Pequot Museum doll exhibit displays diversity of native cultures

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Mashantucket - posted Mon., Mar. 25, 2013
Pequot Museum doll exhibit
A marionette in dancer's garb, designed by Buddy and Diana Big Mountain, graces the doll exhibit at the Pequot Museum. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The current exhibit at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum's downstairs gallery displays the diversity of native American dolls, and by extension, of native culture itself. It also poses a question: Why do many native American dolls have no faces?

Several theories abound, but one traditional explanation involves the first doll made by the Creator. The doll was assigned to play with the children, but when she passed a river and caught sight of her own reflection, she got so busy admiring herself that she neglected her duties to the children. The Creator prodded her to do her job, but she kept on admiring herself until finally the Creator took away her face to keep her on task.

That’s one of the many stories behind “Neetopawees: Dolls as Ambassadors of Native Culture,” the current exhibit at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The show highlights some of the most significant native-made dolls in the museum’s sizeable permanent collection, along with a few loaned pieces.

Meredith Vasta, the Pequot Museum's registrar and collections manager, said that none of the dolls in the exhibit were intended for the ritual roles that dolls play in some native cultures. Instead, these dolls were created for other uses: as children’s toys, mementoes of people or events, depictions of native attire or special gifts to significant people.

“Dolls are more than just playthings,” said Vasta. They can help a child learn the stitchery or beadwork involved in making grown-up clothing, or they can illustrate the style of an individual tribe’s traditional regalia. “They spent a lot of time getting the clothing just right,” she said. She pointed out one oversize cloth doll made by Lezley Two Bears, who makes full-size regalia for native dancers and uses dolls as fashion models to display the correct style for each tribe. “You can look at it and if you know about the culture, you can say, ‘Well, that’s an Iroquois outfit,’ or, ‘That’s a Great Lakes outfit,’” she said.

The dolls range from a set of beautifully-detailed figures in a toy canoe, stitched by native children in a convent-run school in Quebec during the late 18th century, to a Barbie doll clad in traditional Hoopa brush dance regalia, designed by a 16-year-old Hoopa girl. In between are dolls delicately crafted of wood, leather, cloth, beads, porcupine quills and plant materials, made by craftsmen in widely diverse native cultures. Even something as lowly as Spanish moss or turkey wishbones can be transformed by creative hands into a human figure.

Several of the dolls on display have special significance. A spectacular feather-adorned marionette by Buddy and Diana Big Mountain was a thank-you gift to the tribe for allowing them to be married at the annual Schemitzun festival. A doll crafted of banana leaves was a gift from natives in St. David, Bermuda, who have ancestral ties to the Pequots dating from the tribe’s post-Pequot War diaspora. And several charming dolls, on loan for the exhibit, were made by Mohegan tribal elders Gladys Tantaquidgeon and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel as gifts of esteem for family members or special people.

“Neetopawees” continues through April 20 at the Pequot Museum, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 9-5, with the last admission at 4 p.m.


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