Curiosities

Chinook wooden (cedar?) cradle, collected by the artist George Catlin. PM 88-51-10/50695
Chinook woman's fiber skirt woven from cattail leaves. PM 99-12-10/52990
Tlingit or Haida spruce root, grass, and cedar bark woven top hat. PM 99-12-10/53176.

Lewis and Clark found the native peoples who lived along the Columbia River and near the Pacific coast both puzzling and fascinating; some of the native peoples seem to have felt the same way about Europeans.  Many were sophisticated merchants who dressed in the latest styles of Euroamerican clothing, as worn by coastal fur traders.  The American captains admired the people's more traditional, rain-repellant garments, and obtained woven hats for members of their crew.  In Chinook territory in November, 1805, they purchased a woven, European-style top hat (probably made by a weaver much further north along the Pacific coast), marveling that it was "made in the fashion which was common in the U States two years ago." The explorers were equally intrigued by unfamilar cultural practices and objects.  They described at length the unique twined cordage skirts that women in the lower Columbia River area made from cedar bark or cattail leaves, which were valuable commodities in local trade networks.  And they were struck by the practice of head flattening, a mark of high status achieved by binding the heads of infants in wooden cradles.  The Chinook cradle shown here, carved from a single piece of cedar, belonged to the artist George Catlin.  Lewis and Clark may have acquired items such as these as mementos or as "curiosities," a term applied to artifacts from distant cultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.