The sound of pounding drums and Nuu-chah-nulth songs echoed through the grand entrance at the National Museum of the American Indian. On the third floor, the music could still be clearly heard, as visitors were welcomed into a new exhibit celebrating the ancient cultures of the people of the North Pacific coast.
“Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast” is only the second exhibit to be shown in the Changing Exhibitions Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened in September 2004.
At the official opening on February 2nd, 232 singers and dancers from 11 northwest First Nations performed songs and dances, introducing Smithsonian sponsors, benefactors, and staff members to vibrant west coast cultures.
Performances were given by Suquamish (Coast Salish, Washington State), Makah (WA), Tlingit (Alaska), Ditidaht (Nuu-chah-nulth), Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Nisga’a, Gitxsan, and Haida (British Columbia).
The exhibit was 2-years in the making, as NMAI curators travelled to communities along the coast, meeting with leaders and developing relationships with First Nations.
“Listening to Our Ancestors’ reflects the museum’s commitment to working with Native communities and presenting first-person Native voice in exhibitions and public programming,” said museum founding director Richard West Jr.
(Southern Cheyenne). “By inviting the tribes to help develop the exhibition, an important partnership and dialogue has emerged through which the museum, the communities and visitors can learn about the cultures from the North Pacific Coast,” he said.
Communities appointed their own curators, who then worked closely with museum staff to develop their parts of the exhibit.
Two days before the opening, spiritual leaders from the nations cleansed and blessed their areas.
Ki-ke-in (Ron Hamilton) and his wife Yaawilthma (Sharon Marshall) sang an ancient ciquaa (prayer chant) and spread eagle down throughout the 18’x 50’ Nuu-chah-nulth area, speaking to the artifacts in his language and assuring them they are safe and in a good place. “I thanked the Chiefs, and called all the ancestors to be here and make sure things are done respectfully,” said Hamilton. “I also assured them we’re doing everything we can to bring them home by having our own museum,” he smiled.
The Nuu-chah-nulth exhibit features a cloth curtain of unknown origin, a whaling float, hinkeets masks, rattles, bowls, cedar capes, and war clubs, but it is the collection of six woven hats belonging to noble women Ki-ke-in is most proud of.
“These six hats have never been shown before and they’re absolutely incredible,” said Hamilton. “We talk a lot about our Ha’wiih in this exhibit and in everything we do, but we don’t talk enough about our Ha’kuum, so that is why I argued to have a sealing spear replaced with these magnificent hats,” he said.
Hamilton has worked with the museum for the past month, writing artifact descriptions and a chapter in the accompanying exhibit book.
Walking past the ten Plexiglas cases holding 44 Nuu-chah-nulth artifacts, Hamilton talks about the difficulties involved in such a selection. “The items here represent only one quarter of one percent of the Nuu-chah-nulth artifacts in the Smithsonian’s collection,” said Hamilton. “I’ve been talking and corresponding with the archivists here for many years, and every time I talk to them, I talk about how we want to bring these things home. That’s why we’re here, trying to make their opening successful so we create goodwill and respect between us,” he said.
According to Rachel Griffin from the NMAI Cultural Resources Center, they have 602 objects in their archives listed as being Nuu-chah-nulth.
Ditidaht representatives were able to spend an hour looking through the archives, located 12 miles outside Washington in Suitland, Maryland. All agreed it wasn’t enough time as they adored the many large trays of woven and carved treasures.
Back at the museum, there are few west coast items in the permanent display.
There are only a few North Pacific Coast items in the rest of the museum because we have a whole hemisphere to represent,” said West. “We have a very strong collection of materials from that area that are especially beautiful, so this exhibition was a way to get those artifacts out into the collection so people could see things we’ve never shown before,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot over the past year about how to articulate ourselves and our stories to other people, and this exhibit really shows that.”
Hamilton, Marshall, and Corfield stood in the exhibit as local reporters streamed through for an advance look at the display before it officially opened on Friday, February 3rd. Hamilton also worked with museum staff to teach them about the Nuu-chah-nulth exhibit, so they could explain the artefacts to the thousands of estimated visitors.
That night, museum sponsors, benefactors, and staff gathered for a lavish dinner where Ditidaht singers and dancers performed along with the Haida, Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Heiltsuk, and Kwakwaka’wakw Nations.
In an interesting clash of cultures, a Coast Salish Elder asked that people drinking wine move away from the circular dance area to the mezzanine area to keep the previously blessed area clean and pure. The dignitaries complied.
Ditidaht performed a paddle dance, flag dance, and their airplane dance. “This song comes from not long ago, when we watched the first plane land on Nitinaht Lake,” explained Elder Jimmy Chester. “We wanted to perform this since it took three plane trips for us to get here,” added Carl Edgar.
The exhibit opened the next day at noon, and people were lined up to get in. Lectures and dance performances complemented the opening weekend. The Kwakwaka’wakw delegation offered colorful dance displays twice daily, and Ron Hamilton facilitated a pair of lectures.
The lecture on potlatches was attended by more than 90 people, who listened attentively as Hamilton spoke about the oppression of the 1884 Potlatch Ban in Canada that stayed in place until 1952.
“Because we put away our songs and dances so as not to get arrested, we forgot who we were,” said Sampson Bryant from the Tsimshian Nation. “When they lifted the ban, very few people knew how to do things, but what we thought was lost is now starting to come back,” he said.
Bill Cranmer, a Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary Chief said his Nation launched a groundbreaking lawsuit against the government for the potlatch ban, and is seeking compensation they will use to fund language and cultural programs.
That afternoon, Carl Edgar spoke as a panel member at the Natural Resources lecture, and told a crowd of 40 how commercial fishing had almost wiped out Ditidaht’s precious salmon resources. “We’ve fought long and hard to bring our fish back, and now have the largest salmon hatchery in Canada to try and rebuild our salmon stocks,” he said.
The next day was family day, and Pawaats (Nuu-chah-nulth word meaning “nest”) was filled with laughing children learning about the people of the northwest coast, their culture, language, and their lives.
People touring the many museums along the National Mall were treated to a real sense of the west coast as the air outside the museum was filled with the sweet smells of a salmon barbeque, while inside the museum Kwakwaka’wakw songs echoed through the cavernous entrance way and dancers performed in the center auditorium.
Heiltsuk Chief Harvey Humchitt talked with visitors as he cooked a few salmon he had brought from Bella Bella.
The NMAI provided $4300 in funding to each community to allow two ‘Community Curators’ to attend the opening. Communities such as Gitxsan (New Hazelton, BC), with a 90% unemployment rate could only afford to send the two positions funded through the museum, while others such as Makah fundraised for 8 months to bring a delegation of 82 people to the event.
Nuu-chah-nulth brought 21 people, as the NTC was able to secure last-minute funding from the Canada Council for the Arts.
A total of 232 people came from the 11 west coast Nations represented in the exhibit, 88 of whom were from the 8 coastal BC First Nations.
“Having the descendants of the people who made these artefacts here with us to open the exhibition has just been amazing,” said West. “It really empowers and enlivens the collection and shows the sheer power and potency of the North Pacific Coast cultures,” he said.
Located across from the U.S. Capitol building, the NMAI was designed by Cree architect Douglas Cardinal and is strikingly different from any other building in the region. A city overflowing with monuments and monumental buildings, it wasn’t until 1989 the Smithsonian realized the first people of the United States lacked any recognition in the nations’ capital.
When asked what he hopes people gain from seeing the Nuu-chah-nulth collection, Hamilton said, “I hope people understand our intelligence and our reverence for everything around us, and the place we live in”.
Once “Listening to Our Ancestors” closes next year, it will then embark on a tour to the Nations represented, so everyone on the coast can see what set the U.S. capital abuzz.
By David Wiwchar