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Published: May 9, 2022

Connecting Past and Present in Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories

Katharine Uhrich, Senior Content Strategy & Development Manager, Marketing

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Native American artists, makers, and students find inspiration and continuity in cultural materials.

Three Chitimacha Triberibal members, one standing and two seated with some of their baskets on wooden furniture in front of a small house.

In August 2018, Field conservation and collections staff began the deinstallation of the Museum’s 70-year-old Native North America Hall. The outdated corridors were being cleared for a collaboratively curated and reimagined exhibition. An advisory council of 11 Native American scholars and museum professionals, and more than 130 collaborators representing over 105 Tribes and Nations, partnered with Field staff on the vision and content for the new exhibition. Meanwhile teams from across the Museum choreographed the removal of 1,583 cultural items from the hall. Display cases were opened, heavy partitions moved, temporary storage spaces erected, visitors diverted, custom housing created, and so much more. 

Four years and an unforeseen global pandemic later, a similar ballet is underway as we prepare to open Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories on May 20, 2022. Unlike the old hall, this exhibition will be driven by historical and contemporary stories told by Native American people in their own voices. And all of that work removing, treating, and rehousing items allows for some items to return to display, alongside many more newly acquired pieces.

I think visitors will be blown away by the way in which the items from our collection and the contemporary pieces we have borrowed, commissioned, or purchased especially for this exhibition seamlessly work together to tell a vibrant story of resilience and innovation in the face of trauma and continuity of knowledge traditions across generations.

Alaka Wali, Curator of North American Anthropology

 

Our curatorial staff and advisors worked with Native American artists from across the country and across disciplines to purchase, commission, and borrow artworks specifically for Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories. Many of these makers visited the Field in person or virtually to reference pieces in the collection. Some of the cultural materials they met directly inspired new pieces. In other instances, artists specifically chose items they wanted their piece to accompany. 

These symbolic pairings represent the important connection between past and present and underscore the resilience, continuity, and future of Native communities. Here are some of the artists and the work you’ll see on display in Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories

Past meets present

Arroh-ah-och was a master potter from Laguna Pueblo who died in the late 1800s. She was also a ku’-kwi-mu. In the Laguna Keres dialect this means woman-sister-brother and is used to describe a man who chooses to live as a woman. Working with Dwight Lanmon, formerly of the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe, a pot from the Field’s collection was attributed as Arroh-ah-och’s work. Dwight confirmed the attribution because of the density of the black paint, the clarity of the design, and the detail in the pot’s shoulder bands.

Max Early is a contemporary Laguna Pueblo potter whose work will be featured in Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories. Having long felt a connection to Arroh-ah-och, he created his piece to complement her dyuuni, or pot. In August of 2020, Max met virtually with Collections Assistant Michelle Brownlee to see Arroh-ah-och’s dyuuni from all sides. Michelle recalls Max taking in every detail, down to the number of swirls. As a result, both vessels share design elements, including that of approaching clouds and circular beaks.

These ceramics will be displayed side-by-side in Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories, so that Arroh-ah-och—who lived and created in a time before European-American ideas of gender and sexuality were imposed onto her society—can post-humously show how her talent and story inspires contemporary artists.

Drawing on tradition

Returning to display is a painting by Chris Pappan, a citizen of the Kaw Nation. Pow Wow Chair ca. 1980 was originally part of Chris’ exhibit Drawing on Tradition, an intervention in the former hall that Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories is replacing. Chris examines how utilitarian objects were previously contextualized in the old hall. He turns that collection practice on its head by portraying what that same approach might look like applied to items used by Native Americans today. In poking fun at the Museum, Chris uses humor to connect to other Native people.

Our cultures and our people are always portrayed as living in the past, so we’re constantly having to reassert our contemporary existence.

Chris Pappan

 

In the background of his painting, you can see figures originally drawn by well-known ledger artist Silver Horn (Kiowa). This narrative drawing is done on paper or cloth, originally in accounting ledger books, which were widely available to Plains Indians in the late 1800s when ledger art first flourished. Chris wanted to, “continue that tradition in ways that reflected my experiences as a contemporary Native person.”

Weaving a story of revitalization

The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana is known for vibrant, imbricate baskets. They weave using piya, or river cane. Piya used to cover millions of acres across what’s now the American South. But, it was drastically depleted due to deforestation and hurricanes. This meant for decades, weavers had to leave the Chitimacha reservation in order to harvest the plant. Thanks to the Tribe’s conservation efforts, however, weavers can once again harvest piya on their own land to make these brightly colored and intricately woven vessels.

John Paul and Melissa Darden are two of the Chitimacha weavers working to keep their Tribe’s basketry tradition alive. They learned to weave by watching their elders, asking questions, and remaining patient. It wasn’t until they were adults that John and Melissa actually made their own baskets.

The Dardens visited the Field in the 1990s. Examining colors on baskets in the collection, they corrected attributions and shared their expertise with our collections staff. For Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories they’ve woven three Chitimacha baskets. 

Baskets with tails and tales 

Across the country in Riverside, California, Lorene Sisquoc is weaving a different type of revitalization. Lorene is a member of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma and a descendant of the Mountain Cahuilla, but she grew up in Riverside outside of Los Angeles. Lorene learned to weave, not through her family, but from other women who kept the traditions alive despite assimilation, boarding schools, and relocation.

Traditional Cahuilla baskets use plants from the land: juncus, sumac, deergrass, and different flowers. The colors come from various parts of the plant or are dyed. They’re made by coiling strips of juncus or other plants around a bundle of deergrass. With each stitch, a little tail is left—a trait of Cahuilla baskets. 

For Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories, Lorene selected 13 baskets from the Field’s collection for display. One of the items she selected was accessioned in 1923. It’s a woven tray that depicts a rattlesnake. Lorene says her teacher, Donna Largo, told a story about a rattlesnake who was bothering the weaver. “She kept shooing it away and said, ‘If you don’t go away I’ll put you in my basket.’ And now look, there you see it. The snake design became very popular.”

These historical items will be paired with basket starters made by Lorene—to illustrate how the Cahuilla weaving process begins—and reunited with baskets made by her teachers, Donna Largo and Rosalie Valencia, and fellow weaver Rose Ann Hamilton. 

All together

In 1927, anthropologist Frank Speck collected hundreds of items from Innu communities in Canada, including the roll-up bag pictured above.

In 2021, Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nation students at the Kassinu Mamu school in Mashteuiatsh, Quebec created art inspired by this needle bag using abstract painting, stencils, and their own personal styles. Once the works were completed, they were cut into 4 x 4 inch pieces and mounted onto blocks of wood.

The school, whose name means “all together” was created in 1995. It occupies the former Pointe-Bleue Indian Residential School, which boarded young people from different communities for over 30 years. More than 150,000 children were forcibly taken to schools like these across Canada for more than a century. Many faced physical and sexual abuse—and thousands died. Boarding schools like this existed across the United States as well. Despite the traumatic history, the Mashteuiatsh community chose to renovate the building in 1997. They teach the government’s secondary school curriculum as well as Pekuakamiulnuatsh culture and welcome about 80 students each year.

Wrapped in history

Both the Zuni and Hopi Tribes of the Southwest have old traditions creating similar kilts that carry on today. In Zuni, bilanne means “a cloth that wraps.” The bilanne, or kilt, with the blue panel was made by a Zuni or Hopi Ancestor and given to the Field by a private collector in 1917. The blue panel is an embellishment appliquéd on for social dances—a tradition that started around 1850.

Self-taught Zuni weaver Aric Chopito created a new bilanne, pictured on the left, for Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories. The colors are symbolic. Aric has added green for vegetation, white for rain clouds, black for thunder clouds, and candy-striped red for eternal rainfall. Aric says, “since we’re trying to emulate nature—and nothing in nature is perfect—we always place a mistake into the textile. I'm sure if you look, you can find it.”