Window to American Indian past

Local elementary school kids got an up-close and interactive look at the rich and varied culture of American Indians last Friday when they took a field trip to the Pomona College Art Museum.

One trip downstairs took the kids into a state-of-the-art depository of thousands of tribal artifacts, from clothing to cradleboards, housed in the lower level of Bridges Auditorium. 

The visit to the college’s Native American Collection Study Center (NACSC), which was afforded to most of the third graders in the district, is part of the NACSC Community Outreach pilot initiative, now in its third year.

The aim of the program is to strengthen ties between Pomona College and the Claremont community by offering educational enrichment to area students. The initiative also seeks to answer an important question: Can a collection of precious items that are vulnerable to deterioration be offered for public view and be protected at the same time? 

First, the pint-sized guests were led into a room in which a few key items were displayed, including an elaborately decorated ceremonial jacket and an array of woven baskets that are more than a hundred years old.

After drawing a picture of an artifact that caught his eye, Jeremiah Wiggs, a 9-year-old in Patti Colinco’s class at Sumner Elementary School, talked to the COURIER about why he is fascinated by American Indians.

“Learning about them makes me get happy,” he said. “It’s cool that they can fight and survive.”

It’s a challenge for important old objects to survive time, human contact and the elements, according to Steve Comba, assistant director of the museum. After leading the kids into the collection vault, he directed them to a table featuring various materials favored by Indian craftspeople. These included grass, porcupine quills, animal hide, fur and horsehair.

Mr. Comba explained the chill in the vault air, noting that the collection is kept cool, just like food in a refrigerator, to prevent the perishable materials from rotting.

The students examined a couple of showcase items before delving deeper into the vault. These included a beaded cradleboard into which a baby could be bundled and then carried on his mother’s back.

“It’s a Native American carseat,” Mr. Comba joked.

 He then made another comparison intended to render an artifact more familiar—in this case, a ceremonial jacket worn by a Plains Indian pipe dancer and adorned with items and designs intended to provide magical protection to the tribe.

“What if I told you it was a Native American superhero shield?” Mr. Comba posed. The deerskin garment featured, among other embellishments, designs meant to ward off bullets and ermine fur and human hair thought to bring good luck.

“Is that creepy?” the guide asked the students. Some said yes and others said no. Mr. Comba noted that the hair had been donated by fellow tribe members rather than taken from fallen rivals. That information made the presence of long dark locks hanging from the jacket less eerie, if not less disarming.  

Next, Mr. Comba showed off some impressive storage techniques, including rows of rugs wrapped around dowels that can be pulled out like a drawer. The spooling effect allows researchers to examine the rugs without touching them. Once the drawers are closed, they are airtight, with tiny vents allowing for the admission of beneficial oxygen while blocking the entrance of fabric-gnawing insects. 

Another showstopper was a series of shelves that, with the spin of some handles, part to allow entry to several aisles. The shelves were laden with things like stone grinders and baskets, with each item numbered and categorized. As the students prepared to enter an aisle stocked with 2,000 years of pottery, 9-year-old Jordan Demott expressed her enthusiasm for the clever storage system.

“This closet is like something from a Barbie Dreamhouse,” she said. “You could fit a lot of things in it.”

At another point, the students were asked whether they thought a fringed woman’s dress and a toddler-sized suit beaded with dyed porcupine quills were for everyday use or for special occasions. The kids determined that they were for special occasions, like a family reunion.

 Throughout the tour, the students had an opportunity to learn something new. For instance, they were shown a large drawer full of shoes, some in children’s sizes, others small enough for babies and others small enough to fit on a doll. The preponderance of fancy doll shoes resulted from the fact that, when a couple had a baby, they were gifted with tiny decorative shoes.

The collection has its roots in a gift by Robert J. Bernard, who graduated from Pomona College in 1917 and became the school’s executive director in 1922. In the 1920s, he worked to help the Claremont Colleges create a museum. And in 1929, he persuaded Jonathan Tibbet, a Riverside resident and amateur anthropologist—who had amassed a considerable amount of American Indian artifacts—to donate his collection to Pomona College.

Over the next few years the collection grew as many more items, from embroidered moccasins to arrowheads, were gathered from the collections of 14 generous individuals. The majority of artifacts date from 800 to 1500 AD. They come from numerous tribes, from Cahuilla to Sioux and from Cheyenne to Hopi. 

Mr. Comba, whose children went through Sycamore Elementary School, is delighted that Claremont schoolchildren—an estimated 1,000 of them this year—are visiting the vault.

“I felt guilty having access to all of this and not sharing it,” he explained.

Members of Pomona College’s Rembrandt Club, a longstanding organization devoted to supporting art in Claremont, have provided help with the outreach program. The Rembrandt Club paid for the buses used for the field trip and several members of the club serve as docents for the Native American Collection Study Center.

“I like knowing they have access to art right in their community,” Rembrandt Club President Areta Herr said. “It’s a natural partnership between the schools and the community.”

—Sarah Torribio


Submit a Comment

Share This