Listening to Our Ancestors: An exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian

Coast Salish Cod Lure. Source: NMAI

Listening to Our Ancestors” is a nice online exhibit which resulted from a process by which 11 west coast First Nations and Tribes came to the National Museum of the American Indian (a fairly recent, major addition to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.) and created mini-exhibits reflecting their own worldviews and the categories they deemed important.  As such, each community’s sub-page is a glimpse into their specific cultural heritage and priorities – indigenous curation, you could say.

While much of the focus is on ceremonial items, some communities also choose to focus some attention on their more everyday technology, which is more in line with my own interests.

For example, the Salishan cod lure above is an ingenious piece of equipment.  The lure would be mounted on the end of a very long pole, perhaps 15 metres in length, and shoved to the bottom near a reef.  A quick shake, and the lure would come free and slowly spiral it’s way to the surface.  The action would mimic a wounded fish, and predators such as ling-cod, which are large, aggressive fish, would follow the lure up to the surface, whereupon they would be harpooned.  Rinse and repeat!

Coast Salish wrapped net sinkers. Source: NMAI

Another interesting picture, again from the Coast Salish sub-pages at the NMAI, are these net-sinkers.  Under most archaeological conditions, the organic cords would deteriorate very quickly, leaving behind an unmodified rock.  Making sinker-stones like this is so obviously quick and efficient that I have always wondered why you would do it any other way.  Nonetheless, a variety of perforated stones from size and shape of a small donut on up are known from Northwest Sites, each of which might have been an hour or more of effort to make and yet be equally dependent on the organic lines in order to not be lost.  I’ve wondered in the past if these perforated ones were actually loom weights.

Kwakwaka'wakw Head Scratcher and Drinking Tube. Source: NMAI.

Another interesting items are the above tools from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation.  This little toolkit was designed to help menstruating women maintain purity standards and prohibitions by drinking only through tubes and using the little scratching tool.  Again, in the absence of ethnographic evidence and without the little cord linking them, these tools might not be given a huge importance by archaeologists.  As I mentioned, many of the items on exhibit are ceremonial, and the one of those that caught my eye the most was the spectacular and frightening Gitxsan skull mask below, with teeth made from the opercula of the red turban snail.

Gitxsan Skull Mask. Source: NMAI.

The exhibit is smooth and well put together.  Based around “flash”, it is not possible to link to any specific item within the exhibit.  The interface works well but you have to learn where to look – click on a community, then information will appear and small boxes labelled things like “potlatch” and “food” — a different set for each community.  Then a strip of thumbnails appears.  It is worth clicking on “zoom”, since the underlying photos are very high resolution and zoom is a satisfying experience, for once.  So its not entirely intuitive, but with a little practice there are hundreds of images available to browse.  It would be nice to have more information on each one – details range from middling to sparse – but I respect the general orientation which is to let representatives of these 11 nations tell their own stories.

One response to “Listening to Our Ancestors: An exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian

  1. Pingback: Listening to Our Ancestors « Indigenous People’s Literature Weblog

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