Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pocahontas Portrait

Painting of Pocahontas, after a Dutch engraving, National Portrait Gallery. Known by many names, this Native American woman supposedly saved the life of English colonist John Smith; she later converted to Christianity and moved to England, assuming the name Rebecca Rolfe. The inscription states this is how she appeared at age 21 in the year 1616, and the Latin inscription around the border reads "MATOAKA ALS REBECCA FILIA POTENTISS. PRINC. POWHATANI IMP. VIRGINIAE ("Matoaka, alias Rebecca, daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia"). 

To find out more about Pocahontas and this painting, see this US Senate website. For more on the original 1616 engraving upon which this painting is based, see this Smithsonian site. For more on Pocahontas and her perception on both sides of the Atlantic, see here.

For more about iconic Native Americans with multiple names, see here and here.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Translating Names (National Statuary Hall Collection)

One of the most interesting features of the US Capitol is the National Statuary Hall Collection, which consists of 100 statues (2 from each state in the union). A particularly diverse group of statues populates the Capitol Visitor Center, reflecting the multicultural heritage of the nation.

On the left (above) is King Kamehameha, who (according to this official description) "united all the inhabited islands of Hawai'i under his rule." The pedestal of the statue reads KAMEHAMEHA I (i.e., King Kamehameha the First), but his full Hawaiian name is apparently much longer. On the right (above) is the Native American woman most commonly known as Sakagawea (or Sacajawea). In selecting this statue, the North Dakota legislature honored the woman they called Sakakawea as a "traveler and guide, translator, a diplomat, and a wife of mother" who was so crucial in the expeditions of Lewis and Clark.

Another figure worth mentioning here is Sequoyah, a Native American who represents the state of Oklahoma. The official description refers to him the "inventor of the Cherokee alphabet," but the writing system he developed is technically a syllabary.

(For more on Sequoyah, see my previous posting.)

Other statues in the collection depict figures from far-flung points of origin: e.g., Spanish missionaries Eusebio Francisco Kino (AZ) and Junipero Serra (CA); Quebec-born settlers Jean-Baptiste McLoughlin (OR), Jason Lee (OR), and Mother Joseph, née Esther Pariseau (WA); a French missionary, Father Jacques Marquette (WI); a Dutch-speaking Belgian known as Father Damien, born Joseph de Veuster (HI); and more Native Americans: Sarah Winnemucca (NV-Paiute), Po'pay (NM-Tiwa), and Washakie (WY-Shoshone).

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Sequoyah, Inventor of Cherokee Writing System

This painting by Henry Inman at the National Portrait Gallery depicts the Sequoyah (d. 1843), the inventor of the Cherokee writing system. The script in Inman's painting doesn't look as well-executed as it could be; perhaps this is because Inman's work based upon a lost painting by Charles Bird King (King's painting was destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Castle).

This engraving, also based upon the lost King painting, seems to do a better job re-creating the Cherokee script. Sequoyah himself signed his name as ᏍᏏᏉᏯ (Ssiquoya), but you can see here that he was also known by the English name of George Giss or Guess.

This postcard, which erroneously calls the syllabic writing system an "alphabet," at least gives you a good sense of the sounds that the signs represent. For more about the Cherokee syllabary and language, see this page.

To read (or hear) more about this painting, see this NPG blog posting. You can also read about the statue of Sequoyah in the National Statuary Hall Collection (see the next posting for more).

Friday, November 12, 2010

FDR's Minimalist Monument (National Archives)

It's very easy to miss this simple monument on the north side of the National Archives. This memorial is dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and for a presidential monument this one is not very grand or informative.

As it turns out, that's exactly what FDR wanted. Note the second "explanatory" plaque that has been erected in front of this memorial (click to enlarge and read the text).
It seems funny that this plaque both honors and disrespects his wishes. FDR did get his modest form of commemoration - but the plaque itself goes beyond FDR's instructions, turning the president's humility into something worth of commemoration in its own right.

There is, of course, a huge and complex FDR Memorial on the National Mall - which, I suppose, adds to the irony (see here and here for more).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Obamamania (DC Flashback)

It has now been two years since Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States. There was much euphoria in DC at the time: above, international newspapers (from Brazil and Saudi Arabia) announce Obama's victory in the election (Newseum, the day after Election Day, November 5, 2009). You can view front pages from newspapers around the world on this day at this Newseum website.

Other museums around DC fed into "Obamamania" in their own ways. Above, "Hongera Barack Obama," a kanga (dyed cotton cloth, used for many purposes), produced in east Africa in 2008, hangs on display at the National Museum of African Art. Obama's father was from Kenya, and the Swahili inscription expresses the hope many felt upon Obama's election: Upendo Na Amani Ametujalia Mungu ("God has blessed us with peace and love").

At the gift shop of the National Museum of American History, this children's book recognizes Obama's connections to Hawaii, the state where he was born. Note the use of the backwards apostrophe [ʻ] in the word Hawaiʻi. This punctuation mark, called the ʻokina, represents the glottal stop, a sound that does not exist in English.

The National Museum of the American Indian also got involved in the celebrations. Here, dancers perform a traditional Hawaiian mele inoa (name chant) for Obama as part of the Smithsonian's "Out of Many" Festival, January 17, 2009. You can read the Hawaiian text (with English translation) and even watch a recording of the performance on this website.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Native Boats, Indigenous Languages

November is officially Native American Heritage Month - so I'll be including a few postings throughout the month to honor this.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) employs "American" in the broadest sense, encompassing in its scope diverse indigenous cultures across the Americas. Prominently displayed on the entrance level are 3 boats representing different cultures: a Hawaiian boat, an Inuit kayak, and a reed canoe constructed by Aymara people (see this website and gallery for more). Above, descriptions of the boats in the Inuit language (which uses a syllabary) and the Hawaiian language (which uses Roman letters). [Click the image to see a larger version.]

Note the use of the backwards apostrophe [ʻ] in the word Hawaiʻi. This punctuation mark, called the ʻokina, represents the glottal stop, a sound that does not exist in English.

The description of the reed canoe is written in Aymara, an indigenous (and co-official) language of Bolivia and Peru.

The English translations of these texts are written on the reverse of these signs - sorry I didn't include them here!

GOTV (Get Out The Vote) Posters [Election 2008 Flashback]

These election posters (placed in spots were windows once were) encourage people to get out and vote in the 2008 elections. These were on the wall of an abandoned school building in the SE Quadrant, Inauguration Day 2009. Above (center), a poster featuring an adorable little girl encourages Spanish-speaking voters to take part in the election: Ella confia en ti para tomar la decisión correcta ... Tu país también. ¡Voto! ("She trusts you to make the right choices...so does your country.") On the left, a week-long pill box organizer has 4 compartments raised to read VOTE (a plea to elderly voters perhaps?).

Above, posters targeting African Americans (right) and Asian Americans (left). The whole "Wok + Dutch Oven = Asian American" thing is a bit silly, but it's an attractive poster nonetheless.