EXHIBITION: Alaska welcomes home its Native art for exhibition from Smithsonian museums
Anchorage—For the past 30 years, Tlingit leader George Ramos, 79, has traveled to museums around the U.S. and found irreplaceable objects that he had heard his elders talk about, but he’d never seen.
They “belong to Alaska,” Ramos says.
Now, “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage” has opened at the Anchorage Museum, with 600 objects that were selected in part because they were fairly traded by Native communities to collectors over a century ago and ended up in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian. The exhibition of the objects will continue for seven years in Alaska.
The May 22 opening was a cause for celebration by Alaska Native peoples, among them Beverly Faye Hugo, an Iñupiaq adviser to the exhibition from Barrow.
“These are our treasures,” Hugo said. “It is time to let them come home.”
The Git-hoan, a Tsimshian dance group based in Seattle, performed at the exhibition’s opening celebration. At one point, the group invited the Native peoples of Alaska to join the dance. Midway through the song, group leader David Boxley called out, “On stage, George Ramos, a leader of leaders.”
The stage cleared as Ramos danced with his hands stretched upward, knees bent, as he was taught at age 8 by his mother’s brother, a man of 80. When the song ended, young people came to steady Ramos, an adviser to the Arctic Studies Center, as he stepped down from the stage.
“There are things in the exhibition I have only heard about from my instructor when I was a child,” Ramos said.
The objects selected for the exhibition were all fairly traded for, said William Fitzhugh, director of the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. It was part of the criteria put forth in seven years of meetings between elders from the Native cultures of Alaska and museum curators.
“Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage” is the most ambitious exhibition organized by the center since its inception in 1988, and the Anchorage Museum constructed a 10,000-square-foot addition to house it. The curators and conservators from the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian worked together to conserve and repair the objects for the loan, then to transport them to Alaska in three cargo planes. The exhibition will continue for at least seven years, at which time other items from the tens of thousands of Alaska Native objects in the Smithsonian collections are expected to rotate in.
Fitzhugh knows the impact of these exhibitions on Native cultures, because the Arctic Studies Center has organized them for years, bringing objects from Smithsonian museums and others around the world to Alaska. With each exhibition, Fitzhugh said there has been a growing rejuvenation and recovery of cultural practices.
“There is a type of blanket that until 15 years ago was lost. Everyone knows the Chilkat blankets, but this was another woven blanket,” Fitzhugh said. “They have figured out how to weave it because today David Boxley was wearing one.”
Andrew Abyo, a 40-year-old Alutiiq carver who teaches Native arts in Anchorage schools, stood in front of a Sugpiaq wood mask he’d only seen in books. Twenty inches tall, and three-dimensional with marks left by the carver still evident, the mask was collected in 1884 from a village on the Alaska Peninsula.
Shaking his head, Abyo said, “It was so flat and small in the book.”
His wife, Melinda, was moved to tears when she saw a century-old woman’s beaded headdress, which she had copied from a book. She brought in her replica to show curators, and to compare it with the original.
Abyo, whose work is in museums in Alaska, Japan and Ireland, wants the tools of his ancestors’ everyday life, such as bows and fishing gear. But gaining the skill that it takes to make tools that are functional as well as beautiful requires more than books.
“As many accomplished artists as there are today, these are the works of the masters,” Abyo said. “They didn’t have our technologies, but we don’t know all of their technologies, either. We can’t fathom how they did some of this.”
Another visitor, Darline Kygar, a tourist from San Diego who happened to visit the museum on the day the exhibition opened, admired the intricate stitching in the clothing and the diversity of the many Native cultures from Alaska.
“I really had my eyes opened,” she said.
View the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center website, including the objects in the exhibition, at http://alaska.si.edu/index.asp
By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service