Crafted from wood, iron, plant fibers and animal sinews, the model of 10 men paddling a canoe would strike most viewers as a beautiful object. But for Haa’yuups, head of the Takiishtakamlthat-h house of the Huupa’chesat-h First Nation on Vancouver Island, Canada, it also holds mystical power. A spiritual canoe, it represents the rippling of invisible oars in the water – a sound people in its community report hearing after cleansing themselves through fasting and bathing.
When the American Museum of Natural History’s Northwest Coast Hall reopens to the public on May 13 after a five-year, $19 million renovation, the spirit canoe — which hasn’t been shown before — will be one of the most of 1,000 artifacts on display. . Organized by Haa’yuups and Peter Whiteley, curator of North American ethnology at the museum, the redesigned exhibit expresses the perspectives of the 10 nations whose cultures are on display: emphasizing the objects’ spiritual and functional purposes for the people who made them, and incorporating community testimonies representing government repression of their culture.
The Northwest Coast Hall was the first gallery to open at the museum. Inaugurated in 1899 by Franz Boas, an anthropological giant who conducted extensive fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest, it embodied what was then cutting-edge thinking. In other museums, notably the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, indigenous peoples were considered “wild” who needed to be “civilized”.
In stark contrast, Boas presented non-Western artifacts as the fruits of various sophisticated civilizations. There was not just one culture that all people were moving towards. He popularized the idea of ”cultural relativism”, in which societies exist as parallel universes, with beliefs and behaviors that are products of their environments. “He had a breakthrough quality,” Whiteley said. “Until then, ‘culture’ could not be pluralized. Boas wanted to place people and objects in context.
But yesterday’s revolution may seem retrograde. In the renovated room, contextual labeling of cultural artifacts has been amplified to represent the perspectives, in the voices of Indigenous peoples, of the communities that made and used them. In a display of Haida carvings, for example, there is a discussion of the mourning ceremony, which takes place to release the spirit of the deceased a year or more after death. To this explanation is added a piquant comment: “When the missionaries arrived on our shores, they forced our Ancestors to adopt Western funeral practices. Despite this, many of our traditions around death, mourning and remembrance have endured and are still practiced today.
Despite these curatorial interventions, some critics argue that the very idea of storing masterpieces from colonized societies in an anthropological museum is outdated. Haa’yuups is one of them. “I still believe that this material belongs to us and that it will never be given its true value in any setting other than our own Houses,” he said.
Since 1998, the museum has returned 1,850 objects that are of singular significance to Native American peoples, guided by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. But communities are asking for more. In a statement this week, the museum said it was in talks with representatives of Indigenous nations and “pursues a limited repatriation process as we explore multiple ways to continue our relationship.”
Haa’yuups said he knows a large-scale rendition is unlikely to happen anytime soon, so he accepted the museum’s invitation to participate in the renovation project. Consultants from nine First Nations were also recruited.
“I wanted the treasures to be contextualized in a rich way and seen as our people’s wealth that had been stolen,” Haa’yuups explained. “I wanted to see every background item in the windows filled with the words of the people who lived there. The most important thing we can do is to present in some way the variety of belief systems that existed on the Northwest Coast and to emphasize the distinctiveness and similarity between them.
Public institutions are increasingly sensitive to accusations of post-colonialism and racism. In January, the museum removed from its porch a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse and flanked by a Native American and an African, both shirtless. In another move, he is planning the mounting in the rotunda of a land acquisition plaque that acknowledges that his building stands on land that once belonged to the Lenape. (The Metropolitan Museum installed such a sign a year ago, after adding its first full-time curator of Native American art, Patricia Marroquin Norby.)
The physical modifications of the Northwest Coast Hall, carried out in collaboration with the architect Kulapat Yantrasast of the cabinet wHY, are more subtle. The transitions between eight alcoves and four corner galleries representing 10 nations have been opened. “It’s not a radical departure,” said Lauri Halderman, vice president for the exhibit. “It’s in the details.” Once lined on three sides, the alcoves have been reconfigured with walkways that facilitate the flow of visitors and conceptually reflect the porosity between these communities.
“These are all peach crops that depend on the same economy,” Whiteley said. “It doesn’t look like any culture anywhere. Due to the abundance of fish, it is a sedentary culture. (Typically, a sedentary culture is agricultural, and communities that depend on hunting and fishing will migrate to follow their prey.)
The different nations were interconnected in complex trade patterns. The star attraction in the Northwest Coast Hall is a 63-foot-long canoe, which was returned to this gallery, suspended from the ceiling, after being displayed elsewhere in the museum for more than 70 years. Carved from a single red cedar log circa 1878, it is the largest Pacific Northwest canoe in existence. Its hybrid origins are still disputed. The Haida, whose territory included cedar forests, probably shaped it and decorated the bow and stern with eagle and killer whale designs. Then the craft was acquired by the Heiltsuk people, possibly as a dowry, and there it was adorned with images of sea wolves and carved benches. One of the first pieces to enter the collection, in 1883, the canoe was embellished for display in 1910 with figures depicting Tlingit people on their way to a potlatch ceremony. Colorful, yes, but the wrong natives. In 2007 they were removed.
In the hall stand majestic wooden crest posts, carved and sometimes painted, most of which were introduced into the gallery during a previous renovation in 1910. In all there are 67 monumental sculptures, including posts houses and other sculptures, ranging in height from 3 to 17 feet. The gallery also displays headdresses, woven baskets, festive dishes and ceremonial curtains and panels.
An evolving exhibition will present contemporary creations that extend artistic traditions; in the first rendering, sneakers, skateboards, and basketballs are among the objects shown. “There are very different ways to be an artist in the modern world, and we thought we should show applied art,” Halderman said.
In the ongoing process of discovery, representatives of indigenous cultures have examined objects recovered from the museum’s storerooms and found extraordinary treasures that have never been displayed to the public. To display them, display cases were redesigned, as the old ones were so shallow that they worked better for holding fish hooks. (Boas had a thing for hooks.) In addition to the “spiritual canoe,” a previously hidden beauty is an intricately woven conical hat from the late 18th or early 19th century that depicts in a semi-abstract style men in a boat that hunts whales.
An artifact on display in the Northwest Coast Hall is a beaver canoe prow which is a replica of the original, which was repatriated in 1999 after a delegation of tribal elders recognized it among a group of objects that the museum kept in reserve. One of the Tlingit visitors at this time of discovery was Garfield George, Chief of Deishú Hít, or Beaver Half-Crow Trailhead House, Deisheetaan Clan of Angoon, Alaska.
In October 1882, the United States Navy bombarded Angoon in a punitive act of retaliation. “They rounded up all the canoes, cut them into pieces and burned them,” George said. But a dinghy, which was probably at sea at the time, survived. “It was called ‘The Canoe That Saved Us’,” he continued. Before the onset of winter, sailors using this canoe could gather wood to build houses and build new boats. “Later the hull of the canoe cracked open and they cremated him as if he were a human being,” George said. “But they never mentioned what happened to the bow.”
No one even knew if it still existed. But it has been documented in century-old photographs.
When they spotted his distinctive profile, the elders fell silent with respectful reverence. Since returning to Alaska, during groundbreaking ceremonies for a new or renovated home, the bow has been on display. “We feature it at every potlatch,” George said. “It’s on a pole and it faces our guests. It’s one of the first things people see when they arrive. We say, ‘Our beaver bow will stabilize your canoe, when you go through what you’re going through now.’
In a ceremony on May 4, representatives of the various nations in traditional dress dedicated the Northwest Coast Hall. For some, it’s a bittersweet duty. For people whose animistic religious beliefs bestow power and spirituality on rocks and trees as well as people and beasts, the confinement of cultural artifacts in a museum is akin to incarceration.
Haa’yuups compares it to the orca exhibit at a marine theme park. “We don’t need to have killer whales in captivity, and we don’t need to display dance dresses and rattles in museums,” he said.
But he acknowledges that the legacy of Boas and his successors is complex. “He is undoubtedly one of the main thinkers who brought people to where they are today,” he said. “Boas in mounting the exhibit singled out people and was staunchly anti-racist. He argued that different cultural groups might feel the same emotions and experience what other cultures are going through. Yet he thought it was OK to steal things from the northwest coast and bring them in for an exhibition. He was a brilliant man and I have tremendous respect for him. But he did it wrong. He was human. I want to look at this aggressively.