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Wherein archaeologist Dr. Steve Nash and I look at and discuss a fascinating, powerful, and complicated collection of artifacts. What do you think: can peace, or loyalty, be purchased?

We've set out from The Field Museum in Chicago to collaborate with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Check out our first video on the Human Biology Collection:

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Producer, Writer, Creator, Host:
Emily Graslie

Producer, Director, Editor, Graphics:
Brandon Brungard

Producer, Camera:
Sheheryar Ahsan

Interview with:
Dr. Steve Nash

Drone footage by:
Jess Wellington and Greg Koronowicz (Thank you!)

This episode is a collaboration between
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science
And filmed on location in beautiful Denver, Colorado.
This episode is brought to you by a collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature and Sicence and the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

Museum collections like those at the Field preserve physical knowledge, but often, these collections can lead to more questions than answers. At least that�s the case when it comes to Peace Medals.

Peace Medals are big, heavy things, usually made out of silver or bronze and typically depict the portrait of a king or president on one side, with a Latin phrase with additional imagery on the other. They were given out between the mid-1700s and the early 1900s by European and American rulers to various Native American tribal members and leaders. Receiving a peace medal often meant a tribe pledged allegiance to the country or nation who was giving it.

They were almost like a currency that was used to purchase loyalty and worn with pride. In some cases, giving a peace medal accompanied a treaty or deal that was struck between the parties, to symbolize a new friendship or era of peace. But I have a lot of questions about these, so we went to go talk to Dr.

Steve Nash, Curator of Archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to learn more.

Emily: So, Steve, one of these things is not like the other, can you talk about the one on the end first?

Steve: Yeah. This is a replica shell gorget, and this is an artifact that is found all across the Eastern and Midwestern United States. These would have been over the chest, necklace style. You can see the holes that are drilled right up there on the top.

And these were prestige items, they were status symbols. These were gifts that were given between Native American tribe leaders, elders and so-on. And it was valued by the people who had them during their lives, and then valued by the family after their lives.

I brought this up in the context of the peace medals because peace medals were intended as gifts between government to government, and in this case from the leaders of American government to the leaders of a Native America groups tokens of allegiance, or loyalty, or thanks for negotiations or introductions or treaty signings and things like that. And then the Native Americans who got them thought they were serving another function, like still serve the American function but they also morphed into something else: status symbols, prestige symbols, symbols of wealth, leadership, and so on.

S: The first one we have here is potentially a replica, we need to do some more research on this one. It is a 1789 George Washington peace medal, this was the first one that the US put together. And what you can see very faintly on this one, is a crest of the United States, so you�ll see the crest, the eagle, some stars in there and things that loo familiar to us even today. We see them on money, we see them on government buildings, government websites and so on.

On this side you can see two Native Americans shaking hands, there are no government officials. These were incredibly rare so they would have gone to the most important native American leaders from the eyes of the US government.

S: So, the next one is one of my favorites, and it is the Thomas Jefferson peace medal. This is the first one that was mass produced. Lewis and Clark took 89 of these peace medals on their exploration of Louisiana territory in 1804-1806. So they knew that they were goin going to be interacting with a lot of Native American groups along that way.

They needed help, and they needed gifts to give to break down the barriers, and that�s what this thing did. There are different kinds of interpretations on this thing, but I flipped this one over because it says �peace and friendship� on it, and there�s a tomahawk and a peace pipe and a Native American hand clasping a Euro-American hand. It�s clear what this thing is about, it is about peace and friendship.

E: What�s the next one?

S: The next one? Well, keep in mind that all presidents George Washington to Benjamin Harris in 1889 had peace medals made for them, except for John Adams, for reasons I�m not really sure about, and William Henry Harrison, who was only president for a month, he died a month after he got into office. Many of them maintain the pattern that Thomas Jefferson set out. I like this one in particular because it looks so American now, but Euro-American, look at his guard, his hair style and all that.

It�s clear who this guy is. Take everything else away and this is an American aristocrat, a government official and so on. But I like this one also because here were are 36 years later after Thomas Jefferson and look at the back.

E: It�s the same!

S: It�s the same!

E: So the same sentiment?

S: Same sentiment, same function, same all of that. There was no need to change that for at least 36 years.

E: So, has the back changed between this one and the next design?

S: The back has in fact changed. So, here we go up to many of our�s favorite president, Abraham Lincoln.

E: He�s got a really big forehead.

S: He�s got a really big forehead, but you can�t see him as sort of skinny, linear Abe. But look at the back of Abraham Lincoln�s peace medal. This is about as complicated as it gets. It�s completely loaded with meaning, symbolic meaning for US government policies with respect to the Native American Tribes.

Euro-American dominance of the American West through agriculture is in the middle of this peace medal in the back, right? You can see, there�s a farmer in there with a plow and a horse and what�s going around along the border of that piece?

E: Well, it looks to be a disturbing confrontation.

S: It�s a disturbing confrontation between who?

E: The Euro-Americans and the Native Americans.

S: Is it? Looks closely.

E: I don�t know. Or between two Native groups?

S: Between two native groups. It�s symbolizing violence, therefore savagery, therefore barbarism, therefore these people are less than human. This is kind of a symbolic representation of what made Manifest Destiny justifiable. Those people are less human than we are, therefore we can take their land, settle their land, civilize their land.

E: As a Native American leader, how could you look at this design and say like �Oh, I�m going to accept this. I agree to you mission�?

S: It�s a really good question, and I think that you hit on something about the assumptions about how peace medals were received by anybody, and we can come back to the shell gorget and the fact that peace medals sort of accidentally fell into this niche of being worn as necklaces. I�m thinking about if I was a Native American leader out in the American West, they know what�s been going on in for decades. You know, you come in to talk to a government agent and they hand you a peace medal of somebody else�s president? There�s some folly there, there�s some cultural assumptions about what�s appropriate and we still have bad assumptions about gift giving today.

We have all been given a gift where we were like �Well, you know that didn�t really hit the mark.� The president of Argentina in 1992 gave George W. Bush 300 pounds of raw lamb as a gift. How do you think George W.

Bush received that?

E: Well, I mean it�s a little practical.

S: It�s a little practical, he was a rancher, maybe he likes raw meat? But it�s kind of a weird gift from one head of state to another, don�t you think?

E: Oh, I mean�

S: So, I�ll bet you dimes to dollars that for everybody who thought these were prestigious items, there�s a whole bunch of folks who said, �Why would I accept that?�

E: So, is this the prevailing design on peace medals that were designed after?

S: Um, they�re not quite as violent. As we move later on, and things changed for the country a lot in 1865, this is Andrew Johnson. Again, you look at the front and it looks like all the other peace medals that we�ve seen. Mildly regal, has his name, and the United States of America and so on.

And if you look on the back, so what�s happening in 1865? They�re building the transcontinental railroad. This is Lady Liberty and all of these classic Greek and Roman social and legal institutions encroaching on the Native American world.

So even to the point where the actual area of the peace medal is divided, two-thirds of it goes to Lady Liberty and all things American, and one-third of it goes to the Native American leader. I mean, the message is blatant and subtle all at once.

E: You know, it seems pretty loaded to me to have all these Peace Medals that were essentially meant to purchase loyalty, and then in hindsight we realize that, for the most part, we never held up our side of the bargain. So, what does it mean to you as a curator to have these peace medals in your collection? I mean, what is the significance now?

S: These peace medals are a material manifestation, a material symbol of the turbulent relationship that has always existed between Europeans and Native Americans. It�s always existed between any group that comes into a new territory. You know, unfortunately its something that human beings do to each other, they invade their spaces and the relationships are fraught and difficult. So on one hand, I don�t see them necessarily as symbols of the repression of Native Americans, on the other hand I see them as symbols of the kinds of things that human beings do to try to make it a little easier, to try to smooth over relationships.

So, the Vikings would have been giving gifts, we do it today. It is a fundamental aspect of what human beings do.

E: What if somebody, a Native American person, came here today and said, you know, �I believe that and I have proof that this belonged to my great-great-great-great grandfather� or whatever. Would you give it back?

S: The formal structures, the legal structures in which we would entertain a proposal to repatriate, to give these things back to a Native American tribe, is structured by the law, by federal law. We try to stay above and beyond the law to make sure we�re doing the right thing besides doing just what�s legal. What they would have to do is demonstrate that these things were sacred objects, object of cultural patrimony, take the Liberty Bell. They belong to everybody but they don�t belong to any one person.

Or were found in somebody�s burial, and in our society we respect everybody�s burials. You don�t touch somebody when they�ve been buried, the stuff they�ve been buried with is theirs in perpetuity, etc. Unfortunately, the historic relationship between museums and Native American tribes is such that Native American burials have not been so respected.

So, if we could definitively see that one of these things was buried with that great-great-great grandfather, certainly we would actually consider repatriating. But when I see things that are in museums that somebody could say, �Well how could somebody possibly value that?� I challenge them to go look at their house or their church or mosque or synagogue or place of worship, whatever and look at the artifacts in those spaces through a truly critical eye and say �How much do I ascribe meaning to that object?� I�ve got a really ugly mesh-back baseball cap from 1984 from the year that my college soccer team won the conference championship and I would never wear this thing, but I can�t get rid of it. It�s just a hat, right?

Well, no, it�s more than that.

E: More than a hat.

S: More than a hat.