The Potluck: A Native American Thanksgiving Tradition?

We’ve all been to one, some of us probably feeling slightly jaded about being pressured to contribute a dish that will surely be outdone by that one magnificent chef that attends every celebration. But where does the tradition of the potluck come from?

A common myth is that the word derives from the Potlatch feasts practiced by Native American Societies in the Pacific Northwest. But according to most dictionaries, the term originated in 16th Century England, to describe unplanned meetings in which you would eat whatever was available, perhaps leftovers from a previous meal warmed up in a pot. If you were hungry, you would have the “luck of the pot”.

Of course, this is not how the term is used today in the United States. For us, a potluck is a planned event in which all of the guests are expected to contribute a dish. This different application of the term is often attributed to Native American influence. After all, potlatches were similar in that the hosts would invite guests to a potlatch and provide them with food, with the expectation that some guests—the elite ones—would reciprocate the act by holding their own celebration at a later date.

potlatch3

Fishing utensils and serving dishes used by the Kwakuitl People

The potlatch served two purposes, one was to provide the host with an opportunity to show off their wealth and status, while the other was to help determine trade relationships and hierarchies between different settlements. You know that one person who tries to out-do everyone else with an elaborate dish? Well, that’s kind of how potlatches worked. The more elaborate the celebration, the greater prestige it brought to the host.

In many cases these displays could take a much more deliberate form than a little over-achieving. For example, in our McGovern Hall of the Americas we have beautiful sets of masks and capes. These costumes were worn during dance rituals at potlatches. The right to wear these garments was inherited though, so participating in the dances was a way of showing off your status in society. Chieftain (or “Tribal”) societies are not egalitarian, and the complex fishing societies of the Pacific Northwest had strict social hierarchies that were reinforced by these rituals. Hierarchies were so strict that in many cases one had to choose their spouse from a particular, high ranking family, like how it was in medieval Europe.

potlatch4

Kwakuitl ceremonial dance ensemble.

Probably the most interesting form of gaining prestige was the breaking of coppers. Coppers are little flat, shield-shaped pieces of hammered copper, that acted almost like currency. Only the highest ranking members of settlements could own them, and they were extremely valuable, but their value was purely symbolic. Coppers would be traded during potlatches, sometimes enormous quantities of goods would be traded for a single copper. If a chief felt that another chief had dishonored him, he might break a piece off of his own copper in the presence of his guest. This was a great challenge, because the other chief would then be expected to hold his own potlatch and break a piece off of his own copper in reciprocity. If he could not do that, he would lose prestige.

Now, does anybody recognize this sort of mentality in some of the Thanksgiving dinners they go to? It’s perfectly normal for people to desire to be admired for all they have worked hard to accomplish, and sometimes family dinners provide a setting that seems appropriate for that. Rather than impressing other village leaders, though, they just want to impress those they love.

It is hard to say whether or not the American potluck tradition was really inspired by Native American feasts, because similar traditions are carried out all over the world. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Baby Cradle

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

A Native American baby cradle, one
of the 100 objects we’ve chosen to
celebrate our centennial.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

Baby cradles are almost universal objects with a history going back centuries. The museum has quite a few in its collections from different parts of the world.

In this case, we are dealing with a late 20th century example from the subarctic regions of North America. It serves as a very colorful reminder that this tradition still continues.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

On the Eleventh Day of HMNS…Odyssey Through Indian Country

War bonnets on display in
The Quest for High Bear.

Imagine this: it’s the 1920s and you’re a five year old Texan. Though young, you’ve already heard endless tales of your family’s pioneer history – the legend and the reality mingle freely in your heart. Your biggest dream is to one day meet one of the tales’ most fascinating characters – a living American Indian. On a family trip to a state park, you not only meet one, you meet one of the nation’s most famous – Two Guns White Calf, a chief considered so representative of American Indians that he was one of three chosen to model for the Indian Head Nickel

Your fascination with his culture marks a stark contrast to most of America at the time – and because of this, he likes you, asking you to return the following day for a gift. You do – of course – and he presents you with a small leather rattle, as well as a picture he has signed with a pictogram: two guns and a white calf.

I imagine you’d be inspired to find out more. Gordon W. Smith – whose story you’ve just been reading – did just that, and the collection he amassed over the next several decades is now on display in the Hall of the Americas at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Upon entrance, the very first thing you’ll see is the leather rattle that started it all – and the signed photo. From there, you can explore a series of fascinating American Indian cultures Smith met and befriended, through the objects they used every day – beautiful beaded dresses (one of which has over 320,000 individual beads) and moccasins, fleshers and scrapers used to prepare animal skins (including one made out of the barrel of a gun – a common fate for weapons when ammunition ran out), pipes, bison story skins, stunning necklaces, ceramic vessels and much more.

Everything is gorgeous, but some of the items that stand out most are a gun owned by legendary American Indian Chief Crazy Horse and a feathered War Bonnet Smith made himself. What stood out even more was Smith himself, a born storyteller who was kind enough to share his extraordinary story with us in the video below.

The Quest for High Bear exhibition is just one of the fun and fascinating options for families at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. In a take-off of everyone’s favorite holiday classic, The 12 Days of Christmas, we’ve got 12 ideas for fabulous family fun this holiday and we’ll be sharing the possibilities here every day until Christmas Eve. Best of all, most are activities that last past the holiday season – some, year round. You can also check them all out now at the spiffy new 12 Days of HMNS web site.

Check out the first ten days of HMNS:
On the first day of HMNS, explore The Birth of Christianity.
On the second day of HMNS, shop for Sci-tastic gifts.
On the third day of HMNS, meet Prancer the reindeer.
On the fourth day of HMNS, discover the making of The Star of Bethlehem.
On the fifth day, move it, move it with Madagascar 2 in the Wortham IMAX Theatre.
On the sixth day, hunt dinosaurs with Dr. Bob Bakker.
On the seventh day, look inside the human body in BODY WORLDS 2.
On the eighth day, meet the HMNS Entomologists.
On the ninth day, peer into the Gem Vault.
On the tenth day, explore the cosmos at the George Observatory.

Are You Making a Connection?

So, why are you here? What part of yourself did you bring today? What experience do you want to have? These are the questions I wish I could ask every one of you as you come through the museum’s doors. Then according to your answers I’d play matchmaker, pointing out an exhibit hall, hooking you up with just the right specimen or artifact so you could make a connection.

In today’s increasingly digitized world we are overwhelmed with visual images, most of which we ignore. You come to the museum and we’ve got…uh…more stuff for you to look at. Yet, you’re here. You could have stayed home twitching through a hundred television channels or trawling online for something, anything, about science. But you dealt with traffic and parking to experience something real, so what will you connect with and why?

Everyone coming to the museum brings their own individual history, likes and dislikes and those things obviously factor into the objects they find appealing. Suppose you love all things purple and you really like minerals, it’s no big revelation that one of your favorite specimens at HMNS might be the amethyst geode in the mineral hall. At this point, mentally Rolodex the specimens and artifacts you’ve come to love at HMNS. What do you never tire looking at, what do you always re-visit? Fossils? Shells? Taxidermied wildlife? A Native American pot? You can probably easily state the reasons why, too. Old stuff’s cool, shells are pretty, animals fascinate me, etc., etc. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Model: giraffe
Creative Commons License photo credit: jrsnchzhrs

Think of an object at the museum that caught your attention for no particular reason, it sorta surprised you. It might have been nothing special until you read the label, learned something new, and suddenly you saw that object differently. Or across the gallery something grabbed your eye and you absolutely had to know what that thing was. Aha! A connection’s been made, you’re not completely sure why, but you enjoy it and now it’s a favorite thing to see and share with others when you visit the museum.

Let me assure you, that very real connection between you and your special item can’t be downloaded or digitized. To illustrate I’ll share one of my favorites – but I have to cheat a little. This specimen’s not on exhibit but is part of the vertebrate zoology collection. A few years back a giraffe died of old age at the Houston Zoo and the skull was sent over to Dr. Brooks, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology. The giraffe was Hi-Lo, whom I remember fondly from my childhood zoo visits (that’s my personal history connection) so I was pleased his skull came into our collections. Then I observed that the horns, those knobby things on a giraffe’s head, are actually bone. Somehow I thought they’d be some sort of spongy cartilage. Who knew? But I gained new insight. Last, for no reason I can defend, I truly love the slender elongated sculptural beauty of the skull. It’s just cool. Yeah, I can google an image of a giraffe’s skull on any computer but it’ll never delight me the way that Hi-Lo’s does.

Ok, a connection’s been made. Where will it take you? Does it inspire enough to pursue further knowledge or is the experience of the connection enough in itself? As a child, the late great Stephen Jay Gould so loved the dinosaur skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History that he became a renowned paleontologist. Me? I enjoy looking at the giraffe’s skull over and over again but am content to remain a registrar. And here’s some more musings regarding our connections with objects. Why do we take photos of our favorite things in museums? Why do we take photos of ourselves with them? Why do we buy replicas of them in the museum gift shop?

Pharaoh hats
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zepfanman.com

Whew, lots of questions in this blog! Now it’s your turn, let’s make this a discussion. Which objects do you think best represent the museum; are there iconic objects that connect with every visitor? Communicate with us; tell us what your favorite HMNS artifacts and specimens are and why. Because, if I could, the last question I’d ask when you go out the museum’s doors would be: Did you make a connection?

Donna Meadows
Associate Registrar, Acquisitions