Monday, October 15, 2018

13th Annual Native American Archaeology Round Table Conference October 27

Archaeology and the study of Native American Culture in Connecticut reveals a glimpse into our past that is sometimes overlooked. The Institute for Native American Studies is hosting the 13th annual Native American Archaeology Round Table Conference on October 27 from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. at the Shepaug Valley High School in Washington Connecticut.  This conference is open to the general public and will be of special interest to students, museum curators and people interested in Native American Culture and archaeology.  Admission to this event is $10 at the door.  To register, click here or call 860-868-0518.

This conference will focus on decolonization as it relates to Native American culture in New England archaeology and museum studies.  The exchange of ideas will focus on removing the biases of the dominant culture from historical interpretations in order to foster a greater understanding of past history and how it is evolving today.

The overall highlight of this conference is the benefit of multiple perspectives for interpreting local history and heritage in regard to decolonizing New England Archaeology and Museum Studies and to foster ideas in best practices. This conference has been organized by Dr. Lucianne Lavin and Paul Wegner from the Institute of American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut and will include a series of speakers on a variety of topics from the following organizations: Institute for American Indian Studies, Wesleyan University, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Tomaquag Museum, Pequot Museum, Western Chapter, Massachusetts Archaeological Society, University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, Connecticut Humanities, and Connecticut Explored.  Topics range from decolonizing museums, re-indigenizing history, and decolonizing in settler colonial context to the discussion on what we are teaching our children, trauma, decolonization, psyche, and policy and reconsidering acts of ethnographic search and rescue initiatives, to name just a few of the fascinating topics that will be discussed.

Organizers of this annual conference strive to involve participants in all aspects of historical study and programming in order to create more accurate interpretations that utilize archaeology, oral tradition, and written documentation to correctly incorporate indigenous, captive, and emigrant lifeways and thought into the larger history of the Americas.

Medicinal Monday - Acorns Naturally

This time of year anyone with an oak tree also has a yard full of acorns that they either pick up or hope that the squirrels forage them for the winter. Native Americans relied on acorns for food for thousands of years and also found medicinal uses for them as well. As a staple food source, acorns figured prominently in the diets and daily lives of countless generations. Gathering, processing, cooking, storing, and eating acorn were important and time-consuming activities, and the lives and traditions of Native Communities revolved around them, especially before the arrival of Europeans.  Although the acorn is no longer the focus of daily life for Native Americans, they still gather, prepare and eat foods made from acorns at special gatherings and celebrations.

Chuckachancy women pause in their work preparing acorns for grinding, California, ca. 1920 

About Acorns

Acorns were widely used as food by Native Americans on the East Coast and in California. The nutritional value of acorns is high, and depending on the species, acorns can contain up to 18 percent fat, 6 percent protein, and 68 percent carbohydrate, with the remainder being water, minerals, and fiber. Modern varieties of corn and wheat, in comparison, have about 2 percent fat, 10 percent protein, and 75 percent carbohydrate. Acorns are also good sources of vitamins A and C and many essential amino acids. 

Photograph with text of acorn cache of the Mono Indians, California. This is from a survey report of Fresno and Madera counties by L.D. Creel. Circa 1920.

Acorns vary in flavor from not bitter to almost too bitter to eat because of their high concentration of tannins. Oaks yielding the best tasting acorns include the white oak, live oak, and swamp chestnut oaks. Red oaks, turkey oaks and laurel oaks produce bitter acorns. Cream colored acorn meat is said to taste the best and acorns with yellow or orange meat said to taste bitter. 

There are a variety of processing techniques across Native cultures but in general Native Americans would gather the acorns and dry them, sometimes they were stored for future use or shelled and winnowed using a hammerstone/anvil combination and winnowing basket. The nuts were then pounded into a flour or a meal using a mortar and pestle.  The meal was sifted and the coarser meal was returned for more pounding.  The bitter tannins were leached from the flour by repeated flushing of hot or cold water. The flour could be stored or made into a soup or mush, bread was also made by placing the acorn flour on a hot stone to cook. 

Acorn Cache, Mr.s Henry Towatt, California, 1920

Medicinal Uses

By soaking acorns in water a brown tea like water was produced and used to treat inflamation on the skin; this water was also used for toothaches.  The Micmac used acorns as a dietary aid to induce thirst.  The Penobscot would eat acorns to induce thirst because they believed that drinking a lot of fresh water was beneficial.  The Isleta would eat acorns to give them greater sexual potency. Josselyn writes that New England Indians boiled acorns in lye from maple ashes to extract the oil which was used to anoint their limbs.

Did you know

One large healthy oak tree can produce over 1,000 acorns in just one year. 

Small mammals that feed on acorns include squirrels, mice, and other large rodents.

Acorns can constitute up to 25% of the diet of a deer in the autumn.

In Britain, one old tradition has it that if a woman carries an acorn on her person it will delay the aging process and keep her forever young. In the United States, botanists joke that even the greatest oak was once a little nut.

By analogy with the shape, in nautical language, the word acorn also refers to a piece of wood keeping the vane on the mast-head.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Our Hidden Landscape -Stone Cultural Features & Native American Ceremonial Sites

The Torrington Historical Society will host a FREE program on Wednesday, October 17th  in the Carriage House Gallery of the Torrington Historical Society, 192 Main Street.  The speaker will be Lucianne Lavin Ph.D., Director of Research and Collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies, Washington, CT.  Dr. Lavin’s PowerPoint program, titled, “Our Hidden Landscapes: Stone Cultural Features & Native American Ceremonial Sites” will begin at 6:30 p.m.  This presentation is sponsored by the Torrington Chapter of UNICO National.  Admission is free; donations are welcome.

This program will explore the topic of stone features, many of which can often be seen as we hike through the woods.  Although some of these are the remains of abandoned farmsteads and industrial mill sites, many others represent Native American ceremonial sites.  Dr. Lavin’s PowerPoint presentation will illustrate the various kinds of European-American and indigenous stone structures found on our Connecticut landscapes. Although State regulations support the preservation of sacred Native American sites, these sites are often not recognized for what they are and subsequently, have been destroyed by development and suburban sprawl.  Even on protected lands, destruction is possible through logging, landscaping, or building placement.  This program will help individuals and organizations learn more about these Native American stone features so that we can identify them and help aid in the preservation of these significant indigenous stone features.

Lucianne Lavin, Ph.D., is Director of Research and Collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies, a museum and research and educational center in Washington, CT.  Dr. Lavin is an anthropologist and archaeologist who has over 40 years of research and field experience in Northeastern archaeology and anthropology, including teaching, museum exhibits and curatorial work, cultural resource management, editorial work, and public relations.  She has owned and operated an archaeological firm for over 25 years.   In addition, Dr. Lavin is the author of over 150 professional publications and technical reports on the archaeology and ethnohistory of the Northeast.  Her award-winning book, Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples: What Archaeology, History and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures, was published by Yale University Press (spring 2013).  She is a founding member of the state’s Native American Heritage Advisory Council and Editor of the journal of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut.  
The program will begin promptly at 6:30.  For more information about the Torrington Historical Society, please visit    

Monday, October 8, 2018

Medicinal Monday - Butterfly Milkweed

There are many types of milkweed found in Connecticut and one of them is called Butterfly Weed.  It is one of the most attractive flowers of the milkweed species and is especially attractive to bees and butterflies.  Native Americans found many uses for this beautiful plant medicinally as well as ceremonially. 

About Butterfly Weed

This is the most famous member of the milkweed family because of its' nectar and pollen-rich flowers that attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees.  It grows in well-drained gritty soil to a height of 24 to 36 inches and is 12 to 24 inches wide. This plant is native to North America and produces clusters of orange or yellow flowers adorned by lance-shaped leaves.  This plant likes full sun and usually blooms from early summer to early fall.  

Butterfly weed grows wild in a variety of environments including open woods,  meadows, prairies,  dry fields and even along roadsides.  It spreads by way of seeds released from pods in early autumn.  Butterfly weed is the only member of the milkweed family that does not have the white milky sap that is commonly associated with other species of milkweed. 

Ceremonial & Medicinal Uses of Butterfly Weed

The Navajo Ramah used this plant as a ceremonial chant lotion and the Omaha used this in a ceremony connected with the obtaining and distribution of the root of this plant which was greatly prized.

The Cherokee would boil the seeds and use them as an antidiarrheal and the root was used as a gentle laxative. One of the most common uses of this plant by the Cherokee, Delaware, Oklahoma, was to make an infusion from the root that was given to women that just gave birth. The Delaware, Oklahoma, Ponca, and Mohegan used the dried root of this plant to treat pleurisy. The Iroquois would apply a poultice of smashed roots to legs for running strength and the Menominee used a poultice of this root for bruises, swelling, and lameness. The Rappahannock used a poultice of bruised leaves to treat snakebite.

Did you know...

Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on the leaves of butterfly weed and is the only host plant for this iconic butterfly species. Without it, monarch butterflies cannot complete their life cycle and their population declines.

The Butterfly weed is from the Asclepias family, named after the famous Greek God of Medicine.

The plant has a long history in herbal medicine and was also known as the Pleurisy Root.

Butterfly Weed appears in the September 1932 Medicinal Plant Map of the United States of America published by the National Wholesale Druggists Association.

Monday, September 24, 2018

From the Forest - Native American Porcupine Quill Art - New Exhibit @ Institute For American Indian Studies

Native Americans have a deep artistic sense and a great knowledge of our natural environment.  This aesthetic can be seen in the objects of art, both decorative and useful at the new exhibit, From the Forest at the Institute For American Indian Studies on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut.  Porcupine quillwork looks amazingly like delicate embroidery.  This type of quillwork was most likely, the first purely decorative art practiced by Native Americans.  It is highly sought after by collectors, each piece representing hundreds of hours of work by the artist.

Porcupine quillwork or embroidery is a distinctive Native American art form.  The quills are folded, twisted, wrapped, plaited and sewn using a wide range of techniques to embellish articles of clothing, bags, knife sheaths, baskets, wooden handles, pipe stems, jewelry and many other items. 

Native Americans in 17th century New England used porcupine quills to decorate their clothing and accessories. They would also decorate containers made from birchbark because it was light, long lasting and flexible. Quillworking flourished from New England to the tribes of the Great Plains until the arrival of Europeans with ready-made glass beads that were incorporated into the work.  Although considered a 'lost art' by many, some artists still practice the tradition from tribes such as the Sioux, Cree, Ojibway, and others carrying on the tradition of quill embroidery.

Porcupine Quills
One of the most enduring myths about the porcupine, a member of the rodent family, that is only native to North America is that they are capable of throwing quills.  The reality is the porcupine uses their quills as a defense mechanism. When in danger, the porcupine lowers its head and lashes out its tail, and if the predator is in striking range, the barbed quills are embedded in their hide or on their face. Once embedded, the quill with its needle-sharp barbules expands and every muscle movement pulls it deeper into the flesh.

The porcupine quill is a modified type of hair, and like hair, it is shed when it is fully grown. An adult porcupine has an average of 30,000 quills on its body that average about three inches in length. The spring and fall porcupine quills are said to be the best because they are not waterlogged and don't break easily.

Once the quills were carefully removed from the porcupine they were sorted by size then made pliable by soaking. Dyed and flattened, woven, wrapped, tufted or stitched the humble porcupine quill became part of a work of art as well as a means of self-expression. 

The Exhibit
This exhibit showcases artifacts on loan to the museum from the Meg Buda Collection consisting of many Native American decorative and useful items that have been embellished with porcupine quill embroidery.  There are examples of flat as well as tufted quill embroidery on a variety of objects from moccasins and baskets to jewelry and containers.  Some of the workmanship on the tufted birchbark baskets is extraordinary because of the variety of natural dyes used on the quills and the delicate floral or geometric patterns on the containers. Examples of tufted quillwork are only made by a few artists and are extraordinary in their detail and craftsmanship.

In addition to this exhibition, the Institute has a large collection of Native American Artifacts, a 16th century reconstructed outdoor Native American Village and a new Escape Room that is opening in late October called Escape from a Wigwam, 1518.The Institute is open Wednesday - Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 12 noon to 5 p.m. 

About Institute For American Indian Studies 
Located on 15 woodland acres the IAIS has an outdoor Three Sisters and Healing Plants Gardens as well as a replicated 16th c. Algonkian Village.  Inside the museum, authentic artifacts are displayed in permanent, semi-permanent and temporary exhibits from prehistory to the present that allows visitors a walk through time. The Institute for American Indian Studies is located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut and can be reached online or by calling 860-868-0518.

The Institute for American Indian Studies preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality, and knowledge of Native American cultures. Through archaeology, the IAIS is able to build new understandings of the world and history of Native Americans; the focus is on stewardship and preservation.  This is achieved through workshops, special events, and education for students of all ages.

Supercharged Chew - Iqmik

People have used mushrooms as food, medicine and even for decorative and spiritual purposes. One interesting fungus used primarily by Coastal Alaskan people is the Phellinus igniarius.  In addition to using this fungus decoratively, they also use it for smoking and chewing.

About the Willow Bracket  

French mycologist, Lucien Quelet described this mushroom in 1886  as a very tough cork like fungus that is shaped like a hoof and looks as though it had been in a fire. The Phellinus igniarius mushroom brackets out from the bark of a dead log or infested tree and is most often found on a willow, birch or alder tree.  Each fall it sends spores out that land on diseased trees. The top of this mushroom is often a dark cracked crust that has a wood-like consistency.  It is quite hard and looks like it can survive the harshest of elements; removing it from a tree requires a saw. Each year a new layer forms and the flesh becomes harder with age. It can remain on the host tree feeding off of it for years after the tree has died.  

Native American Uses

Native Americans living in coastal Alaska made elaborate boxes to hold the ashes of the fungus that was used for chewing and smoking.  The Yupik and Dena peoples of Alaska's far northwest traded with the Yukon Indians to obtain these mushrooms, which they burnt to ash.  They made boxes of bone, ivory, and wood to store the ashes of this mushroom mixed with cottonwood bark which they would smoke or chew with Balsam Poplar Bark before the introduction of tobacco. The time spent and the beauty of these boxes demonstrate how important iqmik was to a variety of Native American cultures.

When tobacco became available, they mixed the ashes of the fungus with it and chewed or smoked it. It was reported that the addition of tobacco gave this mixture a powerful "kick".  It is now known that the alkaline of the ash quickens the effects of nicotine entering the bloodstream.  It’s no wonder that one Indian name for Phellinus igniarius is “elch’ix”, which translates as “burning taste.” 

Museum collections show that Phellinus igniarius was also used by the Micmac of Nova Scotia, Inuit of Labrador, Blackfoot of the North American Plains, and the Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest.

Iqmik is made by mixing shredded tobacco leaves and punk ash. It can also be made by rolling pieces of a tobacco leaf around a portion of the ash, forming a quid. Today, the ash-tobacco mixture is sold in native Alaskan communities under the Yupik name iqmik, or black bull that is also known as punk ash.  More than 50% of the Yupik Eskimo people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta still use iqmik.

Did you know

Woodpeckers are known to favor this fungus as a good place to excavate a nesting chamber.

Extracts from this plant were found to be strongly anti-oxidant.

An extract of this plant is hispolon that has been found to exert anticancer effects on AML and have anti-tumor activity on lung cancer.

The use of iqmik is a serious problem in modern native Alaskan communities. Tobacco was introduced to Alaska and does not serve a ceremonial, religious or medicinal function in traditional Alaskan Native Culture according to tobacco-free Alaska.

Government programs and surveys highlight findings and implications for program planning for Native Americans in Alaska.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Sweet Smell of Anise- Diamond Willow Fungus

This past August with all the rain and humidity Connecticut experienced many of us saw mushrooms popping up all over our lawns.  According to Cornell University, many cultures all over the world consider mushrooms to be sacred curers of sickness and givers of information. One mushroom, in particular, the Haploporus odorus or Diamond Willow Fungus was a scared fungus in traditional Native American Culture of the Northern Plains Indians.

Photo Irene Andersson- Mushroom Observer

About Diamond Willow Fungus

This is a wood-inhabiting shelf fungus that grows on the trunks of old living willow trees in a natural conifer forest setting. It has a hoof shape and is easily identified by its striking strong sweet smell of anise, a scent that is evident many feet away from the plant.  They remain strongly fragrant years after drying. The plant is found north of 52 degrees north latitude and is most commonly found in swampy coniferous subarctic forests. It has a pale buff to black pileus and a white lower pore layer.

Medicinal & Ceremonial Uses

Native Americans appreciated the smell of plants like sage and sweet grass and used these plants for purification ceremonies.  Because of its strong vanilla -anise-like smell, Haploporus odorus is considered to be a sacred fungus by northern plains Native American cultures.  It is used medicinally and ceremonially and is considered to be a symbol of the spiritual power.  

Some elders wore necklaces made of the pieces of fungus that were strung together on a leather thong and worn as protection against illness. It was so revered that this fungus was also used as an adornment on sacred objects such as war robes and used on scalp necklaces to placate the spirits of the dead. They would also take this fungus from the willow tree and carve it into smooth ovals and make burn patterns in them.  

Haploporus odorus has been found in collections from the Blackfoot, Blood, and Cree, dating back to the 1800s indicating that this fungus was widely used as a component of sacred objects.  The Cree word for this fungus is "Wikmasigan" and used in purification ceremonies as a smudge or an incense.

Medicinally Haploporus odorus was put in a medicine bundle that was used to ward off respiratory diseases and coughs.  It was also used to stop wounds from bleeding and made into an infusion to treat diarrhea and dysentery.  This fungus burns slowly and was burned to produce a healing smoke.

Did you Know

Ethnomycology is the study of how people have used fungi and how it has influenced them.

In North America, there have been 20 records from British Columbia with only four fungi of this type reported in the past twenty years.

In Europe, it is most commonly found in northeastern Sweden, Finland, Northwestern Russia and a few locations in southeast Norway, Estonia and Poland.

In Canada tribes burn this mushroom to help induce a trance that allows them to communicate with the dead.