American Indian Rituals Feature in Popular Museum Exhibition

By Jeffrey Thomas
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Invited to tell their own stories in a museum exhibit, one native tribal community, the Kwakwaka’wakw, recounts how the Canadian government banned their potlatches, or ceremonial feasts, from the 1880s to the 1950s, jailing those who defied the ban and confiscating their regalia and masks.

Yet another tribe, the Nuxalk, shows how, during the long years of the potlatch ban, people told the traditional stories at night in secret.

A groundbreaking exhibit is in its final months at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington and remains a popular focus of interest and activity because it connects American Indians and native peoples today with the traditions of their ancestors.

Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life along the North Pacific Coast brings together more than 400 artworks and everyday objects created by American Indians and native peoples from what is now Canada’s British Columbia, as well as Washington state and Alaska.

“Our way of being, our view of the world in all its depth and complexity, continues to define us,” say members of the Tsimshian nation. “The ceremonial objects used yesterday and today are only separated by time; they still hold the heart of the people within them.”

What is so special about Listening to Our Ancestors is that members of each of the 11 native groups whose culture is represented worked with museum staff as “curators,” deciding which objects to display and how to present them. This unique approach is a natural outcome of the views of NMAI Director W. Richard West Jr., himself a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, who wrote in the exhibition guide that he believes NMAI staff members are stewards of a collection that is owned by the cultural communities the museum represents.

Most of the objects displayed date from the 19th or early 20th centuries and are drawn from the NMAI’s permanent collection of more than 800,000 items. The exhibit includes a carved wooden boat (or “dugout”), spears, whale-hunting tools, tunics, hats, carved chests, rattles, ceremonial robes, jewelry made from whale bone and abalone, spoons, bowls, ladles carved from mountain sheep horns, baskets, mats, masks ranging from the beautiful to the downright scary, and much more.

The 11 nations represented are the Coast Salish, Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Haida and Tlingit.

The tribal members provide a vital perspective on the deeper meaning the objects hold and describe how much they remain an essential part of the spiritual lives of these peoples. As a result, exhibition objects are accompanied by contemporary interpretations by American Indians and native peoples connecting them to the voices of their ancestors.

For example, Barb Cranmer of the Kwakwaka’wakw community chose for display items and regalia involved in the Red Cedar Bark ceremonies at a “potlatch,” or ceremonial feast. “That is when people enter the spirit world to gain supernatural power and to connect to our history and dances,” Cranmer says.

Other pieces depict supernatural creatures from Kwakwaka’wakw origin stories.

The Gitxsan member chose objects to demonstrate the “view of the universe and our relationship with powerful entities.” The Gitxsan people believe human beings are not separate from nature, animals or spiritual entities.

There are dance performances, art demonstrations and storytelling in conjunction with Listening to Our Ancestors. For those who are unable to travel to Washington to visit the museum, there is an online companion exhibition with photos of the exhibits arranged by tribal community. The section on the Kwakwaka’wakw, for example, matches exhibit items with explanations of the tribe’s birth and puberty customs, origin stories, peace dances and Red Cedar Bark ceremonies.

Listening to Our Ancestors remains on display until January 2, 2007. The online exhibition is available on the NMAI Web site.

For additional information see American Indians.