The first time I ever visited the Museum of Fine Arts, I was only a few weeks into my first semester of college. I was new to Boston and more significantly—more intimidatingly—new to college. I hadn’t yet found my major, a friend group, or even the locations of all my classes. But on my first trip to the MFA, I unexpectedly stumbled upon an artifact, a 19th-century powder horn, from my tribe, the Penobscot Nation of Indian Island, Maine. At a time of change and uncertainty in my life, it felt like a familiar hello.
That visit was seven years ago, and I’ve now been working at the MFA for the past four years. I’ve walked through countless exhibitions and watched my appreciation for and understanding of art evolve, yet the powder horn remains one of my favorite pieces in our collection. As someone with a background in history, I find myself drawn to “practical” art forms, art that can be used and will tell you a story about the way its makers lived. And I’ve always been fascinated by how wholly Native American art tells these stories, how beautifully Indigenous peoples weave together art and the everyday. I think of a pair of Penobscot moccasins: functionally made with thick animal hide and cloth obtained through trade with other tribes and European settlers, but simultaneously elaborate, adorned with precise beadwork and colorful silk ribbons.
Much like the moccasins, the powder horn embodies this collaboration between form and function. I’m struck by the beauty and delicate decoration of an instrument used in battle. With the introduction of European muzzle-loading muskets to the tribe in the 17th century, the Penobscot began crafting these containers from cattle horns to store gunpowder and keep it dry. Aside from their functionality, the flasks also served artistic and social purposes. Powder horns, typically etched with ornate geometric patterns, were often presented as gifts to foster positive diplomatic relationships with both other Indigenous tribes and European settlers. The curved lines that wind around the horn may indicate the Penobscot’s emphasis on balance and unity, even—if not especially—through periods of war. Just as this powder horn symbolized social connection when it was crafted in the mid-1800s, today it bridges the centuries-wide gap between myself and the person who made it. I wonder about their life, and the life of the person they gifted it to, whether it was brought into battle, and the last time it was packed with gunpowder.
For me, functional art humanizes its creators and brings them to life, even when there are lifetimes between us. I cannot hear the Eastern Abenaki language directly from the lips of my ancestors going hundreds, thousands of years back. But I can envision them weaving baskets of sweetgrass and black ash. I imagine them in snow shoes intricately laced to traverse the brutal winter landscape of their home Wabanakik (Dawnland), medicine pouches carefully beaded with herbal motifs tied around their necks to promote good health. I see their hands mixing cornbread in birch bark bowls, folded and stitched together with cord made from spruce or cedar roots, or hands packing black and sulfurous gunpowder into powder horns like the 19th-century Penobscot one that first welcomed me to the life I’ve built in Boston.