Stories tagged Beltrami

Oct
31
2011

That’s the question I started asking last week after revisiting Giacomo Beltrami’s narrative, "A Pilgrimage in Europe and America V2: Leading to the Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River", where he mentions “white bears” in Northern Minnesota. Surely he’s not referencing polar bears. Perhaps albino black bears?

Here’s what Beltrami had to say about these mysterious “white bears”:
“The white bear is the only wild beast of these regions that is dangerous."
"I have in my possession a magnificent skin of a yellow bear…”
"I then carefully put my gun in order, to be able to defend myself against the attack of white bears, which abound near the Red River."

I contacted two bear experts. David Mather, National Register Archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society, thinks Beltrami is referring to grizzly bears, since historically grizzlies were called “white or yellow bears” because of the light colored tips of the fur, and, “the fear factor makes me think that he’s referring to grizzlies.”

Andrew Derocher, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and a polar bear specialist said, “Minnesota seems a long way south and inland for polar bears. There is some evidence for polar bears to have been as far south as Maine but this would likely have been rare and coastal.”

Light colored grizzly beary
Light colored grizzly bearyCourtesy http://grizzlybearblog.wordpress.com/category/cheetah/

The shades and colors of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis ) fur are as varied as human hair, ranging from dark brown to white. In fact, white grizzlies (not albinos) are not uncommon in portions of Alberta and Montana, and in south-central British Columbia.

A simultaneous literature review led me to this interesting tidbit from the Lewis and Clark Journals:
http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu/read/?_xmlsrc=1806-05-31&_xslsrc=LC...

“Goodrich and Willard visited the indian [sic] Village this morning and returned in the evening Willard brought with him the dressed Skin of a bear which he had purchased for me. this Skin was of a uniform pale redish[sic] brown colour, the indians[sic] inform us that it was not the Hoh-host or white bear, that it was the Yâck-kâh this distinction of the Indians induced us to make further enquiry relative to their oppinions [sic] of the defferent [sic] Species of bear in this country. We produced the Several Skins of the bear which our hunters had killed at this place and one very nearly white which Capt Lewis had purchased. the White, the deep and pale red grizzle, the dark brown grizzle, and all those that had the extremities of the hair of a White or frosty Colour without reguard [sic] to the Colour of the ground of the poil, [sic] they designated Hoh-host and assured us that they were the Same with the White bear, that they associated together, were very vicisious, [sic] never climb the trees, and had much longer nails than the others."

Indigenous words referenced in Lewis and Clark’s journals include “Matocha” (Mato means grey bear) and “hoh-host”. At this point, I needed a Dakota linguistic specialist, so I contacted Leonard Wabasha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Tribe to get his opinion. Leonard thinks Lewis and Clark might have misinterpreted the Dakota speakers, who,
“may have been trying to say that the bears had a smoky color/tint or "Hota" which is also part of the word for sage (peji-hota) although considered to represent the color grey/gray it is visually nearly white.”

So, it appears for the Beltrami text, “white bears” are grizzlies. During his three months in Minnesota in 1823, Beltrami’s main method for staying warm was the “white bear robe” he procured from an Ojibwe person. To date, there aren’t any indications the bear robe survived in the Beltrami Museum collections here in Italy, but I’ll keep searching.

More on White Bears
White Bear Lake, MN
Leonard Wabasha, David Mather and I all decided this linguistic information gives a whole new interpretation to White Bear Lake, MN, a town that is associated with the legend of star-crossed Ojibwe and Dakota lovers being attacked by a “white bear”. The town’s logo is—you guessed it— a polar bear.

White black bears
There is a rare white color phase of the American black bear. John Tanner reports seeing one on the Canadian/Minnesota border in the early 19th century. The Kermode bear, or “Spirit Bear” is a white bear and a sub-species to the American Black Bear.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kermode_bear and http://www.bearbiology.com/index.php?id=37

Oct
13
2011

Research isn't for the faint hearted.

I am living in the Marche, the region of Italy where the subject of my work, Giacomo Beltrami, spent the majority of his life. I am in a very remote area of Mount Conero Regional Park. Normally I'd like the seclusion, but I recently found out my neighbors are the cinghiale--the wild boar.
Wild boar of Italy
Wild boar of ItalyCourtesy wikemedia commons

These guys can grow up to 440 lbs, have tusks, and are the only animal hunted in the Mt. Conero area because they are an introduced species--and, you guessed it, they have over-run the region. They come to my yard and night and root around for acorns.

Stay tuned for other fun animal stories!

Oct
13
2011

Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo ItalyCourtesy Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
If contemporary star quilts and painted bison hides are rooted in the same tradition, that means women were (and still are!) important producers of ceremonially painted arts in Dakota communities in 1823.

Ethnographic accounts prior to the 1970s often left women out of the picture regarding the production of art. Specifically, western anthropologists suggested ceremonial and “high” art was the work of men, when in fact women were the primary tanners and painters of hides.

Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine edited an important volume, "The Hidden Half, Studies of Plains Indian Women" in 1983. One article discusses the development of star quilts from hide painting traditions. This isn’t a new story—centuries-old forms and designs are adapted according to new materials, tools, and ideas—however, this dialogue is helping me consider the two painted bison hides and the importance of women in the Beltrami story.
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1Courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

Designs on the Beltrami painted hides consist of radiating concentric circles, sometimes called headdress, sun, or star designs. Contemporary star quilts usually employ an 8-pointed star motif. According to ethnologies and Dakota oral histories, the 8-pointed star represents Venus, or the Morning Star and carries various meanings including immortality and death. Red painted bison hides historically wrapped the dead, and Dakota people still use star quilts during funerals. Today, people gift star quilts to denote passages in life like marriage and the birth of a child, and to honor a person.

Are the two traditions related? Why did Beltrami receive two painted hides? What do you think?

Oct
07
2011

Back in 1823, Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami did.

Giacomo Beltrami
Giacomo BeltramiCourtesy Wikemidia Commons

Before famous explorers like George Catlin (1830), Seth Eastman (1830), and Nathan Sturges Jarvis (1833) visited Minnesota and assembled cultural and artistic collections relating to Minnesota’s indigenous people, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami navigated the Mississippi River—mostly solo and protected primarily by a red silk umbrella. Beltrami’s reasoning—correctly it turns out—was the red umbrella would be so exotic he would not be mistaken as a tribal member to the warring Dakota and Ojibwe nations.

Beltrami tagged along on the official US reconnaissance mission to map the "Northwest" (currently the state of Minnesota). Beltrami and Maj. Stephen J. Long disagreed during the journey, and in Pembina they parted ways. Beltrami took off with three Ojibwe guides in a birchbark canoe to search for the source of the Mississippi River--his goal all along.

Within five days they'd been ambushed by neighboring Dakota Indians, one of the Ojibwes was wounded, and they were running out of supplies. The Ojibwe guides tried to convince Beltrami to walk to Red Lake with them, but he refused to leave his canoe and his collections.

So there Beltrami sat alone, a foreigner in the wilderness with a canoe, a rifle, and a red umbrella. Unable to master paddling solo, he dragged the canoe after him with a tow line and propped the umbrella in the bow--basically to make onlookers curious before they shot at him.

Why is this story relevant to science? Beltrami wasn't just an explorer, he was a collector. He amassed over 100 American Indian objects through diplomacy, exchanges, barter, and purchases. He consciously and thoroughly documented where he purchased the pieces and whom he purchased them from, leaving us with a rare resource that has the potential to expand our understanding of the cultural exchanges and personal interactions that occurred between Beltrami and Minnesota’s Indigenous people in 1823.

This 188 year-old ethnographic collection is the basis for my research for the next year. Stay tuned to Science Buzz for more research findings.

Oh, and that red umbrella? It's in the collection too! Beltrami's red umbrella, Museo di Scienze Naturali Bergamo, Italy
Beltrami's red umbrella, Museo di Scienze Naturali Bergamo, ItalyCourtesy Tilly Laskey