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"These donations are due…to the efforts of the lady members"


Aboriginal Women Artists



In 1885, members of the New Brunswick Natural History Society (NHS) learned that the Royal Society in Ottawa wished to augment its collection of local Aboriginal utilitarian and cultural items. Around the same time, NHS Secretary Samuel Kain supported this objective in New Brunswick, reminding the provincial Society that its collection should include more examples of modern Aboriginal implements. Writing to museum colleagues in Nova Scotia, Kain discovered that they too held very few Aboriginal artefacts and pottery samples. New Brunswick's NHS responded to this dearth in a number of ways, beginning in earnest around the turn of the century. One strategy was for Society leaders to accompany groups of senior and junior members on regular collecting expeditions along New Brunswick's rivers, where they unearthed axes, scrapers, stone weapons, pottery, hammers and other tools, many of which became part of the Museum's collection. 


When William MacIntosh became Curator in 1907, he redirected the focus of collecting from midden-scavenged tools to Aboriginal handiwork and craft items. To this end, he enlisted the enthusiastic help of the Ladies' Auxiliary, whose members scoured their own collections for Native-made artefacts. By the following year they had presented the Museum with 5 quill and birchbark boxes, 18 specimens of beadwork, and 11 baskets. Along with this solicitation came a lively series of lectures, tableaux and activity sessions designed to acquaint audiences with "Indians' manner of dress, their habits and customs, their use of home made implements and their domestic affairs" as well as "beautiful…legends" and the "important part that Indians have played in the history of the continent." The ladies of the NHS delivered these lectures and led junior members in face-painting, fire-building, meal-preparing and skin-stretching activities, all calculated to "show the Indian's great love of nature and the spirit with which he studied the signs of lake, forest and river."



New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B., X10724 (detail)

Moli Elizabet Francis, Mrs. John Alexander, Noel Francis, MAKAW and Others at Neqotkuk
(Tobique First Nation), c. 1904



These romantic representations of Aboriginal peoples tell us more about the social and cultural views of the white, middle-class members of the NHS than about Native people themselves. Archival records indicate that Aboriginals were not involved with these presentations, and the early accession records of the NHS Museum make only occasional references to the producers of the Aboriginal objects that white collectors so fervently desired. It is clear that most, if not all, of the baskets, quillwork boxes, beadwork items and clothing were made by Aboriginal women living in the region. Often the references are frustratingly vague. A written tally of gifts made in 1907, for example, indicates that Mrs. Gilbert Murdoch donated a birchbark box decorated with porcupine quills that was produced by "a Micmac Indian woman" in Prince Edward Island. Yet other notations are more specific, naming the female creators of valued objects. In 1908, Curator William MacIntosh noted that he had purchased five pieces of Indian basketwork "made by Mrs. Lolar and bought from Lolar, Chief of the Passamoquoddy Indians." In 1910 and 1911, MacIntosh regularly approached Passamoquoddy and Wolastoqew women for baskets of their own manufacture. In an effort to represent archaic Native handcrafts, he commissioned a skilled basket maker, Molly (or Mary) Sacobi, to produce baskets from traditional patterns that were no longer in common use. Sacobi provided several baskets "copied from an ancient type… no longer made" and donated additional items to the Museum in the early 1900s.  




New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B., X11678

Wolastoqew Family with Baskets,

New Brunswick, c. 1935

(click to enlarge)

Throughout the twentieth century, the Museum's collection has been enriched through contributions from Aboriginal women eager to represent their craft and cultural heritage with valuable samples of handiwork their own or their predecessors'. These objects are important historical documents, and cannot be classified as "objects simply produced for the marketplace." According to art historian Ruth Phillips, souvenir trade wares were "in many ways…the most authentic representations of the courageous, innovative, and creative adaptation" that Aboriginal peoples made during the period of their colonization. Objects produced by Aboriginal women continued to be valued into the twentieth century; their avid collection and display by the female members of the NHS provides only one example of the complexities of cultural exchange at the time.  




Natural History Society fonds, New Brunswick Museum Archives and Research Library. S127-9 (especially NHS scrapbook, 1862-96, F120).


Phillips, Ruth. Trading Identities: The Souvenir in Native North American Art from the Northeast, 1700-1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.


Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Vital Statistics: Marriage Records.


New Brunswick Museum accession database.


Saint John Globe, 1 November 1907.


Saint John Daily Telegraph, 15 October 1907.


Bulletins of the Natural History Society, XXVI (1908), XXIX (1911).

From Their Collections