Marriage as Depicted by Hmong Story Cloths

Original Cloth that I examined

Second Cloth, resembling the first (mentioned in section on commerciality)

My Hmong story cloth was relatively simplistic; it depicted the process of marriage in the Hmong community, detailing in images the steps involved in courting, ceremony, and family incorporation. The cloth itself was hand made on a cotton-polyester blend, and was approximately 3 feet by 3 feet. The outer pattern of the cloth resembled others around the collection: a basic triangular pattern pointing the eye to the center of the work.

What struck me as most interesting about this cloth was that underneath it was one that was very similar, following almost the same pattern, but with some added text and different coloration. I think that this is a very good example of how the clothes are a commodity. This is not a case of art of art’s sake, but instead an economic venture. The design showing marriage ceremonies among the Hmong must be a popular one, because more than one person makes them. The styles of the two clothes were enough different that one could tell they were designed by different hands, but that they were based off the same general design.

As for the cloth itself, another thing that struck me as interesting was that there was a definite timeline that could be followed, although it was not consistent throughout. The first line of the cloth shows the Hmong New Year courting rituals that involve a game using balls and umbrellas called pov pob. This line exists all in the same time period, and line has no progression.

****I did a little research on this traditional practice and found that it has survived along with the Hmong and is still a method used for dating amongst Hmong all over the world, including in the U.S. To find out more about pov pob in the U.S:

The second line of the cloth (below the Hmong New Year) depicts the marriage ceremony of the couple, including the kidnap of the bride and the blessing of the marriage by a rooster. This line, unlike the first, starts on the right and moves left along with the story.

The third line is more open to interpretation than the other three. It shows the meeting of the two families from which the couple comes. There is a scene depicting the two in the couple being given advice along side a celebratory feast and negotiation. This line is different than the other two, as there is more than one event going on, but no necessary order to them.

The fourth line creates a single time like the line depicting the Hmong New Year’s Celebration, but it shows a travelling procession of people going to the wedding’s equivalent of the reception. This is an example of a moving timeline.

Overall, this cloth follows a relatively simple top-to-bottom method of storytelling, though the story acts almost as a guide rather than a specific example of an event or myth.

The way this cloth functions as an example of history and culture of the Hmong people follows similar paths as that of the work of the griots in West Africa, as it is a guide to how to live. Griots provided advice to kings about the past, the story cloths, this one in particular, provides advice on the process of meeting your significant other in a traditional way. It also instills gender and familial roles, such as tales like Beowulf or The Iliad. What must be remembered about each of these cloths though, is that there primary purpose is commercial. The traditions on each of them is meant to be consumed by travellers from the West, tourists and UN workers and the like. Their significance to the Hmong people as representations of history is certainly affected by this fact.

Ban Vinai Embroidered

On April 13th, I visited the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, MN. The Freedom Library is dedicated to studying activism and neglected histories. The ESFL is located in a former Carnegie Library, and the classical, refined architecture feels somewhat out of place in the Craftsman filled Twin Cities, but is perfect for cultivating the storied and intellectual atmosphere of an archive filled library. According to Dr. Peter Rachleff, a library board member and former Macalester history professor who spends 40 hours a week at the library, they have processed several notable personal libraries bequeathed to the ESFL and are hoping to one day digitize their collections. The atmosphere of the library is at once welcoming and inspiring, and it is well worth visiting.

One of the library’s largest collections is of Hmong story cloths, curated by Marlin Heise, the founder and director of the Hmong archives. Within the collection of story cloths is a large (perhaps 4×6) piece titled “Ban Vinai.” Ban Vinai, I discovered after searching online, was a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand that many Hmong spent time in before being relocated to other countries such as the United States. Together, a fellow Study of History student, Rosie Laine, and I worked on the Ban Vinai story cloth.

largest view of the ban vinai story cloth that we could capture featuring the houses, UN refugee center, and some ofthe plants like the palm trees

This is the largest view of the Ban Vinai cloth that we could capture-it was so big!

The story cloth was embroidered, as most of the story cloths are, in bright colors. The houses were neon green, purple, and pink and bright blues and red. There were plants scattered throughout; palm trees and rice paddies and poppies. Some people were embroidered onto the cloth, but not many in comparison to the buildings. This contrast between the number of people and number of houses presented an interesting image of the crowdedness of the camp. It seems obvious that the refugee camp would be crowded, since that is an almost inherent part of refugee camps, and the number of buildings points to this, but the lack of people almost contradicts. However, this could also be a simple side effect of how complex embroidering people is.

the lower left hand corner of the ban vinai story cloth, with a river running through the middle and a better view of school children playing soccer.

The lower left hand corner of the story cloth, with a better view of the school children and the river running through the camp.

Some small details build up to larger significance when examined more closely. For example, there were three flags in the camp, none of which were representative of the Hmong community. A Thai flag was in the center, signifying the camp’s location in Thailand. Two United States flags were on the left hand side of the cloth, representing, presumably, the American impact on Hmong life in the second half of the twentieth century.

While the cloth was beautifully done, and quite detailed, many of these significant characteristics would have held no meaning were it not for the helpful commentary of Marlin Heise. Marlin had, himself, been through the Ban Vinai camp and had mountains of information and stories to tell. I would highly recommend visiting if only to mine Marlin for knowledge.

Lower right hand corner of the Ban Vinai story cloth, featuring houses, police checkpoint, and school children in Western style uniforms playing soccer.

The lower right hand corner of the Ban Vinai story cloth. The school children playing soccer are dressed in Western style uniforms, an example of the Western influence on the camp.

The position of story cloths as a method for communicating history is one for interesting debate. One stance is that the story cloths, like winter counts, are another version of non-written history. However, there are several issues with this theory. First, the story cloths are often embroidered tellings of mythical tales, thus a good representation of Hmong culture, but not necessarily a way to tell history. Additionally, the story cloths that I saw that were factually based did not seem to have a temporal nature. They were simply moments in time. Thus, I would propose that they may act somewhat like the winter counts as embers through which one can light the fire of a historical conversation, but by themselves they are too vague to impart historical information.

“The Orphan and the Monkeys” Hmong Story Cloth

Hmong Story Cloth that portrays the tale known as "The Orphan and the Monkeys"

Hmong Story Cloth that portrays the tale known as “The Orphan and the monkeys”

Despite being a historian, I know too little about some cultures. The Hmong culture is one such culture in which I lack such familiarity. One of my recent exposures to the Hmong culture was when the Study of History class and I went to the Hmong Archives located at the East Side Freedom Library in Saint Paul, MN.

We entered the archives and met with a man who was a Macalester College professor named Peter Rachleff. After a short introduction, he introduced our group to the archivist, Marlin L. Heise.

Marlin then proceeded to inform us about all of story cloths that were laid out. He told us immediately that story cloths were made by Hmong people to be sold. They were not typically found in Hmong houses. He then told us the contents of the various story cloths. The embroidered fabrics showed a range topics from village life to folk tales.

Line of Story Cloths

Line of Story Cloths

The entire class split up to analyze different story cloths. I was attracted to the folk tale story cloths. I drifted towards this one cloth that had a story about a man who buried corn. His corn got stolen by monkeys and God told the orphan that he ought to kill a cock and go to sleep. The man did so and was then stolen by the monkeys. The monkeys and several other animals then brought him wealth. The brother then tried this and he did not receive anything.

This is a shortened version of what I was to find out was a Hmong story called “The Orphan and the Monkeys”. There were a few differences between what has been stitched and the original story. For one, there was a wise man in the original story instead of God who informed the Orphan on what actions he should take. Many Hmong people converted to the Christian religion when they moved to America. In accordance with this, the brother not gaining wealth was not a part of the story I read. It is a common variation that occurs, though, as one source has noted. However, it could also arguably be seen as a “Ask God and ye shall receive” scenario.

This importance of this story is that it gives agency to the Orphan. The Orphan’s fate changed over night. I can imagine that the Hmong refugees who were uprooted from their homes wanted to be in charge of their own destinies. This is a story that parents can tell their children and therefore imbue the lesson of this story upon them.

Close up of Hmong Story Cloth

Close up of Hmong Story Cloth

As for the cloth itself, it was clearly for a Western audience. For one, it was written in the English language and had Latin numbers used by languages of the West. The tag on the cloth notes that the archive acquired it in 2011. The story cloths seem almost brand new. However, despite them being almost brand new in appearance, they were clearly hand embroidered. I guess from patterns that were drawn onto the cloth. This can be seen by the stitching in the story cloth I found, as well as the almost identical story cloth that was in the same pile. The colors of the animals as well as the stitching is different in both story cloths, yet the drawn figures are clearly from the same artists. The drawing is identical.

This cloth indicates both trade and and Hmong culture as a historical object. Much like the Phillipines, the Hmong acquired variants of folk tales from areas nearby like Japan and China. This is one such story that was changed for its Western buyers. As well as the story cloth itself was a means of commerce.

It is important to note these cloths and their content. Because in each artwork done, a bit of the artist is left in it. Hmong culture has been embroidered into each of these story cloths. Sadly, our visiting history students cannot analyze all of these story cloths. The Hmong archives need volunteers. If you wish to volunteer, please contact or visit the East Side Freedom Library. Here is their website:


Nuplai, Yer, and the Tiger

Hmong story cloths can be anything from personal histories to folklore. In the case of the cloth 173.2215 873 at the East Side Freedom Library, it is a classic folk story sewn onto a 3×2 ft cloth that tells the story of Yer and Nuplai (alternately spelled Nuphlai at several points in the text). The story is told snaking across the fabric, as Yer and Nuplai journey into the forest, Nuplai turns back, and Yer is later kidnapped. After Yer does not return, Nuplai grows worried and goes after her. Failing to find her, he makes a large sword, sacrifices a cow and pig, and returns, killing the tiger that kidnapped Yer, as well as the tiger-human babies they had together. The fabric is blue and the embroidery appears to be hand done, since several letters had fallen off of one side. Other than that, the cloth is well preserved, retaining a lot of vibrancy within the colors. It is dated at 2011, most likely the year it was made since it is does not feel very old to touch.

[Full tapestry]

While most of the other story clothes seen in the East Side Freedom Library’s collection told the stories of historical events or of cultural ceremonies, this one tells an old folktale. In other words, a cultural history. We compared our folktale to several others on display at the Freedom Library, and saw that several elements–the character of Yer, and the tiger as an adversary–were common throughout. In this sense, these story clothes resemble an oral history like that of most Western folktales. After all, though there are written accounts of Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White, there is no one original author credited, and these stories vary depending on who is telling them. Similarly, some preliminary research (by which I mean google) showed that this story seems to be a compilation of other fairy tales, as Nuplai and Yer are both frequent figures in Hmong folklore, but rarely seem to appear in the same stories. Thus, this story cloth tells us less about the history of the Hmong people and more about their culture. Who their folk heroes were, what fears they had, what stories they tell their children.


This is story is similar to another form of history we studied earlier in the semester, Winter Counts. These were histories used by indigenous tribes in the America’s as a form of record keeping. The Counts were an image representing the most important thing to have happened to a tribe that year, generally, however, the image was not the whole story. Rather it was a part of a story that an oral historian would use when they went to tell the whole story. The tapestry was similar in the sense that we could not figure out the ending from just the image, but when it was read to us by someone who knew the story, it was clear that there was more than what was drawn and written. We thought the final panel showed Nuplai morning his inability to find his wife, when in reality it was about Nuplai killing Yer’s tiger kidnapper and feeding Yer her tiger babies. Similar to how only a person who knew the tribe’s history and knew why an image were important enough to be on a  Winter Count, one has to already know a bit about Nuplai and Yer in order to make sense of this story.

[Final image]

This method of telling stories and histories, however, raises questions as to who the intended audience for this story cloth was. As mentioned by our guide at the East Side Freedom library, these story clothes are commonly made to be sold to western audiences. However, as mentioned earlier, many of the images seem to be shorthand for more detailed stories, and as a result the story is more or less unintelligible to an uninformed western audience. Additionally, the reading order of the images is not intuitive to western audiences, as it snakes around rather than reading left to right.
The East Side Freedom Library has a number of resources and sources on different groups throughout the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. It is great resource to students of history and members of the community. We would highly recommend going and utilizing the libraries resources, as well as looking at the vast collection of Story Cloths.

-co-written with Emma Daszkiewicz

Credjafawn Co-operative Store

Have you ever looked back into an old family album and were awed of how different things were back then? Or have you ever kept an old “antique” and sat there, curious about its previous owners? Now that I think about it, what makes objects antique? What can we learn about photographs? Are they more visual aids or an object in itself? I kept repeating these last two questions to myself as I observed the following series of photographs, the interior view of Credjafawn Co-operative store taken in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, MN in 1948.

A series of four photographs taken inside the store showing Rondo shoppers buying food.

Now, if this is the first time seeing these photographs, a couple of thoughts may have swam through your head while reading this title:

  • Credjafawn? Interesting name for a store. Is the owner’s name or did it come from somewhere else?
  • Wait, what’s the difference between a co-op and a store?
  • Oh, Minnesota! (Either you know where MN is or you don’t)
  • I don’t know too much about the Rondo neighborhood

The co-op’s name Credjafawn actually came from the Credjafawn social club in St. Paul, MN. A social club can be seen as a mutual aid society, where a group of people came together and help members from their community. Most groups plan social events while others has philanthropic ties raising money for members of their community, not only providing people opportunities to social engage but also financial help. This is such the case with the Credjafawn Co-operative Store. A co-op store is where the consumers supply the means and share the profits with each other. In this case, the social club opened the store during WWII, providing food for Rondo residents and remained open until the mid-1950s.

What is significant about the co-op and other Rondo businesses is that it has a lasting impact on their residents. When recalling memories about their time growing up in Rondo, residents fondly piece together spending time with friends and family, partaking in social gatherings and day to day events. Whether it be going to the local grocery store and being warmly greeted by the owner, to catching up with residents of their family’s wellbeing, the neighborhood had a definite small town fell where everyone knew each other. Yet, these pictures can provide a showcase the strong community ties Rondo had in looking out for each other.

A little while later, after the co-op closed down, the construction of Interstate 94 uprooted the tight-knight community forever. In 1956, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, giving states funding to help build a national Interstate Highway System. During WWII, General Eisenhower visited Germany and was inspired by the auto-bans, large expansive road systems now known as highways. Eisenhower advocated for the highway project during a time were national security was on high alert. One of the goals for the project was that in case there was invasion on the US, the highway systems could transport troops and goods cross country in short amount of timeOne key aspect of this deal was that states could keep whatever remained after the highway completion. Thus, the Minnesota Highway Department deliberately choose to build the highway through Rondo for several reasons: it housed the largest concentrated of African Americans at the time, there would be least resistance that would achieve legal action for the residents favor, and it was the cheapest option.

Meaning behind Rondo artifacts 

Today, one could not find the co-op or the 300 businesses and 600 homes that were once integral parts of Rondo (Link to a newspaper article providing context of what happened to the neighborhood construction). While a good number of residents have moved away after the highway was built, there has been recent efforts to remember Rondo by bringing together the public to educate what happened and to keep the memory of Rondo alive. One effort is the Rondo History Harvest started in 2016, in partnership through Rondo Avenue Inc. and Macalester College. The History Harvest is a one-day event that invites Rondo residents to bring in artifacts such as photographs, documents, or miscellanea to tell their stories . Residents not only keep their artifacts at home, but after a few months of processing, their items are accessible online in a digital archive where anyone can browse through and learn various stories.

As one of the students who has seen “history in action” for the past two history Harvest, I encourage everyone to view their items as historical artifacts, even if some are skeptical of seeing the value of each item. What’s incredible to realize is that each item has a story and we can learn so much through them. Whether it be a high school student who connects with their family history to historians in 50 years reviewing the cultural significance an item had, it’s essential to preserve them so it may remain as memorable as it should be.

What Can We Learn From An Embroidered Flour Sack?


Far from being a simple utilitarian piece of cloth, flour sacks have a complex and fascinating history all their own. This flour sack has travelled around the world, and can help to tell the stories of the First World War, United States foreign aid such as the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), and even of later president of the United States Herbert Hoover.

photo of an embroidered flour sack, bordered with lace. It reads: "BELGIAN / RELIEF / FLOUR / FROM / SLEEPY EYE FLOUR MILLS CO. / SLEEPY EYE, MINNESOTA / 1914 / 1915"

Decorated Flour Sack Dresser Cloth

This decorated flour sack originated in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, and was then transported to Belgium as part of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. After the flour was used, the sack was decorated and sent back to the United States as a sign of thanks. It was then used as a dresser cloth, a piece of material to cover the top of one’s dresser. The cloth features intricate crocheted lace insets and border, and is embroidered in yellow and green. The embroidery covers the original printed lettering from the flour sacks, as shown in the picture below of a similar sack. Additionally, flowers and the years of use were added to the side panels. Though the sack itself is dirty and worn, with tears in some places, the embroidery is in very good condition, suggesting that after the cloth was embroidered, it was treated well. The lace is also in decent condition, though there are some stains.

a plain flour sack circa 1914. It reads: "BELGIAN / RELIEF / FLOUR / FROM/ PILLSBURY FLOUR MILLS CO. / MINNEAPOLIS / MINN. / U.S.A.

Undecorated Flour Sack – for comparison

In 1914, Germany invaded Belgium and occupied much of the country. The German soldiers requisitioned much of the country’s food supply, threatening millions of Belgians with starvation. As an international relief mission, the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) was created primarily by US forces and chaired by Herbert Hoover. The CRB fed almost eight million people daily in Belgium alone between 1914 and 1918, by raising money, obtaining food supplies such as wheat, rice, beans, and peas, ensuring the safe shipment of those supplies past the British naval blockade and German submarines, and overseeing the distribution of the food by the CNSA, or Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation. Over the course of the war, the CRB shipped 11.4 billion pounds (5.7 million tons) of food to Belgium and occupied France, including 697 million pounds of flour.

The flour bags used to transport this massive amount of flour were carefully monitored and controlled by the CRB, as they feared the Germans could use the cotton to manufacture ammunition. Several large sewing workrooms were established in Belgian cities to provide work for thousands of unemployed women, and the empty sacks were distributed to these workrooms as well as professional schools, where they were used by women to sew, embroider, and make lace, turning the sacks into clothing, accessories, and other items. These modified sacks were then sold in Belgium, England, and the United States as a way to raise funds for food relief and aid prisoners of war. Some sacks were also given as gifts to members of the CRB and US organizations who had contributed to the relief efforts. Herbert Hoover was given over several hundred decorated flour sacks as a demonstration of the Belgians gratitude.

Close up of one panel of the flour sack, with the year 1915 and two flowers

A close up of a side panel of the cloth

It is truly remarkable to me that a simple embroidered piece of cloth can hold such stories behind it. The piece of material I examined has travelled across the world and been preserved for over 100 years. It is beautiful and interesting in its own right, but it is also representative of much larger forces in history. One cannot fully understand the history of the flour sack without also understanding the politics of World War One, the alliances between countries of the world, the economic situations of the United States, Belgium, and Germany, as well as the historical importance of embroidery and lacework to the Belgian people. Herbert Hoover can also be tied into the history of this flour sack, since his early humanitarian work prepared him for his later position as President of the United States. All of these connections and more can be examined and developed to better understand this object, and it seems to me that there can be no question that History as a subject is a study of the connections between times, places, people, and objects; When something as simple as a dresser cloth can hold such complex and detailed historical connections, it is clear that material history can add incredible depth to all historical endeavors.

Item: “Decorated Flour Sack Dresser Cloth (1914-1915)”, Minnesota Historical Society, Location #: 66.215.5

Secondary Item: “Flour bag,” Minnesota Historical Society, Location #: 2007.64.224


“A World of Thanks: World War I Belgian Embroidered Flour Sacks: History of the Flour Sacks.” Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Museum, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Accessed 6 Apr. 2017.

Byerly, Ross, Kim Nelson, Desiree Clark, Merideth Tinney, and Keziah Low. “Belgium and France.” The Great Humanitarian Herbert Hoover’s Food Relief Efforts, Cornell College, 2006, Accessed 6 Apr. 2017.

“Embroidered Flour Sacks.” Kansapedia: Kansas Historical Society, Kansas Historical Society, Mar. 2011, Accessed 6 Apr. 2017.

Nash, George H. “Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I.” Prologue, 1989, Accessed 6 Apr. 2017.

What were Locusts up to in the 1870’s?

To increase our understanding of “The Study of History,” my class from Macalester visited the Gale Family Library in order to do hands-on research with physical objects. We each received items that were in some way related to the history of food in Minnesota. My object was a map entitled “Map of Minnesota Published for the State Geographical & Natural History Survey showing The Areas where eggs were deposited by the Rocky Mountain Locust in 1873-4-5-6.” I did some digging and found that the map was originally published in the “The fifth annual report / Minnesota Geological and Natural History Survey” in 1877. You can read the full text at this link (the map can be found between pages 114-115):

The article explains in more detail the laying patterns of locust, including descriptions of the types of soil their eggs can be found in, things that would be difficult to include in the map. “These eggs have been deposited, as a general rule, in the vicinity of cultivated fields, and in each township the extent of the deposit is measured, in some degree, by the amount of land under cultivation.”(115) It also qualifies the accuracy of the map, and explains how it should be read, for example this description of the map’s red lines showing the locust laying patterns. “They are intended to cover generally the outside limits.” (114)

To comment on the map itself, the geographical landmarks included speak to the importances of Minnesota communities. For example, the map includes railroads, proposed railroads, and railroad stations. This poses the question of what the significance of the railroad system was on the Locust population/food production of the area. It certainly would promote the transportation of food, as well as show where surveyors for the map might’ve traveled. If you look at the map as a whole, you can see that the north of the state is much less detailed than the south. This makes sense, considering the population of the north was (and is) significantly less than the south, and the farm land on which the map was focusing was also in the south. Most likely there was less data from the north to be added to this map.

Another interesting aspect of the map to focus on is the changes that have occurred between then and now. This map was published in 1877, so North and South Dakota are lumped together as “Dakota,” and the Canada of today is marked as “British Possessions.” These differences might affect the ability for one to gather data, as both of these areas of land had much less developed governmental systems than they do today, and, it seems, than Minnesota in 1877.

The final thing that sparked my curiosity about this map was its circulation, as in how many people would’ve had the contemporary opportunity to observe it? It was not hand-drawn, it looks to have been printed from a plate, and it was published in an annual report. With this knowledge I will infer that the map was not for the elite, but for the intellectual. Those who would benefit from knowledge on locusts and how they would affect crops were the intended audience. My query is, how many farmers got to see this? Did it serve its intended effect to educate and inform?

To visit the map for yourself:

Map of Minnesota Published for the State Geographical & Natural History Survey showing The Areas where eggs were deposited by the Rocky Mountain Locust in 1873-4-5-6.Legend of Map of Minnesota Published for the State Geographical & Natural History Survey showing The Areas where eggs were deposited by the Rocky Mountain Locust in 1873-4-5-6Section of the Map of Minnesota Published for the State Geographical & Natural History Survey showing The Areas where eggs were deposited by the Rocky Mountain Locust in 1873-4-5-6 containing locust activity

Babe’s Frybread and Indian Tacos on White Earth Reservation

Recently, our Study of History class took a trip to the Minnesota Historical Society to examine historical artifacts. The object I chose was a photograph of Babe’s Fry Bread stand on White Earth Reservation. The photograph (pictured below) shows the taco stand. There are tacos, wild rice soup, Indian tacos, Frybread, and Chippewa burger. The idea is to take American dishes and make them Indian dishes. According to the Minnesota Historical Society’s records, this photograph was taken on White Earth Reservation. White Earth reservation is home to the White Earth band of Ojibwe people in northwestern Minnesota. It is the largest Indian reservation in the state by land area. It is one of the seven Ojibwe reservations located in Minnesota.

I searched for Babe’s Fry Indian Tacos and was unable to find anything, but I can assume that Babe traveled to powwows through Minnesota serving their frybread. Over the years, frybread has become an Indian staple. It is associated with powwows and Native heritage. From my personal experience, at most indigenous gatherings there is a form of Indian tacos with frybread serving as the tacos. I have also made frybread with the Proud Indigenous People for Education cultural organization here at Macalester College. Frybread is water, salt, flour and baking powder and then it is rolled into balls to be flattened. Then the dough gets fried. Frybread can be served with meat and various garnishes or it can be served with powdered sugar and honey.

Babe’s Frybread and Indian Tacos

In the Smithsonian Museum magazine, Jen Miller discusses the complicated nature of frybread in indigenous communities. Miller states, “To prevent indigenous communities from starving, the government gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard – the makings of frybread.” Many indigenous communities were removed from the ancestral homelands and were often moved to places that had a dry, arid climate. It was impossible to grow food. Frybread appears to be nothing more than fried dough – like an unsweetened funnel cake, but thicker and softer, full of air bubbles and reservoirs of grease.

Non-indigenous people tend to think that frybread is a traditional Indian dish. Frybread links generation with generation and connects the present to the painful narrative of Native American history. Frybread as a commodity is a complicated issue; it is associated with tribal power at powwows, yet it is linked to obesity and diabetes. The creation of frybread impacted tribes everywhere. Frybread is not a part of any Creation Story for indigenous people, but the Three Sisters garden has heavily influenced Native traditions.

Indigenous agriculture consisted of corn, but corn cannot grow in the wild or without attentive human care. Prior to colonization of Native people, an indigenous diet consisted of corn, beans and squash. This vegetable trio was known as ‘The Three Sisters.” Corn, beans and squash were important crops, while hunting provided most of the protein in their diet. The Three Sisters supplement and complement each other when grown together. The corn grows tall and supports the tendrils of the bean plants as they grow upward toward the sunshine. The squash plants, which sends shoots with huge leaves across the ground, protects the soil from the drying sunshine and helps the soil beneath to retain moisture so that all three plants may thrive.

The Three Sisters has a place in Creation stories for every indigenous community, but it is believed that the Creator gave indigenous people corn, squash and beans to live sustainable lives. The secret of growing corn has been passed from indigenous people in Latin America to indigenous people through North America. Indigenous communities were incredibly well connected to one another and had trade systems and networks with one another. There were roads allowing trade to occur. According to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, “The proliferation of agriculture and cultigens could not have occurred without centuries of cultural and commercial interchange among the peoples of North, Central and South America, whose traders carried seeds as well as other goods and cultural practices.”[1] Native Americans had healthy vegetarian diets based on the staple of corn and supplemented by wild fish, fowl and four-legged animals, but now Native Americans are plagued by diabetes, obesity, and other various health diseases.


Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.Boston: Beacon Press,. 16

Minnesota Historical Society

[1] Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.Boston: Beacon Press,. 16

A Railway Restaurant Mystery

On a Study of History class trip to the Minnesota Historical Society our class was given various objects relating to food to observe. My object was a Breakfast Menu Collection from the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Paul Railway. The railroad and train company, which operated from 1847 to 1980, originally had operational track primarily in Wisconsin, with sparse tracks in Northern Illinois, Southern Minnesota, and Iowa. The Milwaukee Road, the common name of the railway, also built a Pacific expansion although this was not a particularly successful operation. The menus came with 2 copies of the regular menu and a specials list in a folder.

The menus I was given to examine included a specials list which was dated to April 25th, 1916, the same year that the Pacific expansion was finished, although it is printed as 4-25-6, (but was helpfully dated to 1916 by the archive) which is interesting as that way of writing the year is no longer seen. Figuring out if this was a common way of writing the date or not would require the examination of a few more objects from that time period, which unfortunately I was unable to do given the time constraints. The specials menu was on loose soft paper, similar to one that you might find in a notebook or the such. This leads me to believe that the specials menu was for single day use only, in addition to the dating, and that the specials rotated daily. It was slightly slightly off white, although that may be age showing, with blue and red text and a red outline with the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Saint Paul company logo in the top left. Interestingly with this logo the word Milwaukee is the largest, which demonstrates that this company viewed itself as most heavily connected with Milwaukee, a fact that is reinforced by the large number of tracks in Wisconsin and the companies nickname. Finally it was stamped by the Steward In Charge, J. W. Grape. The specials available include egg and potato dishes, fruit, milk, and oatmeals. Amazingly the most expensive item on the specials grilled breakfast steak, which would likely be the most expensive thing now, for a mere 75 cents, when compared to today that seems downright reasonable.

The standard menu is printed on a firmer paper and clearly intended for more permanent use than the specials. The menu is done in mostly black text, except for a note to passengers in red at the bottom and the restaurant name, The Olympian, on the top in blue. A few things caught my eye on the menu right away. First, the presence of Postum in the drinks section. As I was born in 1996 I had no idea what this was, but upon some quick research I discovered that Postum was a popular coffee substitute from the time. It was available for the same price as coffee. Secondly, The minimum order of 25 cents, which (although I am by no means an expert on fine dining) seems unusual in today’s society. It also does not specify if this was a requirement for the table as a whole or for each individual person, or how this would be enforced. The next thing i noticed was the lack of dollar or cents signs on most items, which today is usually an indicator of an overpriced restaurant, however here the only presence of one was for the sirloin steak ($1.00), and the presence of the dollar sign instead indicated that the item was more expensive. This lead to my next observation. Some of the food would be very odd choices for breakfast foods in our society today. Items such as the sirloin steak, mackerel, and french fries would be uncommon at breakfast restaurants today to say the least.

On the back of the menu was a wine list. This wine list was, in my non-brunch eating opinion, extensive, especially compared to the length of the menu itself. Outside of the length of the menu, there were two very things that stuck out. The first being the presence of cigars and cigarettes on the menu. Today smoking is forbidden on Amtrak trains, the largest passenger railway, yet in 1916 you could buy them from the train which shows a drastic change in the public and professional opinion of smoking. The other thing I noticed on the wine menu was that the sale of wine or liquor was banned in Illinois, North and South Dakota, Idaho, and Washington. This surprised me as prohibition did not start until 1920, yet 5 of the states which The Milwaukee Road ran through had already banned the sale. It is also interesting that most of these are the western states in the railway’s system, indicating that western states were likely stricter on alcohol than midwestern ones.

There are many items on this menu that do need seem to connect with the midwest of today. In only 100 years there were many culture and societal changes as this menu helps to demonstrate. To access this menu for yourself visit the Minnesota Historical Society. The menu’s call number is TF668 .C52.

A Church Cookbook in Context

Women’s Sphere?: A Church Cookbook in Context

By Bekah Griffin

Upon a visit to the Minnesota Historical Society, I examined a church cookbook from the 1950s. The cookbook was titled “Kissin’ Wears Out, Cookin’ Don’t” and included recipes for appetizers, main dishes, accents (sauces), desserts, punch, cookies, and more. Unity Church, a Unitarian Universalist church in St. Paul, published the cookbook to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Unitarianism in the Twin Cities. A committee of church women collected the recipes from other church members, then typed them up and divided them by sections. The book is bound simply, with an orange cover that reads “Unity Church Centennial Cookbook.”

orange cookbook that reads unity church centennial cookbook

the cookbook

The cookbook opens with the quote, “In this hectic day and age food is one of the more dependable pleasures.” Both the title and the cover page hint at an attempt to be timeless, and one might assume that the material included would reflect this idea. However, the recipes collected show the historical moment in numerous ways.

Initially, the ethnic recipes stand out. One church member in particular recommends several dishes that include chow mein, including “Chow Mein Noodle Hot Dish.” There are also recipes for Greek stew, Japanese sulayaki, xochitl soup from a trip to Mexico City, and Lebanese beans. The appropriation of extra-cultural foods indicates a post-war sense of American domination over other cultures. The use of chow mein in typical Midwestern hot dish is a perfect example of this inclusion of outside cultures, within the ‘acceptable’ bounds of American culture.

Another trend of post-war culture widely seen throughout the book is the increasing industrialization of American home life. This includes recipes filled with gelatin and mock meats such as mock steak and mock sulayaki. The increasing reliance on commercially prepared products and the emphasis on efficiency and technology accompany the use of food items such as mixes and substitutes. One recipe calls for “Kraft Nippy Sharp Pasteurized Processed cheese,” another perfect example of mass produced foods. Pyrex is also referenced in the recipes, another example of the new American culture of home life. The ideal family life included such pre-prepared foods and a universality of the appearance of each family and home that helped unify the United States during World War II and remained in place after the war.

There are a few recipes that contradict the industrialized kitchen trend, and hearken back to an earlier time in American cooking. Christa Elguther submitted her mother’s recipe for eierhackerle, a traditionally Midwestern dish with margarine and chicken liver, but even this recipe has been adapted to include frozen chives, a very mid-century innovation. A recipe for hearty cabbage soup was “invented by Nancy Mason and Judy Imm as the suitable demise of a huge cabbage centerpiece” and first seems to follow more traditional styles of cooking, but also includes a call for canned Italian style tomatoes. While canned foods were utilized before the war, they came into their own in the mid-twentieth century. The only recipe that truly seems to hold up to the ideal of prewar cooking also contradicts some gender stereotypes, for it is delivered by Arthur Foote, who “learned as a boy at his Quaker Grandmother’s farm in Susquehanna County, northeastern Pennsylvania” how to cook raw corn griddlecakes. Arthur describes shucking and grating corn, leaving out maple syrup, and individualizing the recipe to taste.

recipe for raw corn griddlecakes from Arthur Foote

Arthur Foote’s recipe

The final theme I noticed in the cookbook was the formulation around social life. Recipes tended to serve four or six, perfect either for a nuclear family or a traditional dinner party. Separate sections on punch and cookies reflect the ideal goods for a holiday or birthday party, or even a neighborhood get together. Being the perfect hostess was essential to being the perfect post-war wife, as the United States advertised its superiority and bought further into the commercialist culture that kept its economic and thus political dominance alive and well. The naming of some recipes after the woman who created them also reflects these ideals of femininity and American-centric that took over post-war culture. Naming a recipe “Marie’s Rice” instead of “Delicious Brown Rice” encourages an idealization of the cook, and further, the woman behind it, as well as creates a sense of community within those who know the recipe for “Marie’s Rice.” It references back to the time before the “now,” when things were easier, less frightening, when everyone trusted their neighbors. Many of the recipes throughout the book, as well as the opening line, seems to reflect this ideal.

Item: “Kissin’ Wears Out, Cookin’ Don’t”, Minnesota Historical Society, Location #: TX715. K82 1950z

When Food Fights

This past week I went to the Minnesota Historical Society with my Study of History class through Macalester College. My classmates and I were each assigned an artifact to examine and research. We were provided with 3D material objects, photographs, articles, maps, and posters. The only commonality the artifacts shared was that they all pertained to food.

I examined a victory garden poster from 1943 issued by the US Government Printing Office. The poster states in bold red letters “Plant a Victory Garden.” In another portion of text the poster reads, “Our food is fighting,” and at the bottom of the poster it reads, “ A Garden Will Make Your Rations Go Further.” The poster depicts three figures. Two adults appear to be working the land, while a young boy examines a basket full of corn, radishes, tomatoes, carrots, and other vegetables.

The poster is one of many promotions that circulated during WWII that encouraged the home front to grow some of their own food. During both WWI and WWII victory gardens were planted on both public and private land. Some schools even planted victory gardens and used the produce for school lunches. Victory gardens, or “gardens of defense,” served a kind of dual function. First and foremost, they alleviated pressure on public food supplies and provided citizens and soldiers with sustainable amounts of food. In 1943, twenty million gardens were producing 8 millions tons of food. Secondly, they empowered the community and boosted morale at home. When people planted gardens and provided food for themselves, as well as their communities and families, they felt that they were making important contributions to the war effort.

Victory gardens are also socially interesting as they blurred the lines between public and private, domestic and political, “women’s work” and the war effort. Women during wartime were expected to support the war effort, maintain a sense of patriotism, accept rations, and nourish and provide for their families. Victory gardens often allowed homemakers during the war to exude patriotism, while managing to still care for their families. This artifact is an example of the many ways in which artifacts can capture a moment in history, tell a story, and hold great significance. Although most of the gardens from WWII are now gone, posters like this one serve to preserve the importance of home front activities during the war.

It may be that community action and a modern day version of victory gardens could be an important contribution to the fight against global climate change. A project called Victory Gardens 2007+ is working to create a sustainable network of food production in urban centers. The idea for the project originally developed in San Francisco, but is applicable to other urban settings. The movement would allow communities to produce their own local, organic produce. The idea was inspired by victory gardens from the 1940s. Thanks to the preservation of artifacts like this victory garden poster from 1943, we are well informed about social and political movements from the past, that can help us to create sustainable futures through community action.

Minnesota History Center Archives: E488.14 b17 “Plant a Victory Garden (Poster)”

Bentley, A. (1998). Eating for victory : Food rationing and the politics of domesticity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Photograph of a Young girl beet worker, near Fisher, Minn. Oct. 1937

Young girl beet worker, near Fisher, Minn. Oct. 1937

Minnesota Historical Society SA4.54 p2

My object is a black and white photograph of a young female sugar beet farmer on a farm near Fisher in Polk Country, Minnesota in October of 1937. The photo was taken by a photographer who worked for one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was created by the Department of Agriculture to travel around the United States during the Great Depression and help with subsistence homestead programs, rural rehabilitation, and farm loans. The FSA would determine which of the farms they visited needed loans to buy land, seeds, livestock, and equipment and provide credit for them if they could not obtain the credit elsewhere.

One of the most well-known projects the FSA carried out was their continuation of the photography project that their predecessor, the Information Division of the Resettlement Administration (RA) had begun. The photographers who were employed by the FSA would document the farming situations around the US and use them to inform the general public of the rural conditions of the country. The program was the idea of Roy Stryker, who wanted to provide insight into rural America through photography and written narratives. He initially began the program in the RA but after the RA was transferred to the Department of Agriculture continued with the FSA. The photographer of this particular picture, Russell Lee, began working with Stryker in 1936 and traveled through nearly thirty states taking photos for the program. The pictures taken by the photographers working under Stryker came to be important signifiers of the daily hardships that were suffered by migrant workers, displaced sharecroppers, poor landowning farmers and other Americans whose tragedies had remained largely obscured from the public eye.

Before the demise of the FSA, its documentation project became very influential and served as a critical source of information regarding rural poverty during the Great Depression. The woes of American farmers and the difficulties were captured by the photos and are now able to provide us with visual insights into how crop producing America experienced poverty during the 1930s. By examining photographs such as these we are able to see nuances in farm life during the depression in ways that written documents are unable to communicate. Pictures can be more tangible and accessible to historians and can provide minute details that are overlooked in writing but are captured nonetheless in photography. They can also provide us with insight into the photographers themselves and what subjects they considered important enough to be documented. Written documents, while valuable sources of information, a cannot serve as our only insight into history and the usage of photos serve as a great addition to the arsenal of historians. Through photographs such as those taken by Russell Lee and the rest of Roy Stryker’s photography team at the FSA, we are able to see and not only read about the experience of rural America during the Great Depression. Without them, historians would be hard pressed to find a source of information about this particular subject with the same amount of historical insight and information.

Spam Bank!

It is that strange pink canned meat that sits in the back of most pantries. One that is typically avoided unless someone has a great craving for hash, at least in my household. Spam is the canned meat that people love to hate. It has been present in our society for over 50 years.

Spam is old enough and important enough in our culture to have its own museum located in Austin, Minnesota. It is from this precise city that a small coin bank was constructed out of a can. Now, this small Spam bank sits in the Minnesota Historical Center’s archives.

This is a front shot of the Spam Bank with its description label standing next to it.

Spam Bank from the Minnesota History Center archives.

The Spam bank looks like a common Spam can. It contains the blue label with yellow font. The advertising appeal is clear. The picture of Spam has been drawn in an attractive way that makes it look mouth watering. Which, as one knows, looks a bit different from the Spam that comes out of a can. The label itself, also contains a small blurb saying what the ingredients are in Spam. Clearly, this is to assuage the confusion of people who do not know what Spam is.  As you rotate the can counter clockwise, one can see a simple recipe for Spam preparation. Then, the back of the can has a more elaborate recipe advertising mostly to the Polynesian clientele.

This can is so much like the actual can of Spam that it even contains the key on the bottom of the can that would allow one to open it. The only difference is the top of the can, which has been modified to make it a bank. It has an advertising slogan that says where it has been manufactured as well as a small opening for coins to be put in.

After a bit of research, I found that this was part of a the Spam advertising campaign. Around the 1990’s this Spam advertising operation bombarded  the public with a variety of Spam related products. This bank, I suspect, was a part of the beginnings of this campaign in the 1980’s.

This small bank may seem like a little trinket, but it is truly a part of history. It shows advertisements that were put out to appeal to people in our culture. We are attracted to these food stuffs and buy them up. This is known to be true because the label of the Spam can has changed only slightly from the 1980’s to present day. Advertisement holds a great deal of power in our society. Spam’s advertisement campaign that bombarded everyone with many different Spam items led to over-advertisement campaigns, such as advertising emails to also be known as Spam. It is a token of the past that shows us what we have eaten as well as advertising techniques that were implemented.

Spam has a fun and interesting history in our society, and this bank embodies part of that history. This object shows us some of the past, even as we have a more recent can probably tucked away in our own pantries.

Information for project:

The Spam Bank has been labeled: Z010.86.1, TI-01-B, HC-M2-G-R-7

The article used was:

Lewis, George H. 2000. “From Minnesota Fat to Seoul Food: Spam in America and the Pacific Rim.” The Journal of Popular Culture 34 (2): 83-105. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.2000.3402_83.x.

Land O Lakes Butter Carton

My object, the 1988 Land O’ Lakes butter container pictured above, looks almost exactly the same as these containers look today. Written across the top and each of the long side panels of this rectangular container are the words “Land O Lakes,” in bright red capital letters surrounded by a buttery yellow aura. In the middle of each panel kneels an over-sexualized Native American woman in a fetishized idea of traditional garb, a slim, beaded buckskin dress and simple, feathered headband with red, white and blue feathers. She perches smiling and radiant in a lush, green field. In the background flows a bright blue river, and the rising sun paints the sky with the same buttery yellow that tinges the company logo. In her hands, is a Land O’ Lakes butter container just like the one on which she is pictured. Her position suggests that she is worshipping this object, or perhaps offering it up as a prized gift. In addition to these elements, the box displays an advertisement in buttery yellow letters on a red background for “NEW Country Recipes Offers.” Smaller blue letters, some in script, indicate the contents: “FOUR QUARTERS” of sweet cream, lightly salted butter weighing 16 OZ (or 1 lb. or 454 g.).

Land O’ Lakes began as the Minnesota Cooperative Creamery Association, a farmer cooperative founded in 1921. Searching for a brand name for its butter in 1924, the cooperative held a competition. “Land O’ Lakes” emerged as the winner. The region’s identity as “the legendary land of Hiawatha and Minnehaha” inspired the Native American maiden. In 1939, the company simplified its original 1928 depiction, which has since changed very little. One of the largest feed companies in North America, Land O’ Lakes now sells milk products, feed and seed worldwide (

What stands out most upon examination of the container, is the smiling Native American. Her surroundings indicate healthfulness, her pose suggests spirituality and friendship, her beauty gives appeal to everything she touches, especially the Land O’ Lakes butter container, which seems to be being offered a gift to the Gods, demeaning and promoting the co modification of Native American culture and religious practices. In one way it is no surprise that this container has changed so little since the 1920’s, or even since 1988. The woman seems to have everything it takes to get us to buy the butter she’s endorsing.

If we consider the history of European American, including Minnesotan, relationships with Native Americans, though, the container carries a very different message. It reminds us of the slaughter of these people, the destruction of their communities, their removal from their lands and their ongoing experience of racism and poverty. It also attests to a long U.S. history of committing genocide against Native Americans while idealizing their legendary counterparts.

While some artifacts reflect change, the Land O’ Lakes container does the opposite. Consequently, it provides perspective on three ongoing phenomena with long histories: racial injustice against Native Americans; majority-Caucasian willingness to ignore injustice by focusing on a fiction, and consumers’ tendency to experience confidence and security when they encounter enduring images from the past.

Manitok Wild Rice

During my trip to the Minnesota History Center, I examined a brochure for Manitok Wild Rice in Callaway, Minnesota, part of the White Earth Indian Reservation. This brochure Includes information detailing the importance of wild rice and including ordering information. It is dated between 1990 and 1995.

The advertisement is rather interesting for its narrative on food, culture, and race. Here is the front page of this brochure:

As you can see, this brochure is entitled as “The Pride of the Chippewa Indians”. This wild rice is supposed to be “handpicked, prepared, and packaged with pride by the Chippewa Indians”. But the identity of the owner of this company is unknown. No one knows whether these Indian people really worked for this company with the “pride”. Their voices are not heard in this brochure. As one of Chippewa Indians’ most essential traditional staples, Manitok Wild Rice is described as “natural”, “organic” and rich in “texture” and “nutrition”. What disturbs me most on this page is a simile: “From these natural habitats, comes a rice with a flavor and texture as rich as the Chippewa heritage”. While showing some understanding of Chippewa culture, the designer of this brochure is also getting close to suggesting the Indian culture as primitive. The connotation of “noble savage” in this brochure is strong.

The advertisement continues on the other side of this brochure. After recounting the traditional production processes of Manitok Wild Rice and showing off this rice’s attached cultural value, this brochure outwardly says, “In keeping with the rich heritage of the Chippewa, White Earth harvests, prepares and packages its wild rice much in the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.” It is totally understandable that this brochure is trying its best to show the customers the “natural” and “safe” quality of the Manitok Wild Rice the company produces and sells. However, the very notion that suggests the Chippewa Indians are producing the Wild Rice “much in the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago” is easy to be racist. While showing the audiences that this rice is “natural”, this brochure denotates that the Chippewa Indians are also “natural”. Considering the fact that human-nature dialectic is so often used to designate the boundary of the human community, describing the Chippewa Indians are “natural” is no different from regarding them as non-humans. It is undeniable that this brochure appreciates Chippewa Indian’s culture and its Manitok Wild Rice. But this “love” is not equal. Everywhere on this brochure, there is a smell of superiority. The Chippewa Indians are workers whose voices are never presented in this brochure. Instead, their culture is merchandised and sold for its “natural” and “nostalgic” quality.

This artifact tells a story of institutional racism in the American society. I don’t think the designer of this brochure intended to insult the Native Americans. He/she actually shows a deep level of understanding of Manitok Wild Rice’s history and cultural perspective in this brochure. The institutional racism is so implicit that he/she might not be aware of it. This brochure also connects the racial relations between the Native Americans and other Americans in the American society. The exploitation and the sense of superiority are still threatening the cultural image of Native Americans.