Native American history will come alive in a personal way for the viewer in This Place Called Home, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture’s major new exhibit of artifacts from the Native American cultures of the plateau region, all from the museum’s permanent collection.
The exhibit was created to complement Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915, a traveling exhibit stopping at the Burke just now. Both exhibits will open Jan. 26 and run through June 8.
Together, the two make a dramatic and intimate study of the vibrant heritage and artistry of the native cultures from the Columbia Plateau, which includes eastern Washington and Oregon, western Idaho and the Kalispell part of British Columbia.
This Place Called Home was co-curated by James Nason, UW emeritus anthropology professor and the Burke’s curator emeritus for Pacific and American ethnology; and Miles Miller, a member of the Yakama tribe and a UW graduate student in the Museology Program.
Nason said when the Burke decided last year to bring in the touring Moorhouse photo exhibit, he suggested a companion show created from the museum’s own extensive collection of items — old and contemporary — from Native American cultures in the plateau area. He had two reasons for the suggestion, he said. First, “we have an excellent collection of cultural materials from the plateau area that are not normally on display, and haven’t been on display in some time.”
But also, Nason said, the objects in This Place Called Home — beadwork, cornhusk bags, blankets, cradle boards (baby carriers for the back that kept the mother’s hands free for work) and baskets — can enhance the viewer’s experience of the Moorhouse photos. The objects, he said, “give people a much better sort of living representation of what the culture is, has been and is going to be in the future.”
The pieces in the exhibit, he said, also battle the wildly incorrect notion that Native American art and culture are relics of a fading past.
“A lot of people get the idea from going to museums or reading that Indians are dead, that Indian culture doesn’t exist anymore,” Nason said. Or perhaps people think of Kennewick Man, the skeletal remains of a prehistoric man found near the banks of the Columbia River in 1996 and the center of ongoing controversy.
“Plateau culture didn’t stop with Kennewick Man,” Nason said. Rather, “extremely important, gifted artists” of the plateau cultures are continuing the artistic traditions of their acestors just as they have “for 100 years, or 1,000 years — or 9,000 years.”
As plans got under way for creation of This Place Called Home, Nason invited Miller, a UW graduate student in museology, to join him as co-curator. Miller has been involved with museum work since 1992, and has held internships with a number of museums and research centers, including the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of American History. Nason, who started the Masters in Museology program Miller is now attending, back in 1972, spoke highly of his co-curator’s contributions.
Choosing the right items for the exhibit from the Burke’s permanent collection of roughly 1,800 items of the Plateau culture was a job in itself, the curators said. “I had to look carefully at each of the objects to make sure they are in stable condition,” Miller wrote in an e-mail about the process. “One particular piece, a dress, a beautiful dentalium shell dress, was so fragile that I pulled it from the selection process early. Oh and it broke my heart to see it in such bad condition.”
In all, Miller said, 53 objects were chosen, 10 from the museum’s archaeology collection and 43 from its ethnographic collection. “The ethnographic objects date anywhere from the 1800s to the 1900s and the archaeology objects date from 300 years to 3,000 years ago.”
Nason said the objects he and Miller chose show great artistic talent on the part of plateau Native Americans. “I am always impressed by the care, attention and artistic inspiration that goes into making heavily decorated dresses and other articles of clothing,” he said. The leather shirts, dresses and coats in the exhibit also show “an awful lot of scentific knowledge,” especially in the chemistry of tanning. “Most people don’t realize the extent to which Native Americans had basic scientific knowledge as part of their daily lives.”
He said that the importance of place is expressed in this exhibit. “Something a great deal of people don’t understand is that the connectedness that the Native Americans have to their homeland is profoundly different than it is in Western cultures.”
Nason stressed that the Burke always works with representatives of tribes when creating an exhibit of Native American artifacts. Regionwide, he said, tribes are working hard with museums to document and preserve their historical legacies. With clear pride, he said of the Burke, “We’ve been a part of the development of almost every tribal museum in the greater Northwest.”
Both curators of This Place Called Home feel strongly that the exhibit, especially presented in tandem with Peoples of the Plateau, will open the minds of museum visitors to the life and culture of plateau tribes.
Miller wrote in an e-mail, “I would like visitors to realize that there is so much outside the boundaries of Seattle, King County and the Puget Sound Region. There are people, the Yakama, the Umatilla and Nez Perce people, just across the mountains whose artwork has meaning beyond words and is so deeply rooted the only way to express how they feel for their home is to express it visually, with intricate bead work and finely twined bags.”
Asked what he’d like visitors to learn from this exhibit, Nason answered that he’d most like them “to gain a better appreciation of the vitality and richness of the artistic tradition which continues today with the Native American people of the plateau.”
Clearly, This Place Called Home is a labor of love for Miller. “There isn’t a piece I don’t love in this exhibit,” he said. “Each and every time I look at anything my breath is taken away, my heart stops, and I stand staring at these in awe.
Miller added, “This exhibition means more to me than ‘we are still here.’ It’s about tradition, it’s about memory and how artists are taught and continue to teach the visual expressions of the Columbia Plateau — this place I call home.”
- Opening day activities: The Burke will celebrate the opening of This Place Called Home and Peoples of the Plateau from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, with a day of discussions about tribal art, history and culture. At 11 a.m., Roberta Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, will present a lecture on the historic record created by Lee Moorhouse. A panel discussion will follow at 1 p.m., titled Tribal Perspectives: Columbia River Plateau History, Culture and Arts.
- For more information on these or other Burke Museum events, visit online at www.burkemuseum.org.