Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Salmon Woman by John Hoover

In January 2013, in conjunction with the visiting exhibition "FashionStatement: Native Artists and Pebble Bay" as well as our exhibition "Voices of the River," we are delighted that we'll be displaying John Hoover's marvelous sculpture "Salmon Woman" (1987).

My exhibition label is as follows.

John Hoover
born Cordova, Alaska
American, Aleut/Unangan, Russian
Salmon Woman
Old Growth Western Red Cedar, oil pigment, beads
Loan of the Hoover family

According to the legends and sacred stories of many indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Salmon may present itself in an animal or human form. In some stories, after Salmon leave behind their physical fish bodies in the upper reaches of rivers, to serve as food for human beings and animals, its spirit can swim invisibly back to the Pacific; under the ocean the Salmon people gather in their human forms.  For the Native peoples of Southeastern Alaska, a beautiful woman manifests herself at the heads of salmon-spawning streams so salmon will return year after year to those same waterways to spawn.

This elaborate version of Salmon Woman was created by John Hoover, an artist of Aleut (Unangan) background. Look closely and you can identify the many animals who draw sustenance from the annually returning Salmon: Bear, Sea Lion, and Seagull. Out of the human woman’s body emerges two large salmon, representing her bountiful gifts of food.  Salmon Woman’s womb is decorated with red beads that symbolize her eggs. Notice that the same red beads were also used to create the the eyes of the woman as well as the eyes of the other animals, thus symbolically binding these forms together.

Coastal First Nations people have harvested cedar trees for millennia, honoring the wood’s versatility and its spiritual significance.  Coastal Tlingit and Salish Shamans were protected by cedar guardian figures, and cedar trees have long been understood as imparting long life and health to communities that honor them.  Carved out of old growth Western Red Cedar, sometimes dating back centuries, Hoover’s work highlights the regenerative gifts of the cedar tree, celebrating cycles of growth, loss, and rebirth.

This free-standing sculpture also powerfully evokes the multiple levels of existence that inform the traditional understandings of the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast: the visible realms of water, land and air, as well as the continuous traffic between visible and invisible domains of the universe.

John Hoover was fascinated by spiritual transformations between human and animal manifestations, a prominent motif in tradition-based Native American art of the region. If you would like to see more examples of John Hoover’s work, in the Museum the lobby you will find a permanently installed, John Hoover carving, Man who Married an Eagle” (1971). This carving is structured as a triptych that reveals a hidden mystery, the protective outer doors represent an Eagle in birdlike shape, while the inner surface depicts human beings morphing in and out of bird form. 

Mark Auslander

Friday, December 14, 2012

Correcting Mis-impressions re the Post

I've gotten a number of inquiries around the country from scholars curious about the Washington Post article,

which reports on my research on enslaved labor in the making of the Smithsonian Castle building.

As is perhaps inevitable in a quickly written story, there are some inaccuracies in the Post article, or at least the potential for misunderstanding on a few points. Among them:

  • The assertion that enslaved African Americans did not physically construct the Castle building.  Actually, I think it quite likely, given the Washington labor market from the late 1840s-early 1850s, that some enslaved people did work on the building's physical construction, as they did on hundreds of other buildings in antebellum Washington, including the Capitol and the White House. The point is we don't have direct historical evidence for enslaved labor on physical construction, mainly because so many Smithsonian records were lost in the great Castle fire of January 1865.  We do have stronger evidence for enslaved people working at the Seneca quarry, where the sandstone used in the Castle was quarried. But that doesn't mean we can rule out the use of slave labor in building the Castle.
  • Many readers seem to have been left with the misimpression that people at the Smithsonian were not supportive of this research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Smithsonian Archives staff, especially archivist Pamela Henson, has always been great--sharing ideas and tips and putting in extra time to locate documents and files. It is a wonderful professional archives, a joy to work in.  As I link to in my paper, the Archives has great virtual exhibitions highlighting  the contributions of people like Solomon Brown and Lou Purnell (Air and Space).  And senior Smithsonian administrators have always expressed great interest in and support for this research.  
  • The article mentioned that SI officials hadn't called back back to comment, but that may be simply because the reporters were working on such a tight deadline; as is usual practice, a newspaper likes to publish about a scholarly paper the moment the paper is published.
  • There was line in the Post article about Smthsonian officials "allowing" me access to documents; I don't know where that line came from. The Archives is of course open to any serious researcher-so nobody would ever not be granted access to historical documents.
  • I was quoted as saying that the at the highest level, the Smithsonian hadn't yet begun a 'truth and reconciliation' process about legacies of slavery as such at the institution. When I talked to the reporter, I did emphasize that there are many areas across the institution, especially the Institutional History Division and  the Archives, where people for years have been working hard and bravely to bring the diverse history of the institution to light, especially African American contributions. 
  •  It is true  that so far as I know, there has been anything equivalent at the Smithsonian to the US Congress' resolution on the role of enslaved people in building the US Capitol (which included the labor of enslaved men in quarrying building material); Brown University's Committee on Slavery and Justice;  The College of William and Mary's Lemon Project; or Emory University's Transforming Community Project, which led to the January 2011 official statement of regret, by the university Board of Trustees for the university's "entwinement" with slavery.  Something like that is yet to come at the Smithsonian, as it is yet to come at so many major American civic institutions.   As I noted, I do think there is great openness at the Institution's highest levels to working in that direction.  I recognize that such a process will be more challenging at the SI than at private institutions; having said that,  it would serve as a kind of national model for how such honest and healing public conversations about slavery and historical accountability could be conducted. 
I certainly hadn't expected this much public attention to a short piece in an academic journal. The major thrust of my research is actually on race, labor and science at the Smithsonian in the post-slavery period.  I'm hoping to explore the many remarkable stories of African American staff at the Institution, concentrating on the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The legacy of slavery in DC, Maryland and Virginia is part of that story, but by no means the whole story!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Public History and Smithsonian Slavery

It has been a fascinating day. Late last night, the on line, open access journal Southern Spaces published my paper, "Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian Castle":

Simultaneously, the Washington Post published an article by noted reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia (with help from Megan McDonough) on my paper, "Researcher finds slaves quarried sandstone used to build Smithsonian Castle."

As of this evening, the Post article has elicited something like 869 on line comments, and risen to be the second most popular article in the  day's Style section of the Post website. It has been circulated nationally on AP Wire, and seems be showing up around the country.  I've gotten many emails and calls from interested parties, some with very strong opinions on my paper or the Post article.

Many of the comments on the Post website are, I'm afraid, inane or vituperative, dismissing the whole consideration of the legacies of slavery in American society, often re-visiting long running debates over reparations and affirmative action, sometimes with racially insensitive or inflammatory language. Yet some of the postings are deeply thoughtful and sensitive.

For the record, I reproduce some of the more interesting, insightful postings below, starting with the most recent and going back to about 8:00 a.m. this morning (Eastern Time).

Researcher finds slaves quarried sandstone used to build Smithsonian Castle."  (Washington Post) 
Dec 13, 2012


8:59 PM PST
I've seen the wills and inventories that list at least 538 people enslaved by my family over seven generations. Seeing those documents, as well as letters, led me to start looking for the descendants of those 538 people. We share part of the same story. 


Brilliant work and most provocative. This only makes the Smithsonian a more interesting piece of history! I'd love to hear read more about the work of Mark Auslander.


Why shouldn’t we unearth all of our history? Why examine our past at all, without every peice of the puzzle? 
We need to know who built our monuments, if only to get a broader picture of who built our society. George Washington’s freed his slaves, but the rest of the Washington family – my family – did not. Why? 
I’m examining my family’s history of slaveholding - many other people are looking at their own family's legacy. I want to build a firmer foundation for my own life by tracing the lives of others, enslaved and free. It’s all part of the same story, whether we want to hear it or not.  

Negro Scholar

As a scholar of U.S. history I am quite intrigued by Dr. Auslander's research. The layers of slavery's footprint on this nation, its institutions, and the capital are still being uncovered. Thanks for sharing this important find!

Sylvia Wong

Thank you for this article. It proves a truth about the Smithsonian 'castle' bulding that so many African Americans had only known through oral history. I hope that you will publish more stories about slavery in the hopes that intelligent dialogue will begin to heal the racism and ignorance that plagues this nation.

3:06 PM PST

It is good to increase our knowledge and knowing how we got where we are is helpful. Today, we acknowledge slavery as a dark period in American history but it is also just part of the continuum of slavery in its various guises around the world. Slavery exists still. Since slavery was legal at the time, the builders did nothing illegal if they used slave labor. The builders likely had no moral issues with the use of slaves in building the Castle. That was then.  

If confirmed, Secretary Clough should publicly acknowledge this and then move on with the business of increasing and diffusing knowledge.


Considering the conditions at the time, it is not nor should it be surprising that slave labor was involved. In fact it would have been surprising had it not been utilized. 
But the fact that slave labor was used in no way diminishes the importance of the collections housed there. It only adds to the history of our nation, reflecting a time when social and cultural mores reflected the status quo. Thankfully we now are more enlightened, but still have a ways to go before we are a truly raceless society...from all sides. 


As the white father, of mixed-race kids, I can’t afford to turn a blind-eye to such great/valuable information…as detailed in this article. I have the responsibility – as a responsible parent – to teach my children about the past, the better present, and the hope of the future. There is no reason to take offense to history – whether you’re white, or black. It’s history.

E Ferry

I love this article - the use of this kind of painstaking research to raise thorny issues of the role of slavery in the foundation of a great American institution is not only fascinating from a scholarly perspective, but also a great contribution to public discussion.

1:27 PM PST

Are you kidding? This is a hugely important DC landmark that millions of people visit every year. Its mission is devoted to knowledge and education. Reckoning with its own connections to one of the most tragic aspects of our history (and to our foremost Founding Father, no less) is a fantastic teachable moment. It is interesting, informative, and thought provoking. It is also saddening, in a way that good history often is.


This was a very interesting article having to do with the history of slavery in Washington D.C.. Nowhere did I notice any type of political agenda threaded through it. It simply reported an interesting history.  

How sad that people from BOTH sides of the equation would choose to advance their own agenda of today based on events of over 160 years ago.

11:27 AM PST

This is about giving credit where its due when it came to how, where to and to what extent slaves were used in building government building. Most would prefer to keep their hands clean when it come to "fessing" up.


Some folks seem a bit defensive about the slavery issue. What's that about? If one had slave holding forbears, there is no need for guilt by association. We cannot choose our ancestors.  

Meanwhile, it is a fascinating article. The footprint of slavery shows up in so many different ways.  
Thank you, Washington Post.


So those lazy black slaves helped BUILD the White House and Capital Building and, at the very least, quarried the bricks that became the Smithsonian Castle.  

Everytime a white person stereotypically looks down upon an African American's as being "lazy" they should take a stroll down Pennsylvania and imagine all of the blood, sweat and tears the free labor shed in what has become Americas most famous landmarks.


Was this ever disputed? Slavery was legal in both Maryland and the District of Columbia during this time. It is any surprise that slave labor was used? 

I think it would have been more surprising to learn that slave labor had NOT been used for construction projects during this time.


I'm puzzled why folks are so defensive. This article shines a light where it was needed. Some people were unaware of the extent of the slaves' involvement with the building of various buildings in Washington, DC. I don't see any harm in pointing out the fact. In fact, I welcome it. Truth should always be welcome. I was born and raised in the District so I am well aware of the significance of the slaves' contribution to the architecture of DC (as well as other cultural feats). So I applaud the Post for posting such an article. BTW, the article takes a well balanced look. Any attempt to slant the article or point fingers is brought by the reader him/herself -- not the author of this article.

10:26 AM PST

No one is trying to admonish the Smithsonian because slave labor was used to help build the castle, as you mention, at a time when it was legal. However, the Smithsonian's own mission statement talks about preserving our heritage. Right or wrong, part of that heritage is that one of their most iconic buildings was , in part, built by slave labor. If they are going give credit to the architects for their part, they should give credit the slaves that provided the labor and not be ashamed to do so. It's proper and historically accurate. 
The Korean's destruction of the Japanese built capitol is a different thing all together. This happened shortly after brutal occupation and the destruction of Korea's forests and other natural assets. They did not want the symbol of their country to be something designed, built and occupied by their oppressors. 


As a former African American history minor in college, I find stuff like this so interesting. I wonder about the new museum will highlight this.


As the anthropologist who authored the Southern Spaces paper in question, at 
I do want to emphasize, in case a different impression was left, that the scholars and staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives have always been extraordinarily generous with their time and intellectual energy in assisting me in their research. It is a wonderful archives, and the staff has been deeply committed to helping unearth these important stories. Indeed, as a perusal of their wonderful website (linked to in my article) shows, the Institutional History Division has been at the forefront in documenting and publicizing African American contributions, including the story of Solomon Brown. I believe senior Smithsonian leadership is in the midst of reflecting on how the whole institution can acknowledge histories of slavery & Jim Crow, along the lines of William & Mary College and Emory and Brown universities

10:18 AM PST

I have no trouble believing that. The folks at the Smithsonian are excellent, all around. It's a complex history, and is worth looking straight at.  

Thanks for your work!
Liked by 3 readers


I don't see harm with putting a few placards up on the walls here and there. 

"This tree is a bicucatus polydidiadus, planted by Pres. Grant." 

"These rocks came from a quarry that belonged to Whatsisface, grandson of Martha Washington, who inherited her slaves ansd started a quarrying business."


I've lived in this town for over 20 years now, and am passionate about history, yet I never realized the White House and Capitol were in part built by slaves. It's interesting how we like to sweep some parts of our glorious history under the rug, all in the apparent name of holding up the "founding fathers" to be godlike figures


Very interesting article. I did not realize that upon Martha Washington's death that her dower slaves were inherited by her relatives.


Interesting article. The structures of slavery are still with us. But, if we are ignorant of the physical artifacts, then even less is known about the cultural, economic, and legal legacy.


Most pre-Civil war structures in the South and border states likely had direct or indirect contributions of labor from slaves, in earlier structures indentured service by more than one race. It is important to honor the contributions, even now, so that descendants of all races in this country will know that the hands of labor had many hues and many circumstances.


It's important to note the contributions of African Americans to the building of this nation. Too often black people are made to feel that they did not contribute to the building of this nation, that they should be more grateful than other groups for being in the US, and that they are "less" American than whites.

9:36 AM PST

That's the point-- there have been arguments about whether enslaved persons were used to build the Smithsonian. (It's building has been completely attributed to European settlers and their descendants). 

As stated: "the Smithsonian has been reluctant over the years to address whether slave labor might have played a part in the history of the Castle"


I think this is very important research from any objective standpoint. I can't understand the comments that minimize the importance of it, even from the nutty point of view that slavery was ok back then. It's part of the history of this area. I'm not a historian, but the Washington area is very important to the history of the US and there are still a lot of stories that haven't been told. I never thought of this as the deep south, but mills along Rock Creek used slave labor, which was in the heart of DC.

Felicia Furman

Thanks to Mark Auslander for revealing another hidden example of the use of slave labor in this country. It would be hard to find any building or infrastructure built before the Civil War that didn't use slave labor. Its hardly controversial anymore except for the fact that many whites still deny the privelege their ancestors seized by exploiting people of African descent. The point is that the US was built on the backs of slaves and formed the foundation of our economy, society and culture. Why are we so afraid to accept the reality of our past?


It is important to recognize and evidence the history that has held up our current institutions. Though this is something we may believe has always been the case Dr. Ausslander work helps us reckon with our own complicities.

Rick Wilson

It is SO IMPORTANT to face our national amnesia about the position of slavery as the economic engine that established the United States and continues to sustain it.. Articles like this help us to face ALL our history - not just the filtered 'good parts.' Hope this is the first of many pieces.


it is SO long overdue to give credit where credit is due. This is such a horrible part of our history, but it is our history and should be documented, hopefully so it won't happen again. Stand up and recognize these great men who built our country once and for all! They didn't have a choice, they didn't get paid.. they didn't get health care. They didn't even get respect.  
This must change.  


Articles like this one are important because they shine a light on how enslaved Africans were central to the creation of this country and its economy. If we are to heal the wounds of enslavement and present day racism, we need to begin by knowing the whole story of the U.S. We need more articles and discussions like this one

Hope Amason

Thanks for this article! I can only hope that there will be plans to make visible the history discovered by Prof. Auslander for future visitors to the Smithsonian.

Katrina Browne

efg2: The story suggests it's not clear whether those who worked directly on the building were enslaved, but that it IS clear that those working at the quarry were enslaved.  

The larger point, to me, as a white woman whose family history includes major Northern slave trading, is that it is important to absorb the degree to which enslavement was fundamental to the development of this country. The details of that are everywhere you turn: in the North, the South, the Midwest and West too actually, when you look into it, and yes, the nation's capital. To dig into these details, as Prof. Auslander has, need not be a basis for white Americans to "freak out"--as we often do in a host of ways, but to take it in, empathize with black Americans who feel we never want to talk about this history, and to see where SHARED dismay about the past might take us as we look around today. 

Kudos to the Post for covering this!

Grant Hayter-Menzies

When we as Americans, both north and south, realize that our nation was built by the labor of enslaved persons, we will not only begin to appreciate the work of these many nameless contributors to who we are today but recognize that historical harms still need to be healed. Dr. Auslander is doing what we all should be doing - facing the past and working for that healing, for then and for today. 

Grant Hayter-Menzies (descendant of enslavers from New England and the Deep South)

Carol Maurer

Acknowledgment is key in order to heal historical harms...kudos to Mark for 'following the bread crumbs' and then refusing to sweep them under the rug!

Karen Branan
6:30 AM PST

Congratulations to Mark Auslander for his important research and to Roig-Franzia for giving this valuable story a wider hearing. As a Capital Hill resident, journalist, and ever-hopeful Post reader I look forward to more stories along these lines.


Given the prevalence of slavery in the part of Maryland where the quarry was located, it would be more surprising to learn that slaves were NOT involved in the quarrying and building process. Kudos to Dr. Auslander for "following the bread crumbs" and giving us some "official" evidence. 

What surprises me (though perhaps it shouldn't) is that Smithsonian officials for some reason are reluctant to explore these kinds of issues. History is not and should not be an exercise in celebration and self-congratulation. For history to really matter, we need to grapple with difficult issues. The reality is that Washington was a slave city all the way up to 1862 -- in the 1830s, it was the largest slave-trading city in the nation (thanks in large part to Alexandria, which was then a part of DC). Why are people so reluctant to admit the centrality of slavery to the economy and social life of the city (and the nation)?

 David Pettee

The power of this kind of research underscores once again the fundamental role that African Americans played in truly building up this country. None of us should be surprised any longer about the integral role that slavery played in the construction of much of the hallowed architecture around the District. Why the current tenants of the Smithsonian should have the slightest misgiving about accepting this news is puzzling. What an opportunity for deeper conversation! Doesn't the vision of the Smithsonian involve "shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world?" 

David Pettee 
Boston, MA

This is fascinating information that I will share with the thousands of people who follow my Our Black Ancestry website and FB page. Excellent research!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nunivak Mask

We are pleased that in January 2013 we'll be able display one of the most striking objects in the MCE collection, a mask that we belive comes from the Cup'ig people of Nunivak island in southwestern Alaska.

Winter ceremonial mask, Cup'ig people of Nunivak Island
Permanent Collection: Museum of Culture and Environment
We are not sure of the date of the mask's creation, as it came into the collection of the precursor of the museum many years ago.  We would be very pleased if anyone could provide more insights into this beautiful object.  It appears to be made for the market, and is in good condition.

The mask will be mounted in conjunction with the exhibition "Fashion Statement," curated by artist Anna Hoover, on T-shirts developed by Native Artists protesting Pebble Mine, which threatens the world's largest natural salmon fishery in Alaska's Bristol Bay.  We'll display it adjacent to Salmon Woman, a magnificent large cedar sculpture by Anna's father, the late Aleut/Unangan artist John Hoover, which will be on loan to the Museum for Winter 2013.

As you can see in the attached image, the face mask is circled by two concentric rings, At least thirteen feathers project outwards.At  the ends of the feathers are attached various small wooden elements, including many salmon, a bird, an otter, a human hand, and a human leg. Associated with the mask is a loose fish tail, which may also have been on a feather, or perhaps attached directly to a small hole to the right of the mask's mouth.

My draft signage for the mask is as follows, informed by Ann Fienup-Riordan's excelllent book, "Agayuliyararput Our Way of Making Prayer: The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks (University of Washington Press, 1996) and commentary by Aron Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center-Anchorage. I have also relied on the very helpful essay on Yup'ik and Cu'pig masks by John Oscar:

Draft label:

Making the Invisible, Visible

Created by an indigenous Cup’ig (Yup’ik)  artist of Nunivak island, Alaska, this mask helps illustrate the profound importance of salmon, otter, birds, and the broader web of life for the indigenous peoples of maritime Alaska. 

Yup'ik masks were originally designed by shamans and danced in winter ceremonies as an act of prayer, to ask that the spirits of animals which had been fished or hunted would reincarnate themselves and return in spring to feed the human community.  Each ring encircling the mask is known as ellanguaq (“pretend universe”) and represents different levels or dimensions of the universe, including sea and sky worlds where animal spirit beings dwell.  Blue pigment, as seen on the animal figures, the small carved leg, and the beard of the face mask indicates a being’s spirit status; human beings were usually marked with red pigment. 

Through such masks and winter dance ceremonies the invisible world of the spirits is made visible, and passages are opened between the domain of human beings and the domains of spiritual beings. 

 Traditionally, Yup’ik masks were discarded after use in sacred ceremonies. Some masks were acquired by traders and collectors, and found their way into museum collections. We believe this mask was created for sale to the market. We are still seeking the identity of the artist who created this remarkable work.