Williamson Museum shows area’s diverse history

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From the outside, Room 208 in Kyser Hall looks like any other classroom — a nondescript wooden door as old as the 1970s building in which it’s located.

But inside this corner room, which houses the Williamson Museum, lies a treasure trove of Native American artifacts dating to the prehistoric inhabitants of this land more than 10,000 years ago up to colonial items from the French and the Spanish.

Dr. Hiram F. “Pete” Gregory, an anthropology professor who’s served Northwestern State for more than 55 years, has guided the museum from an eclectic gathering of natural history items to an impressive collection of artifacts that winds through this area’s diverse history.

“This museum serves as a state repository for archeological collections from across the north and central part of Louisiana,” said Gregory, who has been director of the museum since 1971. “We have more than 100,000 artifacts from 1,000 different site collections, but we can display only a fraction of these in the museum.

“We have ethnographic collections of contemporary arts and crafts from 41 different tribes of the southeastern United States.”

The museum is open for public viewing Monday-Thursday from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. until noon. Admission is free.

The museum’s basket collection is one of the most extensive in the state, drawing interest from enthusiasts across the region.

The Chitimacha Tribe, one of the predominant groups in southeast Louisiana, is famous for their colorful river cane baskets. The museum’s collection also features baskets from the Kosati, Caddo and Cherokee among other groups, some of which are on display in Magale Hall.

The museum hosts its annual Basket Day on Dec. 2, the same day as the Natchitoches Christmas Festival.

“Native Americans come and sell items and keep the profit,” said Gregory of an event sponsored by the NSU Anthropology Club. “We have great relationships with the local tribes because this is really their museum.

“Most of the Native American items we have come from the Caddo, and the tribes come to repatriate some of their collections. We curate items with the different tribes’ permission.”

The Caddo populated areas in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, being recognized as a significant group starting in 900 AD. Caddo clay pots are on display.

The curated collections are done through an agreement with the Caddo Nation and Tunica-Biloxi Tribe in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The museum features a mound-building display, part of the Caddo building tradition.
A mostly intact wooden Choctaw canoe sits in front of those pots.

Archaeologist Jeffrey Girard, a former NSU faculty member, curated many of the museum’s artifacts, and he recently led an excavation north of Shreveport in which a canoe dating back as far as 1000 AD was discovered along the Red River.

Girard, the former regional archaeologist for the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, is revising the catalogues and records for the museum under a grant from the Cane River National Heritage Area.

The collections also serve as a teaching and resource tool for students.

“The collections have always been teaching tools because students work on the collections,” Gregory said. “Students learn how to identify and conserve, and with the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training here, we have state-of-the-art courses on conservation.

“Students participate in research on local sites from Grand Ecore to Los Adaes. We have a lot of contract archaeologists who grew up in these collections — washed them, marked them, counted them and analyzed them.”

Gregory led the excavation efforts at Los Adaes, the first colonial capital of Texas which is located near present-day Robeline. Many of the original artifacts can be found in the Williamson collection. Los Adaes is a National Historic Landmark.

After a 1965 fire burned much of the collection that professor George Williamson, for whom the museum is named, and his successors collected, Gregory said the museum’s current collections have relied heavily on private donation of items.

“We basically have no budget to run it, and private individuals give us things we can’t afford to gather ourselves,” Gregory said. “Some of these are well-documented items with sturdy archaeological data.

“The museum is growing and changing in both are ethnographic collections and static collections. New Mexico is the only other place with the diversity of people that Louisiana has … and we’re starting to collect Creole artifacts as part of the Creole Heritage Center as well.”

The Creole Heritage Center will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018 and will have a year’s worth of events.

Gregory said the one of the most important parts of archaeology has nothing to do with digging.

“There’s an archaeology of listening, and we’re way ahead of the curve on that,” Gregory explains. “We’ve learned to talk to people about collections, and let people talk about them.

“We’ve worked with the African-American community on projects like the Breda Town Cemetery (a cemetery starting in the 19th century for African Americans in Natchitoches),” Gregory said. “We’ve worked with the community in the cleaning of graves and their stones, developing a map of the graveyard.

“We’ve also learned a lot of the community history.”