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From the Serial Set: Ojibwe Artwork in Bureau of American Ethnology Reports

As you may have seen, the United States Congressional Serial Set documents from the 69th Congress have been digitized and made public by the Law Library and the Government Publishing Office (GPO).

If you’ve ever been to any Smithsonian museum, or explored a virtual Smithsonian exhibit, you might be familiar with the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE). But did you know that the annual reports of the BAE were also sent to Congress and published in the Serial Set?

In 1925, Frances Densmore, a white, female anthropologist, compiled Bulletin #86, “Chippewa Customs.” This was also published in Serial Set volume 8819, during the 2nd Session of the 69th Congress. The word ‘Chippewa’ refers to a former name for the Ojibwe, or Anishinaabe, peoples.

In the foreword to her study, Densmore describes her history with members of the community. “The study of tribal songs led to a friendliness with the people and a willingness on their part to give information concerning their customs.” (69th Cong., 2nd Sess., at 1 (1929) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8819.) With the translation assistance of Mary Warren English, an Ojibwe teacher, and Niskigwun, an elderly Objibwe man, Densmore collected information on their culture, including stories, art, music and dance, food, health practices, as well as information on the Ojibwe dialects and beliefs.

Two head-and-shoulders portraits vertically stacked on the page. The top is an Ojibwe woman named Mary Warren English, with a grey background. The bottom is Niskigwun, an elderly Ojibwe man, with a black background.

“Portrait of Mrs. Mary Warren English” and “Portrait of Niskigwun.” Reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8819, Plate 2.

The report contains many black-and-white photographs of Ojibwe artwork, dress, homes, and more. Hand-drawn designs and illustrations by Ojibwe peoples are also included. One example is an illustrated narrative, the text of which is included to illustrate the practice of storytelling. The illustration below was drawn by an Ojibwe woman named Nawajibigokwe, conveying the story of an outbreak of smallpox in the community as told by her father’s grandmother. (69th Cong., 2nd Sess., at 180 (1929) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8819.)

Image of a page from the Chippewa Customs report. Two blocks of text printed on the page are broken up by a narrative style drawing in Ojibwe fashion, with the illustrated parts of the story connecting.

“Native drawing illustrating a narrative.” Reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8819, Fig. 21.

Densmore also relayed Ojibwe beadwork and pattern creation. “All informants state that geometric and “line” patterns are older than floral designs.” (69th Cong., 2nd Sess., at 183 (1929) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8819) A sampler of older beadwork designs was created and photographed for the study.

Black-and-white photograph of various patterns of geometric-style beadwork. The patterns are arranged in a rectangle.

“Old Designs Used in Beadwork.” Reprinted in Serial Set vol. 8819, Plate 79.

Other photographs show finished examples of beadwork, along with descriptions of the images conveyed. Hand-illustrated designs and patterns cut from birch bark also demonstrate the artistic process.

The Serial Set collection is a great resource for discovering reports like those of the BAE. The information contained in these reports demonstrates how different agencies contributed to the creation and preservation of government information. Photographs and drawings recorded in Densmore’s study also provide helpful insight.

If you were unable to attend the 2021 Federal Depository Library conference, you can watch my colleagues across the Library and GPO and I discuss our project operations here.

One Comment

  1. Anne Brataas
    October 27, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    Dear Fantastic LOC Researchers,

    This is a marvelous resource, thank you! I write as an educator from the shores of Lake Superior, in Grand Marais, Minnesota, 30 miles from Grand Portage. This is an astonishing find for us! Thank you — we want to know more!

    Our 501(c)(3) charity, Minnesota Children’s Press, http://www.minnchildpress.org leads a children’s publishing club, called Story Scouts. We are writing a 200-year history of Cook County, and of course, book 1 is focused on the Anishinaabe culture that predates white settlement. Please suggest additional resources! We are especially interested in Native illustrations of narratives. Many thanks, Anne Brataas , Executive Director, Minnesota Children’s Press, wwww.minnchildpress.org

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