Back in 1823, Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami did.
Courtesy Wikemidia Commons
Before famous explorers like George Catlin (1830), Seth Eastman (1830), and Nathan Sturges Jarvis (1833) visited Minnesota and assembled cultural and artistic collections relating to Minnesota’s indigenous people, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami navigated the Mississippi River—mostly solo and protected primarily by a red silk umbrella. Beltrami’s reasoning—correctly it turns out—was the red umbrella would be so exotic he would not be mistaken as a tribal member to the warring Dakota and Ojibwe nations.
Beltrami tagged along on the official US reconnaissance mission to map the "Northwest" (currently the state of Minnesota). Beltrami and Maj. Stephen J. Long disagreed during the journey, and in Pembina they parted ways. Beltrami took off with three Ojibwe guides in a birchbark canoe to search for the source of the Mississippi River--his goal all along.
Within five days they'd been ambushed by neighboring Dakota Indians, one of the Ojibwes was wounded, and they were running out of supplies. The Ojibwe guides tried to convince Beltrami to walk to Red Lake with them, but he refused to leave his canoe and his collections.
So there Beltrami sat alone, a foreigner in the wilderness with a canoe, a rifle, and a red umbrella. Unable to master paddling solo, he dragged the canoe after him with a tow line and propped the umbrella in the bow--basically to make onlookers curious before they shot at him.
Why is this story relevant to science? Beltrami wasn't just an explorer, he was a collector. He amassed over 100 American Indian objects through diplomacy, exchanges, barter, and purchases. He consciously and thoroughly documented where he purchased the pieces and whom he purchased them from, leaving us with a rare resource that has the potential to expand our understanding of the cultural exchanges and personal interactions that occurred between Beltrami and Minnesota’s Indigenous people in 1823.
This 188 year-old ethnographic collection is the basis for my research for the next year. Stay tuned to Science Buzz for more research findings.
Oh, and that red umbrella? It's in the collection too!
Courtesy Tilly Laskey