Exhibition | Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on December 19, 2016


Titian Ramsay Peale, Indian on Horseback, 1820, pencil and watercolor on paper
(Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society).

◊  ◊  ◊  ◊  ◊

Closing this month at APS:

Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America
American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 15 April — 30 December 2016

Thomas Jefferson was president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1814—before, during, and after he was President of the United States—and the Society was one of Jefferson’s primary ties to Philadelphia even after he left for Washington. As the site of Charles Willson Peale’s famed natural history museum, for which Jefferson served as chairman of the first Board of Visitors, the American Philosophical Society Museum provides an ideal venue for a series of exhibitions about Jefferson. This tripartite exhibition series—exploring Jefferson as a statesman, as a promoter of science and exploration, and as a student of Native America and indigenous languages—adds not only to our historical understanding of Jefferson’s accomplishments but also demonstrates how his multifaceted legacy continues to be relevant today.

769990392771618549-gatheringvoicesfunguideThe last of three exhibitions, Gathering Voices, tells the story of Jefferson’s effort to collect Native American languages and its legacy at the Society. Jefferson had an abiding interest in Native American culture and language, while, at the same time, supporting national policies that ultimately threatened the survival of Indigenous peoples. As president of the APS from 1797 to 1814, Jefferson charged the Society with collecting vocabularies and artifacts from Native American nations. Over the next two hundred years, the APS would become a major repository for linguistic, ethnographic, and anthropological research on Native American cultures.

Gathering Voices traces the Native American language collection at the APS from Jefferson’s vocabularies to the current language revitalization projects at the Society’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research (CNAIR). Audio stations will allow visitors to hear Native American voices from the past speaking their own languages, and interactive touchscreens will reveal the dramatic extent of Native American language loss as well as the active tribal revitalization efforts underway in collaboration with CNAIR.

“I … would with all possible pleasure have communicated to you any part or the whole of the Indian
vocabularies which I had collected, but an irreparable misfortune has deprived me of them.”

—Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Smith Barton, 21 September 1809

When Thomas Jefferson left Washington after two terms as President of the United States, he packed 50 Native American vocabulary lists in a trunk and sent them on a river barge back to Monticello along with the rest of his possessions. Somewhere along the journey, a thief stole the heavy trunk, thinking it was full of treasure. Upon discovering it was only filled with papers, he tossed the seemingly worthless contents into the James River.

The loss of the vocabularies represented the destruction of 30 years of collecting on Jefferson’s part. Only a few precious fragments were rescued from the muddy banks along the shore. Those fragments, along with Jefferson’s original letter to Barton describing the theft, are on view in the exhibition Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America.

Exhibition Advisors

Dr. Margaret M. Bruchac (Abenaki) is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Associate Professor in the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, and Coordinator of the Native American & Indigenous Studies Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. She directs two restorative research projects—“On the Wampum Trail” and “The Speck Connection”—that endeavor to reconnect objects and data in museums and archives with Indigenous communities and traditions. Her publications include Dreaming Again: Algonkian Poetry (Bowman Books 2012), Indigenous Archaeologies: A Reader in Decolonization (Left Coast Press 2010), and the forthcoming Consorting With Savages: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists (University of Arizona Press).

Richard W. Hill, Sr. (Tuscarora) is an artist, writer, and curator who lives at the Six Nations Community of the Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. Over the years, Rick has served as the Manager of the Indian Art Centre, Ottawa, Ontario; Director of the Indian Museum at the Institute of American Arts in Santa Fe, NM; and the Assistant Director for Public Programs at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution; and taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Currently he is the Senior Project Coordinator, Deyohahá:ge – Indigenous Knowledge Center at Six Nations Polytechnic.


Excerpt from the vocabulary of the Unquachog (Unkechaug) Indians, collected by Thomas Jefferson, Long Island, 1791
(Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: