Magazine article Humanities

Tradition Comes to Light in a 20th-Century Space

Magazine article Humanities

Tradition Comes to Light in a 20th-Century Space

Article excerpt

Two thousand rare Native American objects, some of them unseen for a hundred years, go on exhibition in June at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. They come from a collection of ten thousand objects that have lain in storage.

The exhibition, seven years in the making, will open the new Alcoa Foundation Hall of Native Americans. It focuses on four North American regions and the tribes inhabiting them. Each section addresses traditional life and the alterations that have come about in the last century, in areas from urbanization to Indian rights.

"It's not often that a project this challenging comes along," in the view of Marsha C. Bol, associate curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum. She and her team have taken a page from anthropologists Richard White and William Cronon, who wrote:"If regional environments were diverse, Indian uses of them were even more diverse. Nature offered not one, but many ways for human beings to live in a given region."

Bol comments, "I don't think anyone would disagree that our limitations are set by our environment. Our choices are going to take the environment into account, but I think what White and Cronon were saying is that you take what's available and make choices, and different groups will make different choices."

She offers examples. "The Hopi and Navajo lived in the same

region, but the Hopi chose agriculture in an area where that was very difficult with such sparse rainfall. Their mythology illustrates that decision. On the other hand, and in the same environment, the Navajo chose a herding lifestyle. They herd sheep. Both tribes are resident in the Southwest, especially in Arizona, and they even have joint use of some land."

Another example is the Lakota use of embroidered porcupine quills as a decorative medium. As Bol points out, "It's a long step between seeing a porcupine and deciding that you could pluck the quills, cut off the sharp tips, soak the quills in water or saliva, flatten them with a fingernail or with your teeth, and then dye them, all so that they can be embroidered as a decoration on hide for a man's shirt, on a pipe bag, or moccasins, or any number of different items. That's quite a bit more elaborate than mere adaptation to the surroundings."

The project developed from a self-study grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped determine that the Carnegie Museum's Native American collections were of such standing and quality that they ought to be exhibited. A subsequent grant from the Endowment, along with substantial funding from the Alcoa Foundation, made the exhibition a reality.

Bol consulted scholars in the field, as well as Native American leaders and tradition bearers. One consultant was Rayna Green, director of the American Indian Program at the National Museum of American History. She recommended a focus on Native Americans' relationship to the natural world, a subject that had not been thoroughly addressed in the context of a major exhibition. As Bol and the committees examined the collections, it became clear that their strengths lay in the west and southwest; because of the museum's location in Pittsburgh, they added to that the urbanization of Indians in the northeast. To make the exhibition manageable, it was decided to limit its time frame to the last one hundred years.

Bol and the team are presenting something more than objects in cases. The Hopi section, for example, includes a diorama of a Hopi wedding with six life-sized figures. The diorama depicts the procession of the bride as she returns to her parents' house wearing clothes the groom's family has made for her. She is followed by the groom's family bearing gifts and by the bride and groom's child. That is not uncommon, Bol says. Native American families often take years after a couple's civil marriage to save enough money for the finery and feasting of a traditional wedding. …

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