The Slow Violence of Natural History

Nitawahsin was a large empire or nation-state of the Amskapi Piikani and their sister-states, located almost near the center of North America. Its borders were the Saskatchewan River to the north, Yellowstone River to the south, the Rocky Mountains to the west, and the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers to the east. At least for two thousand years, but perhaps longer, the Amskapi Piikani and their sister nations lived in Nitawahsin, and Nitawahsin was recognized by other nation-states and empires on its borders as its own country. Its citizens had their own cultural practices, they spoke their own language, they had their own religion, and they had another way of seeing and relating to the natural world. Nitawahsin also had conflicts with other Indigenous nation-states whose citizens spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and viewed the world through their own unique lens. Then a new country foreign to the Great Plains and from far away arrived in 1804—it was the United States of America. A vast difference in their interactions began as the US did not recognize the Nitawahsin as its own country. The US colonial government failed to recognize Nitawahsin borders and erased its existence with their newly created maps in the nineteenth century. This began with the Louisiana Purchase between France and the US in 1803. The act of staking claim to the physical land of Indigenous peoples also came with the act of staking claim to its vast natural resources and Indigenous knowledge. One way the US staked this claim was to collect data and objects for natural history institutions and possess them within their walls.

The first interaction that the Amskapi Piikani had with the US government was with the military and scientific expedition of Captain Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Lewis and Clark illegally trespassed through Nitawahsin, collecting specimens of plants, animals, ethnography, and other natural history without the permission of the Amskapi Piikani. And they did this with the servitude of enslaved peoples. This American scientific methodology, set forth under instructions by President Thomas Jefferson, would continue throughout the nineteenth century as the US government, private museums, and even individuals collected Indigenous materials without Indigenous nation-states’ consent. Their acquisition of tangible and intangible objects for natural history collections over the course of more than a century amounted to a slow violence, “gradually and out of sight” that over time engendered “a delayed destruction” within Indigenous communities.

The first interaction of the US government with the Amskapi Piikani on Nitawahsin—that of a military and scientific expedition extracting natural and cultural resources—formed the basis of their intersecting histories for decades and even centuries to come. From that initial contact with the US, the contours of the Amskapi Pikunni world have been defined by those who came to Nitawahsin to extract objects and knowledge. American perspectives have so overwhelmed the Amskapi Pikunni historical record that the task of deconstructing and reconstructing our history is difficult without also telling the story of the US as the possessor of our stories. As I am doing here.

Scholars argue that “[t]he emergence of the public museum in the 18th and 19th centuries cannot be disentangled from painful histories of colonial subjugation and exploitation,” and that this desire to possess and order “speaks to a broader mindset of western dominion over other cultures—and nature.” That settler-colonial mindset is entangled within the collections themselves and it is difficult to disentangle it even today. Conducting research today requires Indigenous scholars to use objects and histories from natural history museums that were collected in the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. And it requires us to engage with the troubled past of collecting and cultural genocide, which can be difficult, emotional, or even traumatizing.

Although the American practice of collecting as a tool of colonization and conquest by a nation-state was a new concept to the Amskapi Piikani, the concept of taking objects as individual souvenirs of war was not. They have a word for acquiring objects as a souvenir or a trophy from an enemy—it is inaamaahkaa. The word is a combination of two others, namaa, or bow, and i’taki, or take, and its meaning becomes Of course, the Amaskapi Piikani had a different concept of the English words enemy and war than Americans. The Amskapi Piikani words for enemy, kaahtomáán or kaahtomin, come from words that mean, “challenging someone to compete” or “playing against someone in a non-athletic game.” Historically, the Amskapi Piikani thought of “enemies” as opponents in a competition. They embedded the cultural practice of inaamaahkaa or “taking souvenirs from an enemy” within their society. Amskapi Piikani society valued individuals with this skill and enjoyed stories of their adventures. I want to share this information to reinforce that Indigenous peoples also have cultural practices that include acquiring objectsthe American concept.

In the summer of 2018, I researched and wrote a short article on the lives of Amskapi Piikani women and the unique headdress that they wear, kaapoisaamiiksi. I wanted to highlight the dream of an ancient woman that created the headdress, its connection to the supernatural realm, its unfortunate discontinued use due to cultural genocide and colonial subjugation, and its contemporary revival. The kaapoisaamiiksi is revered by Amskapi Piikani women and in recent years they revitalized it as an act of decolonization and to use it for healing and community well-being. Working on this kind of historical research—a story with a happy ending—began an interesting chain of events.

Unexpectedly, I was invited to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to give a talk, which I titled, “Museum Collections: Are They Products of American Settler Colonialism?” The Field Museum was formerly called the Field Columbian Museum of Chicago. It developed during and after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The fair served as an opportunity for natural history to be collected from Indigenous peoples from all corners of the hemisphere.

While I was at the Field Museum for my talk I asked if they had any kaapoisaamiiksi in the collections, and luckily they had one. At that time they knew little of its history. I was able to view it in their collections, although it remained covered in plastic. I did not write about it or photograph it for my article because I did not see its accession records. My short piece “Her Dream: Blackfeet Women’s Stand-Up Headdress” came out that winter. The curatorial staff at the Field Museum were fascinated by the headdress’s history, and, knowing its story, wanted to spotlight their kaapoisaamiiksi in a small display within a newly renovated section of the museum that opened in May 2022. They asked me and several kaapoisaamiiksi owners to participate in the multi-year process. The Field Museum staff said they would do further research as to the history of the headdress within their own records. In the winter of 2021, two years after my article came out, they researched their owns accession records and shared them.

They learned that the headdress was purchased in 1905, one hundred years after the Corps of Discovery first came to Nitawahsin. A Canadian federal employee in Alberta, Canada sold the headdress to the Field Museum. He sold it along with a small number of items to the museum for $105.00. The buying and selling of Indigenous cultural objects had become increasingly common after a century of interaction since Lewis and Clark. I wrote about this history in Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet, and I argued that an “unintended economy” grew that included the selling of objects, stories, or songs to museums and collectors. I called the museum collectors storytakers.

Like other Indigenous scholars, I rely on the records of natural history museums and collections to help tell our stories. These stories often cannot be told outside or separate from the history of dispossession, trauma, and on-going oppression. Even when we want that to be the case. Our history is intimately intertwined with the colonization, cultural genocide, and violence inflicted by the US government and their agents. Using natural history museums requires Indigenous scholars to acknowledge (but not necessarily accept) the Pandora’s box that will be opened by each archival door.

The Field Museum’s records told a darker story as well. Along with the kaapoisaamiiksi, the Canadian official also sold to the Field Museum the human remains of eleven people—for a price higher than the price of the kaapoisaamiiksi. The story of the Field Museum headdress found within the accession records was not the happy ending that I had hoped. It was instead a part of the slow violence of natural history collections. And in addition to the sales receipts and transporting documents the records also held correspondence between the museum and the seller that are perhaps too unsettling, irreverent, and even uncouth to quote from here. Historians will often brush aside these kinds of letters as “a product of their time” in an effort to not address the true violence and white supremacy occurring with the buying and selling of the ancestors of Indigenous people. (See Field Museum of Natural History, Accession Date, August 10, 1905, #940.) And it is just these kinds of documents that remind Indigenous scholars of where we have stood and continue to stand in these histories—as objects. And even as some Indigenous scholars, such as myself, wrestle with these incongruities, others walk away from this system of academia and natural history museums that they view as too tainted to engage.

American natural history museums are “products of their own history,” political, and represent a reality that is embedded in over two hundred years of US history. As early as 1793, Thomas Jefferson was interested in scientific discovery in the West of Indigenous empires. He initially enlisted the help of the French naturalist Andre Michaux to “survey the Missouri River country.” But that fell through. He then commissioned Lewis and Clark as “Linnaean discoverers” who introduced scientific order to Nitawahsin and other Indigenous nation-states. Jefferson directed his men to impress upon Indigenous people the benign nature of their scientific research and to “satisfy them of its innocence.” But to the people of Nitawahsin, the results of Jefferson’s pursuit of science has been anything but harmless. Instead it has ushered in over two centuries a slow violence of extraction and objectification that impacts our community to this day.

I attended the opening of the new Field Museum of Natural History exhibit “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories” on May 21, 2022. The museum collaborated with numerous Indigenous communities and individuals to recreate one of their Native American halls. Several museums are now in the process of similar efforts. Within the larger exhibit at the Field Museum, curators included a display of the kaapoisaamiiksi that they collected and purchased in 1905. The Field Museum invited several women from the Stand Up Headdress Society from both the US and Canada and male singers to do a blessing at the opening. There was a lot of interest by media in the opening and our statewide Montana newspaper and local reservation newspaper did articles focusing just on the kaapoisaamiiksi display. Every Amskapi Piikani person I spoke with or saw on social media was proud to have part of our people represented in the Field Museum new exhibit. We are so often erased in these spaces; it felt good to be represented.

Yet, I remained apprehensive. Was this the end of the story? The story of slow violence by collectors, natural history museums, libraries, and archives?  Natural history museums and archives still hold a significant number of our “artifacts,” the objects of our lifeways, from objects used in daily life to sacred objects used for religious practice. As Indigenous communities, and especially our younger generations, seek to decolonize and revitalize our languages and lifeways that were violently taken from our peoples, why were we celebrating yet another sacred object being possessed behind plexiglass?


Cover image: Tipi on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation during a ceremony. Photograph by Rosalyn LaPier, courtesy of the author.

Rosalyn LaPier

Rosalyn LaPier is an award-winning Indigenous writer, ethnobotanist, and environmental activist with a BA in physics and PhD in environmental history. She works within Indigenous communities to revitalize Indigenous and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), to address environmental justice and the climate crisis, and to strengthen public policy for Indigenous languages. Rosalyn is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis.