The historic Native American items in the New Jersey State Museum’s collection are certainly interesting in and of themselves. However, Karen Flinn, assistant curator of archaeology and ethnography, thinks the life stories of the collectors who made generous donations of certain artifacts are just as compelling.

“Take our Alaskan (native) pieces, for example,” Flinn says. “The Richtberg family collected these things (early in the 20th century), but they later wanted to share their collection with New Jersey children.”

Princeton residents Dorothea and Viola Richtberg made a visit to Alaska in 1930 and returned with many souvenirs of their trip. Both were very interested in Native Americans’ traditional lifestyles, and the Richtbergs selected numerous examples of Eskimo and Native American manufacturing and crafting.

What set the Richtbergs apart from more casual collectors was that they kept careful records of the cultural origin for each piece, things such as miniature versions of traditional crafts like canoes and kayaks, cradle boards, and totem poles.

Dorothea and Viola Richtberg donated part of their collection to the NJSM in 1969, and Dorothea Richtberg made another substantial donation in 1989.

Many of these artifacts from Alaska — particularly the pieces that demonstrate traditional bead making and bead craft — will be on view as part of the new exhibit, “Silver Shell and Glass: A History of Native American Beadwork,” opening Saturday, January 23, in the Riverview Gallery on the State Museum’s second floor, and running through Sunday, September 4.

The exhibit, curated by Flinn, showcases about 60 Native American beaded objects from throughout North America, all drawn from the State Museum’s collection.

“Silver Shell and Glass” examines the way beads were crafted, which evolved from being made of naturally occurring materials to utilizing metals and glass, as well as how they were used by Native Americans.

The exhibition features a number of rarely seen items from the State Museum’s extensive collection, including examples of beadwork on a child’s moccasin, clothing, necklaces, a game, and a man’s war headdress.

“The planning has been going on for about a year, and my idea was originally ‘the beaded universe,’” Flinn says. “We have an extensive ethnographic collection, including beads from Africa, Asia, etc. But because of space, I had to pull back a little, and focus just on beaded (works from) North America.”

“They’ll be arranged according to geography, so, we’ll go from the east coast and woodlands, to the Plains Indians, to the southwest and California, and then to the northwest coast and up into Alaska and the Arctic,” Flinn says. “It’s like a geographic trip through the Americas.”

Flinn reflects that humans began making art very early on in our cultural evolution, and the use of beads for a variety of purposes has been documented in cultures around the world, dating back to ancient times. In fact, examples have been found in archaeological excavations dating as early as 100,000 years ago.

“In the ‘Old World,’ beads can go back 80,000 to 100,000 years; but in the New World, things are not as (ancient), maybe more like 13,000 years old, which is still pretty old,” Flinn says.

As much as she enjoys delving into bead making and crafting from the past, Flinn says bead making is not a lost art, and she has seen modern bead work that is just as meticulously done as in long ago times.

“Modern bead making and beadwork by Native American descendants continue to follow traditions, even as they experiment with modern, non-traditional forms, such as beading high-heeled shoes and sneakers,” she says. Flinn adds that archaeologists and anthropologists also find it possible to learn the history of native peoples by studying the changes in their bead making over time.

“Before contact with Europeans, native people used local materials, and they also traded among themselves, so we find shell (beads) from coastal areas at sites that were well inland, meaning they were traded or carried inland,” Flinn says. “Even turquoise (associated with native people in the southwest) might have been traded for shell beads. There was much trade going on in the New World before the Europeans came.”

Once Europeans arrived in the New World — as well as northern people like Scandinavians and Russians — they especially hankered for the pelts of North American fur-bearing animals, such as beavers and otters.

“So we see pelts (and other Native American materials) being traded for European things like cloth, iron axes, and especially glass beads,” Flinn says. “For any trader from the Old World, glass beads would have been prominent in their trade items.”

“Native Americans, who had been using things like porcupine quills to decorate leather and whatnot, were fascinated with glass beads,” she continues. “They would acquire them readily.”

From her office in the basement of the NJSM, Flinn produces a small container of porcupine quills and explains that these sharp-as-a-knife quills (about the size of a large domestic cat’s whiskers) had to be chewed on and softened up before they could be utilized for crafting.

“Using glass beads was much easier than catching the beavers and porcupines, then working these materials for beading and decoration,” she says. “That’s one example of how we start to see the changes (in bead making) in an archaeological context.”

A major change in native bead craft and jewelry making came when the Spanish arrived, after which the native people learned the art of making silver.

“Many people think the Native American silver (particularly in the Southwest) is self-taught, but the craft was brought to them by the Europeans, especially the Spanish,” Flinn says.

When asked about some of the more unusual Native American items on view in “Silver Shell and Glass,” Flinn immediately thinks of an Alaskan piece, something akin to a modern yo-yo.

“It’s not just a museum piece; it’s more functional than most, a game that kids would have played,” she says. “And since it’s Alaskan, it’s covered with fur and glass beads.”

“Then there is a Plains Indian headdress, which was ceremonial, as the Native American special events like powwows were discouraged or forbidden once they were moved into the reservations,” Flinn says. “But they celebrated events like the Fourth of July, and this was an occasion when they would wear such headdresses in parades and whatnot.”

Flinn says one of the rarest items in the collection is also her favorite: a child’s doll’s cradle, collected in California by General Edward Davis Townsend.

“This is a case of a military man who probably traded glass beads for the cradle, which he brought (home) for his daughter,” Flinn says. “We learned that military men collected things made by the native people, and not just war items like spears, etc., but things like this cradle.”

Born in New York City and raised in the South Bronx, Flinn and her family later moved to what was then rural Warren Township, New Jersey. She still lives there and commutes to Trenton.

Her father was an electrical engineer, developing sensing devices for various companies. One company he worked for put in a bid to create and install a self-warming road surface on the notorious Pulaski Skyway near Newark, but the project never came to fruition.

“Dad always drove on the Skyway, and was so frustrated when it was frozen,” Flinn says.

Flinn’s mother had been a bank teller when the family lived in the city. The diehard New Yorker had relied on public transportation all her life, so she needed to learn how to drive once she landed in the suburbs. She finally did so about the time she turned 40. As she has aged, Flinn has developed a special respect for her mother’s achievement.

The longtime NJSM staff member seems to have fallen in love with Native American history, craftsmanship, and artwork while studying art history as an undergraduate at New York University, where she received a bachelor’s in fine arts. Flinn stayed at NYU, completing the master’s program in anthropology with a focus on Northeastern (American) archaeology.

“My initial interest came through art history,” she says. “I studied all eras of art history but came to love the very early art forms, such as pre-historic (works). For example, when I was an undergrad in art history, I did field work in Turkey for a couple of summers. But graduate school was where the ethnography came in.”

Prior to being promoted to assistant curator at the NJSM in 2000, she served as the registrar from 1978 to 2000. Flinn has more than 36 years of experience working with archaeological and ethnographic collections, as well as background in all aspects of museum management, including collections care and exhibition planning.

She was a curator and developed programming for a number of exhibitions at the museum, including “A Much Moved People: Preserving Traditions of the Delaware Indians” and “Cultures in Competition: Indians and Europeans in Colonial New Jersey,” which opened in 2012.

She adds that, though she has traveled extensively in northeastern U.S., some of her favorite historic sites are here in the Garden State. “New Jersey has a lot of cool, old houses filled with hidden treasures. Plainfield is especially interesting.”

Refocusing on the people who bequeathed their collections to the NJSM, Flinn especially likes to tell the story of Joseph Paul Baldeagle, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe who was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1897, and died at his home in Princeton in 1970.

“He was taught at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which discouraged his Native American heritage; later, Baldeagle earned a degree from Princeton (in 1923),” Flinn says, adding that Baldeagle worked as a teacher in Bordentown, then, after retirement, was a longtime volunteer at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Always concerned with public education, Baldeagle donated his family heirloom pieces to the NJSM in 1964.

“He chose to give his family collection to the State Museum, and this is unusual because these things were actually, personally, from a Plains Indian,” Flinn says. “So many of our donors’ stories are fascinating, especially in this case. Joseph Baldeagle wanted to use these materials to teach the school kids about Native Americans.”

“We don’t have a huge budget to go out and buy stuff, but we do have the generosity of New Jersey residents who care about educating our school children and their fellow New Jersey residents,” Flinn says. “Because our main purpose is to educate a lot of children — and various collectors saw all the students in the museum — they thought about their collections and chose us as a repository, which is really wonderful.”

Silver Shell, and Glass: A History of Native American Beadwork, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Opens Saturday, January 23, and runs through Sunday, September 4. Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. $5 suggested admission 609-292-6464 or www.statemuseum.nj.gov.

Gallery Tour, Sunday, January 24, 1:30 p.m. Free. Refreshments follow. Register by January 21 to Debra.Budgick@sos.nj.gov or call 609-292-8594.

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