Choctaw treasures: From New France to Old France -
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Choctaw treasures: From New France to Old France

Indigenous tribes across North America are increasingly invested in discovering the whereabouts of ancestral artifacts – sacred and everyday – that European explorers and colonizers took, sometimes by force, and deposited in collections back home across the Atlantic Ocean. Once they locate such objects, including human remains, many tribes are asking for them to be repatriated, while others want to study these various elements of their cultural patrimony as a way of re-engaging with and reviving past practices.

Woman with long dark hair wearing a black blazer and smiling
Cady Shaw (BA ’99), director of curation at the Choctaw Cultural Center

In 2016, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) reached out to representatives of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, France, to discuss items in their extensive global-cultures collection that might be Choctaw in origin. Those discussions led to Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma representatives examining virtually some of the Choctaw items in the Parisian collection and using them as the basis for creating replicas for display at the soon-to-open Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, Oklahoma.

TU communications alumna Cady Shaw (BA ’99) is both a member of the Choctaw Nation and the director of curation for the Choctaw Cultural Center. Drawing on her long professional history of Indigenous cultural interpretation, programming and museum administration, Shaw oversees the center’s collections, archives and exhibits, including collaborations with external organizations. “Working to tell the Choctaw Story and preserve it is an incredible honor,” Shaw remarked. “I’m very much looking forward to the Choctaw Cultural Center opening to the public this summer and being able to see visitors experience this special place we’ve built.”

Princely curiosity, Choctaw patrimony

One of Shaw’s current projects involves liaising with her counterparts at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac who received a grant to support further research on the Choctaw items in their collection as well to mount an exhibition and programming that includes them. It is planned that the exhibition – “The Curiosity of a Prince” – will open to the public at the Municipal Library of Versailles once COVID-19 has abated.

woman wearing a black mask and blue gloves while handling a small metal pot
Cady Shaw handles an iron cooking pot brought to Indian Territory by Choctaw citizens during the removal from their homelands in the Southeastern United States. (Photo by Chris Jennings – Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

The prince in question is Charles-Philippe, Count of Artois, the younger brother of King Louis XVI. Beginning in 1785, he began assembling a “cabinet of curiosities” filled with natural and human-made objects from around the world. These included items from various corners of France’s global colonial empire, which, until 1803, included the vast territory known as Louisiana, part of the ancestral home of many Choctaw people. In an essay published to coincide with the French exhibition, which Shaw helped to coauthor, it is observed that “acquiring knowledge about Indigenous communities was integral to European empire-making and Choctaws were no exception. . . . Across the globe, European empires collected items and featured them in curiosity cabinets and later in museums and universities.”

Some of the notable Choctaw items held by the Municipal Library of Versailles and set to appear in the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac exhibition are moccasins made out of bear paws and deer hide; a headdress made of bison and deer hide, birch bark, metal, wood, deer hair and raven, jay and turkey feathers; and a complete gar fish that was preserved and fashioned into a quiver to hold blowgun darts.

“While staff at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac are creating the exhibition,” Shaw noted, “the Choctaw Cultural Center was able to help curate the exhibit featuring  the Choctaw objects.”

“The education I received at TU has been invaluable throughout my career. From the PR classes in communications to the western history classes, each helped inform where I am today.

“I was deeply influenced by Professor James Ronda of the Department of History and Professor John Coward of the Department of Communications. Their passion for Native American history and representation always stuck with me, and their instruction ignited the passion in me to change course in my career and pursue work in history and museums.

“I still talk to Professor Coward today. In fact, he recently sent me a picture of one of my essays he had kept. It’s rare that a professor can still inspire you 20-plus years later and, in my experience, TU has many such professors.” – Cady Shaw (BA ’99)

a poster written in French saying Curiosité d'un Prince and depicting a Choctaw Indian headdress
Marketing poster for “La Curiosité d’un Prince,” a collaborative exhibition between the Choctaw Cultural Center in Durant, OK, the Musee du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Municipal Library of Versailles. Note: Due to COVID-19, the date of the exhibition has changed from what is shown on this original design.

What this means in practice is that Shaw has participated in virtual meetings dating back to 2019 regarding the exhibition and has given input on its content and design aspects, including which items to showcase and images to use. She has also written an online essay, which will appear soon on the French museum’s website, about the Choctaw Cultural Center and how this exchange of information has led to items being recreated for display in that space.

Indeed, the Versailles exhibition’s marketing poster features a feathered headdress that is believed to be Choctaw in origin from the 1700s. This headdress was used by modern Choctaw artisans to recreate a similar piece that will be on display in the Choctaw Cultural Center.

“We would like to express our gratitude to the whole team at the Choctaw Cultural Center for their investment, ideas, creativity and the will to share with us their knowledge and feelings regarding the objects and their history,” said Paz Núñez-Regueiro, the head curator of the Americas at the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. “We feel very privileged to be conducting this project with the Choctaw Nation.”

Ancestral traditions and national sovereignty

Beyond historical interest, the Choctaw Nation is invested in reconnecting with Choctaw items residing outside the community in order, Shaw noted, “to reclaim and revitalize our ancestral knowledge and traditions.” According to Shaw, “Being able to reconnect with those items has allowed Choctaw makers and artists to recreate cultural practices that hadn’t been seen or created by Choctaws in hundreds of years. It helps our tribe fill in cultural information that empowers us to tell a more complete story of who our ancestors were.” A prime example of this is the headdress mentioned earlier, which served as the model for a recreated piece made for a Lifecast figure to wear at the Choctaw Cultural Center.

Choctaw headdress made of feathers, leather and other items
Feather headdress created by Choctaw artist Les Williston in 2019 for display at the Choctaw Cultural Center. It is made of leather, red fox, bear and bison hides, along with the assorted eagle, hawk and buzzard feathers. Williston’s design was heavily influenced by and based on an original headdress dating from the 1700s held in the collections of the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.

When Choctaw people today learn about their ancestors’ techniques and, thereby, contribute to the revitalization of the tribe’s traditional arts, this “enriches our culture and our knowledge of our ancestors,” Shaw remarked. “It is important for us to make those connections to Choctaw cultural knowledge and production techniques from the past and preserve them for the future.”

Alongside this issue of cultural patrimony, there is also a political dimension to the work Shaw and her colleagues at the Choctaw Cultural Center are carrying out. This involves her people’s sovereignty and the concept of geopolitical relationships. In this regard, Shaw underscored, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is a sovereign nation, meaning the Choctaws have the power to govern themselves. “As is our inherent right,” she continued, “we have had a nation-to-nation relationship with France for over 250 years and it is revitalized today by this partnership with the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. This exchange of knowledge and partnership is helping strengthen those relationships and elevating our partnership.”

From Durant to Paris and back

Looking to the future, Shaw and her colleagues at the Choctaw Cultural Center hope, once it is safe, to be able to travel to France to visit the exhibition and take part in the adjacent cultural programming. Back home in Oklahoma, they also foresee at some point being able to bring the Choctaw part of the exhibition to Durant so that members of the tribe and others can enjoy and learn from these remarkable material witnesses of Choctaw life centuries ago.

Are you fascinated by the idea of researching and curating the objects and histories of cultures near and far? If so, you’ll want to learn more about TU’s interdisciplinary master’s program in museum science and management.