While researching accession records at the American Museum of Natural History in 2015, I enjoyed a pleasant visit to the office of Curator of North American Ethnology Peter Whiteley. Whiteley’s influential scholarship on Hopi history and culture was quite familiar to me, and it was a privilege to explain to him my own work on the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana. Shortly after meeting Whiteley, he kindly followed-up our conversation with an email that informed me about Bard Graduate Center’s research fellowships. When my next chance to take a leave of absence from my teaching at Vanderbilt came around, I applied for a BGC research fellowship and was delighted to receive one for March through May of 2019. Those three months at BGC gave me an opportunity to make considerable headway in my forthcoming book on Chitimacha Indian basketry, which closely examines the intricate relations that Indigenous weavers forged with non-Native allies in their community’s struggle for survival during the early twentieth century.

The fellowship at BGC enhanced my work in both expected and unexpected ways. I knew in advance that the center’s faculty and students as well as other fellows and guest speakers would provide me with much needed knowledge about art, design, and material culture. Landing on my current project via a rather circuitous path, I had plenty of catching-up to do when it came to essential theoretical and comparative literature on the production, circulation, and consumption of things. I also looked forward to visiting physical spaces that were intersections in an early twentieth-century network linking a Native village in Louisiana bayou country with museums, stores, and homes in New York City—all because of the circulation of exquisite baskets woven from rivercane by Chitimacha women. And of course, there was my convenient access to archival and material collections at the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum.

Just a few doors down West 86th Street from where research fellows work, to my delightful surprise the BGC Gallery was featuring The Story Box: Franz Boas, George Hunt and the Making of Anthropology. That marvelous exhibition, curated by Professor Aaron Glass, connected in an inspirational way to my inquiry into complicated relationships formed between Indigenous community members and early professional anthropologists. Ethnographers and other collectors who acquired cultural objects from Chitimacha people in the early twentieth century were directly influenced by Boas. The collaborative and innovative dimensions of The Story Box offered me invaluable ideas for my own project, and the opportunity to discuss the exhibit with Professor Aaron Glass during my fellowship was especially appreciated.

My good fortune at BGC also included the company of other fellows, whose research overlapped with mine in helpful ways. Megan O’Neil, Professor of Art History and Faculty Curator of the Art of the Americas at Emory University, studies Maya interaction with ancient stone sculptures and their perception of archaeologists and museums. And the fact that Megan is a fellow native of New Orleans was, as we say there, “lagniappe”—an extra connection that made for enjoyable conversation. Another BGC colleague engaged in work relevant to my own was Hadley Jensen, BGC’s postdoctoral fellow in museum anthropology. Hadley’s study of Navajo textiles—particularly the representation of weavers in photography from the 1880s to the 1940s—provided plenty to share. Following my seminar presentation as a BGC fellow, I was of course rewarded by thoughtful feedback from faculty and students. Attendance by Professor Ivan Gaskell, who has done some of the most important writing about Chitimacha basketry, made me feel especially honored.

During my stay in New York City, I benefited from a few timely exhibitions in the area. The Metropolitan Museum of Art happened to be showing Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, which featured 116 masterworks representing many different cultures. That exhibit also provided me an opportunity to attend a fascinating gallery talk by Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star. I also viewed some of Red Star’s own work at the Newark Museum of Art, where Wendy Red Star: A Scratch on the Earth was showing. At the New Museum on the Lower East Side, I viewed work by another highly regarded Native American multimedia artist in Jeffrey Gibson: The Anthropophagic Effect. Choctaw/Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson’s creative interpretation of material culture, including southeastern river cane basketry, especially resonates with my own work, so his being artist-in-residence at the New Museum gave me a chance to attend special events and to meet him in person.

Experiences at BGC predictably helped accelerate progress on my Chitimacha book, but also provided inspiration for a surprising opportunity that greeted me back home. The Frist Museum of Art in Nashville was planning to host Hearts of Our People from late September to mid-January. Originating at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, this exhibition features more than a hundred works created by Native American women from ancient times to the present. Among the objects appearing in that exhibit—to my great delight—is a set of double-woven and intricately patterned baskets made more than a century ago by Chitimacha weaver Clara Darden, a woman central to my study of how the community mobilized material objects for political as well as cultural survival. With fresh lessons learned during my stay at BGC, I quickly offered some ideas to the staff at Frist. First and foremost, I asked them to include in the programming Melissa Darden—a descendant of Clara Darden and a weaver herself who furthermore currently chairs the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana. Ms. Darden agreed to participate by demonstrating her artistry and discussing its cultural and historical context for museum visitors on one busy Sunday. Additional time spent walking with her through the entire exhibition and updating her on my own project proved to be particularly beneficial for me. And later in the fall, I gave a gallery talk on “Native American Basketry and Sovereignty” with Clara Darden’s beautiful objects as my backdrop. Perhaps above all else, the fellowship at BGC reinforced my commitment to community collaboration and outreach as well as to research and writing.

Daniel H. Usner, Holland N. McTyeire Professor of History, Vanderbilt University; BGC Research Fellow, Spring 2019