Antiques dealers who look at thousands of old objects each year inevitably start to refine categories for the antiques they encounter. Repeated exposure to and study of antiques enable dealers to move from catch-all categorizations such as “Art Pottery” or “Quilts” to informed subcategories targeting what person/group/manufacturer made the item, in what region of the country or world, and when.
The closer objects are to the specialty areas of antiques that a dealer most frequently buys and sells, the more refined the dealer’s categorization of those things becomes. While we might lump together many individual pieces of furniture within the category “Mid-century Modern” and leave it at that, another dealer might lump together all “Rustic Furniture” and call it good. Needless to say, we have learned to classify rustic furniture into many different subcategories, each with its own themes and variations.
Native Rustic Furniture
An Ojibwe camp, circa 1870 (Minnesota Historical Society)
One subcategory of antique rustic furniture that we continue to find and learn about was made both by Native Americans in the United States and First Nations tribes in Canada. For centuries, the aboriginal peoples of North America traditionally transformed materials found in nature into utilitarian objects for shelter, transportation, clothing, storage and other essentials of daily life, as illustrated in the above photo of Ojibwe bark teepees and a bark canoe.
Being adept at relying on what nature provides positioned native people to use those materials in creative ways as they adapted to living in non-Indian cultural contexts. While the following opinion of a white man who helped establish one of the first Indian crafts stores in Michigan reflects the dominant society’s patronizing attitudes towards Native Americans during the early 1900s, it does recognize native people’s finesse in working with natural materials: “The Indian’s absolute simplicity, unerring instinct, and wonderful knowledge of natural things surely give him a place among Nature’s best interpreters.” (from The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909)
Knowing where to find, how best to harvest, and how to work with natural materials such as bark and twigs, enabled native people to make a living at a time when they were struggling to transition from their traditional ways of life to a cash-based economy. During the mid- to late-19th century, a market for their craftsmanship fortuitously emerged as the rusticator movement gained momentum.
Wealthy urbanites who headed to beautiful, remote natural areas for vacations developed an appreciation for crafts that evoked pleasant memories of their escape into nature. Some of these rusticators established second homes in resort areas and sought appropriate interior furnishings for their cottages and camps, while others purchased furniture to take back for the porches and lawns of their formal homes.
Stanislaus Francis, a Maine Maliseet, sitting outside his Indian Curiosities shop, c. 1915 (Phillips, 1998)
Native people sold their goods in a variety of places – at souvenir shops on or near their reservations, at sporting lodges and camps where they worked as guides, and at itinerant encampments they set up in rusticator havens such as Bar Harbor, Maine. In these ways they either went where the tourists were, or the tourists came to them.
While small souvenirs such as beadwork, tanned hides, quillwork and baskets were produced and sold in great quantities, native people also made and sold some rustic furniture in these locations. Note the rustic settee that Stanislaus Francis sits on (and no doubt made and offered for sale) in the above photo from Maine.
Likewise, in an early 20th century article titled “Indian Industries in Michigan” (The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909) Miss Grade Travis describes a “modest little Indian workshop” in Wayagamug, Michigan filled with crafts made by a group of 50 Indians comprising Ojibwes from the Garden River Reserve in Canada and Ottawas from Michigan. She reports that furniture made by the native men were among the items offered for sale.
What then, did that furniture look like? We are familiar with four* different forms of native-made rustic furniture that evolved in the northeastern and midwestern regions of the U.S. and Canada during the rusticator era: Bark panel, Mosaic twig and bark, Bentwood, and Branch and burl furniture.