About Nichole Ballard

Religious Studies graduate student at the University of Missouri. M-I-Z! Z-O-U!

A New Way of Thinking About Things

The first time I was introduced to thinking about the things archaeologist find, the things we see in museum exhibits, even the things we buy and sell in thrift stores and auctions differently was during the FIMA group tour of the collections housed at the Confederate Tribes of Grande Ronde’s collections facility at Chachalu Historic Preservation Offices. Instead of referring to the items stored neatly on the collection shelves as “artifacts” or “objects” the Cultural Collection Coordinator Sybil Edwards explained that those things are “belongings”. What an interesting concept to consider a slight change in wording could have such a profound effect on the way we think about the things archaeologists dig up.

Belonging has a much more personal and deeper connotation than merely labeling everything with the scientific coldness inherent in “artifact.” Belonging implies that the things archaeologist find, or those items that are donated to the collections, are connected to a person that there is a narrative and a story that the item has to tell. A belonging has had a life of its own and formed connections with people and places.

Chachalu Museum and Cultural Center

The traditional questions that researchers ask of material culture are questions such as “How was it made?” “What was it used for?” “What is it made out of?” But, changing the word from artifact to belonging in describing these objects also changes the questions we ask. Instead of asking standard scientific questions associated with an artifact or specimen, “belonging” not only reflects the way the community understands objects, but also helps researchers think of things in a different way. Instead we are more likely to ask more personal questions of a belonging such as what are the stories behind these connections and what can we learn about its journey of belonging? We begin to focus on who. Who did this item belong to? Who were they and what was this item to them?

From Auctions to Archaeology

In my previous life as an auction professional I would walk into a house, sort, evaluate, and catalog every material thing. From pencils to pictures, everything was assessed as to whether it held value or not. I found myself examining those homes and speculating on the life of the persons who inhabited them as told by the way they arranged and constructed their space as well as the things they accumulated over their lifetime.

It’s amazing how much you can tell about a person based on what is in their daily living space: What values did they hold? What was their socioeconomic background? How did they shape their cultural identity?

My undergraduate degree in religious studies and courses in anthropology added layers to my analysis that further shaped the hypothetical life of the person or people. Now that I am a graduate student at the University of Missouri I have been able to use these skills to deepen the understanding of how religion and material culture work together.

The focus of my research is on what material objects categorized as religious do in the context of Native American traditions, but also describing, identifying, and placing objects within their historical context. I often find myself walking a line between art history and anthropology. Through this work I hope to contribute to changing attitudes toward indigenous communities and help undo the perpetual misrepresentation of Native Americans as well as aid in efforts to reunite communities with their tangible and intangible cultural heritage. 

My current research project centers around religion’s role within indigenous knowledge systems and the post-colonial effects of salvage anthropology in the Pacific Northwest.

As a participant in FIMA this year, I am excited to incorporate low-impact archaeological methods into my reseach, working with the Grand Rhonde community. But…I really miss my furbabies back at home in Missouri.