Káma-Kapúska! Making Marks in Indian Country, 1833–34

Project Narrative

“Káma-Kapúska! Making Marks in Indian Country, 1833–34” presents a small, in-depth portion of my research into the surviving records of contact zones along the Missouri River in Indian Territory in the 1830s. This project narrative lays out the underlying process and methodology in the project’s construction, as well as its alignment with current ideas and trends in digital humanities at large.‍[1]

Making the Archive Visible

“Káma-Kapúska! Making Marks in Indian Country, 1833–34” started as a digital project with the goal of using digital tools to make visible the archive of material on which the project is based. This is particularly vital, as Native American source material—whether by or about Native peoples—has often been held by distant archival repositories, inaccessible to their source communities. These repositories have also been shaped by the various academic disciplines that developed to study Native American cultures, such as art history, anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics, and scholars working in these distinct fields often routed their materials into disciplinary-specific and geographically separate collections, scattering tribal materials across any number of spaces.‍[2] In the case of this project, Karl Bodmer’s watercolors emerged from the Wied-Neuwied family estate in 1955, when a small exhibition of the works was organized and toured by the Smithsonian Institution.‍[3] The watercolors and surviving documentation, including Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied’s original journals, were then purchased by Northern Natural Gas Company (later known as Enron), who gifted them to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska. Only published occasionally in scholarly volumes, these collections did not become widely available until the Joslyn undertook major publication projects beginning in the early 1990s.‍[4] While Bodmer’s images are now available via the internet, the journals remain largely unknown or are grouped together with the historically less reliable writings of Missouri River artists George Catlin, John James Audubon, and Karl Wimar.‍[5]

Thus, my initial goal was to create a digital platform where I could unite the authored texts and their supporting archive in a single online “space.” This archive included both the textual descriptions of day-to-day life as well as the entangled material and visual culture objects described in Wied-Neuwied’s journals. To make the archive a manageable size, I chose Mató-Tópe as a “filter.” Of the fifty-five visits that Mató-Tópe made to Bodmer’s studio, thirty-two involved some sort of exchange, and three additional exchanges occurred outside the studio. These thirty-five episodes are reproduced in the project. The open-access online space afforded by Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide (NCAW) brings these elements together for the first time, as Wied-Neuwied began to disperse his collections in the middle of the nineteenth century. This online platform is also accessible to broad publics, including the descendants and communities of the Native men and women who appear in the archived journals and portraits.

To present these materials, I chose Scalar, an open source digital platform, because it offers both visual and textual archival capacity while accommodating a complex narrative structure.‍[6] Its “objects”—whether pages, image files, annotations, tags, or notes—can be utilized and placed as many times as needed, allowing first the author and then the reader to construct a variety of relationships between these objects. Scalar’s design complexity can realize the archival visibility of “traditional” digital humanities projects while simultaneously capturing how multidimensional, multilayered, multimodal, and messy archives can be.‍[7]

To take full advantage of this complexity, I incorporated the scholarly essay (Part 1) within the Scalar project, rather than publishing it on the NCAW website as a journal article. This offers the reader a variety of digital tools—hyperlinks, tooltips, media links, compiled citations, annotations of visual media, and toggle buttons—that directly connect the essay with its supporting archival materials. For the texts taken from the journals of Wied-Neuwied (Part 2), page designs include primary source documentation along with their published translations and cited objects.

Circling the Text

Once I decided on Scalar, I then spent time thinking through the platform itself. The foundation of Scalar is its “flat” structure: every element, whether a page of text, a visual object, a citation, or an annotation, is equal in its relation to every other element. Information is organized horizontally, rather than hierarchically, until an author uses the various tools of the platform—paths, tags, and hyperlinks—to create order through and across the project’s elements. This ordering has an extraordinary flexibility: one can create multiple ordering paths, using more than one logic, through the exact same body of material.

Scalar’s flexibility thus presented a new way to visualize the project’s supporting archives of evidence, as the same exchange objects and processes attached to Wied-Neuwied’s chronological journal entries (Part 2) could then be reattached and reorganized using local Numak'aki concepts, institutions, and historical persons (Part 4). Moreover, this local set of frameworks could be organized in both circular and rhizomatic fashion, nonlinear but linked in multiple ways—a configuration that reflects historical Native language itself.‍[8] While operating only on the level of the symbolic, this alternative structure serves as a reminder of Numak'aki epistemological alterity from the chronological linearity of Wied-Neuwied’s journal keeping.‍[9] The ordering of the project’s archival contents through two distinct frameworks echoes recent digital humanities calls that champion alternative forms of digital praxis in relation to dominant ways of knowing.‍[10]

Enabling the Reader

Recent digital humanities work has also advocated on behalf of readers in new ways. During the digital design phase of this project, I was challenged by Aimi Hamraie’s Mapping Access project (2014) to ask whether I was being mindful of access issues for differently abled readers.‍[11] As an art historian focused on the visual, how could I rethink my material in relation to those who are visually impaired? Designer Allan McLeod was key in implementing a color scheme friendly to color-blind users and for advising on “thick” or “participatory” description, a process by which visual materials are described through audio recordings.‍[12] (Time and labor restrictions worked against the implementation of the latter on this project, but I hope its mention here will stand as a suggestion for future authors and their project designs.) Such work was generative in that the consideration of disability generated the possibility of new content and approaches.‍[13]

Recent digital humanities projects have also adopted designs that position users as both content creators and project interpreters. Such projects consciously work against a top-down model of academic and institutional authority by allowing users the means to self-generate narratives and meanings as they navigate through a site’s digital content.‍[14] Scalar’s platform promotes this emphasis on the user, and NCAW readers will find numerous options for navigating and exploring the project’s many elements. These options allow readers to zigzag between the scholarly essay (Part 1) and its archival evidence (Parts 2, 3, 4) or to explore on their own in ways not possible with printed academic publications.

How to then balance this user empowerment with the project’s scholarly narrative, reliant as it is on a traditional beginning, middle, and end to its argument—particularly as this project is housed within a peer-reviewed journal? This has been an ongoing discussion throughout the creation of this project. The NCAW editors have been particularly helpful in promoting tools that aid readers in narrative flow, and various design elements were created by McLeod to enhance one’s navigational abilities beyond the basic capacity of Scalar.‍[15] Our discussions and the finished site reflect these unresolved tensions between the narrative needs of traditional scholarly work and current digital humanities’ emphasis on non-hierarchical user-directed knowledge making.


A wide body of resources and recorded elder and community knowledge produced the pool of historical evidence on which this project is based (see Sources, Part 4).‍[16]

The larger body of research from which this project draws was funded through the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan, the Smithsonian Institution, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and by a Luce/ACLS Dissertation Fellowship in American Art. A 2018–19 NEH Fellowship provided the time required to produce this specific project, while production costs were covered by the Terra Foundation for American Art through NCAW.

In 2017, an initial conversation with Sally Webster, NCAW Editorial Board member, sparked the idea of producing this project. Phone calls with NCAW Executive Editor Isabel Taube, Managing Editor Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, and Digital Humanities Editor Elizabeth Buhe, between the project’s initial proposal and its approval, greatly improved the project’s direction and clarity, while additional follow-up with Buhe throughout production kept the project in focus and on track. Anonymous reviewers and the NCAW editors provided insightful and constructive feedback at various points that improved the design, flow, and content of the project. Production was an iterative and collegial process with designer and programmer McLeod, whose vast digital design knowledge created more options and usage clarity than either the original Scalar platform or my own instincts provided. I am deeply grateful to all.

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