long been considered the “poor sisters” of the totem poles, masks, and carved ivories of ethnological collections. Here, they are evidence of important social transactions, and Phillips approaches this material in an extremely democratizing manner, not just in relation to her focus on the formerly marginalized media of beadwork and moose hair embroidery. We are also well-informed by this study that the criteria for excellence and appropriate form for souvenir art is of hybrid origin, formed both by the savvy take that Aboriginal women had on the tastes and desires of a stream of consumers—from military personnel to ecclesiastical commissioners as well as middle-class Victorian women acquiring keepsakes from their Niagara Falls honeymoons—but also by their nonnative imitators who copied the forms of their ornamented boxes and containers, added their own flourishes as a result providing even more models for indigenous art manufacture. The passing of design criteria back and forth between nuns, native girls, Victorian ladies embroidering ornaments for their “cozy corners,” and then back again to native hands is dizzying, and Phillips never allows us to imagine that one stop in this chain of events produced a more authentic art form than any other. Here is where the real egalitarianism of her study lies.

These processes may not have been tailored to the satisfaction of market demand alone. None of the players in these detailed stories are presented as that passive. Phillips discusses art production histories that were knowingly related to the delineation of native identity for outsiders. She indicates that the nature of the souvenir business itself, as well as the forms of its products, encodes some information about the place that native women and men conceived of for themselves as mediators in cross-cultural territory. The itinerant lifestyle of the basket maker, the relative economic independence of the manufacturer of calling card trays, were situations that were chosen and not just imposed. The origin of motifs—traditional ones like the “Tree of Peace,” newer popular culture images of Indians with bottles held to their lips (painful to consider), and the application of the learned “language of flowers” so admired by Victorian ladies—may have served the tastes of consumers, but were also reinforced by the knowledge and specific values held by native art makers. These “visual cognates,” Phillips explains, may have had their own, separate significance according to the communities that decode them, but they frequently managed to satisfy them all. Godey’s Lady’s Book may have instilled its readers with an appreciation of the spiritual nature of floral representation, for instance, just as the Seneca people attributed the differentiation of plant form to divine origin in the course of their ceremonies (see the juxtaposed quotes on page 155). The syncretic nature of these world views may have driven a clear preoccupation with floral embroidery and beadwork of the type seen predominantly on native art in the Northeast region between the War of 1812 and the middle of the nineteenth century. Phillips’s fascinating essay, “The Iconography of Indianness: The Floral, the Feminine, and the Folk” (Chapter Five), suggests that these aboriginal people were well aware that floral iconography suggested civilization, Christianization, and even the relative harmlessness of native men—now somewhat feminine—when these blossoms were worn before their nonnative contemporaries.

Phillips follows the major body of her study with a very brief chapter on the consideration of souvenir arts by some contemporary native artist/intellectuals from the Northeast—Norval Morrisseau, Rebecca Belmore, Rebecca Baird, Rick Hill, Jolene Rickard, and Shelley Niro. The book is illustrated throughout with a profusion of compelling images that provide the reader with concrete examples and evocative images of artists, consumers, and key locations. The art commodities brought to light here and the people who produced them are now linked once again and Phillips suggests some of the complexity of the lives lived during these two hundred years of artistic dialogue. Perhaps Aboriginal women of the period may now be considered Native/Victorians and their nonnative counterparts as Victorians functioning in an environment considerably affected by native culture. Although not empowered in the same manner, people living in the Northeast between 1700 and 1900 were clearly on speaking terms.

Judith Ostrowitz
Yale University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art