Klamath Henry brings new focus to Native American art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum

By Allison Hutton | Emory Report | July 26, 2019

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Emory College graduate and Mellon intern Klamath Henry (19C) shares two of the new Match the Mocs cards that will be incorporated in SmARTy Pack activities at the Carlos Museum.

As one of only a few Native American students enrolled at Emory during her time on campus, Klamath Henry (19C) is passionate about her ancestry. In fact, her efforts to increase the visibility and recruitment of Native American students and faculty at Emory led to her being given the 2019 Marion Luther Brittain Award, which honors a graduating student who has performed “significant, meritorious, and devoted service to Emory University, with no expectations of recognition or reward.”

She further underscored her commitment to these areas while serving this summer as an Andrew W. Mellon intern in the Michael C. Carlos Museum’s Office of Educational Programs.

Drawing on both her experience working with young people and her heritage as a member of the Shasta Tribe of California and the Tuscarora Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy in western New York, Henry focused on interpreting the museum's collection of Native North American art for audiences ages 5-12. 

Part of Henry’s work involved sharing her experience with indigenous foodways during the museum’s Grow It, Cook It, Eat It! summer camp. She also researched the Native North American art collection and created an activity for the museum’s popular SmARTy Packs, tote bags filled with written guides and hands-on activities to help families learn about particular works of art in the galleries. 

A pair of moccasins with a beaded salmon motif caught Henry’s eye when she was considering which work of art to focus on for the SmARTy Pack activity. The moccasins’ significance to Henry was two-fold: they were created by an artist from the Swinomish tribe, who consider themselves to be “people of the salmon.” Henry relates to that culture, as well as the fact that the moccasins were created around 1940, a time of great change for tribes of the Pacific Northwest. 

Native Americans have created embellished footwear for centuries. They used porcupine quills in their designs before trading with Europeans introduced them to glass beads. 

The beaded salmon moccasins speak to Henry’s interest in connecting historical and contemporary Native American visual culture to show that neither Native people nor their traditions have ever disappeared, despite multiple traumas. Indeed, contemporary Native American artists continue to create beaded footwear in designs that range from the traditional to the innovative.

To build on the concept of continuity and the similarities between historical and contemporary designs, Henry gathered examples of two centuries’ worth of Native American beaded footwear. She then created a memory card game, Match the Mocs, that families could play in the gallery. She also designed a beaded “Turtle Island” medallion to include with each game so children can have a tactile understanding of the artwork.

Incorporating contemporary footwear in her Match the Mocs game reminds visitors that Indigenous Nations are living cultures.

“How do you represent Indigenous Nations of people in a museum?” Henry asks. “You cannot. Native culture is everywhere, and does not need to be solely represented by objects in the glass cases of museums. Young people of all backgrounds deserve to receive holistic teaching about Native Nations and their cultures. They need all of us to try harder to change past systems and represent living Native peoples better.”

Henry will begin graduate studies in cultural anthropology at California State University, Fullerton, in the fall, but her work with the Carlos Museum isn’t yet complete. She wants to ensure that Native students at Emory are able to see themselves reflected across campus, including at the Carlos Museum.

To this end, Henry will continue working with Megan O’Neil, faculty curator of the Art of the Americas and an assistant professor in Emory’s department of art history, to increase the visibility of contemporary art in the Native North American gallery. Their first step in this direction will be to incorporate Henry’s Three Sisters project in the gallery: a website showcasing Henry’s poetry and photography focused on the resiliency of Tuscaroran foodways such as corn, beans and squash.

“It has been extraordinary to have Klamath’s voice in the museum this summer,” notes Elizabeth Hornor, the Marguerite S. Ingram senior director of education for the Carlos Museum. “Klamath’s presence generated many important and carbonated discussions about the role and responsibility of museums in displaying and interpreting Native American art.”