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Environmental Justice and Indigenous Knowledge Take Center Stage in California Exhibit

An exhibit at the Autry Museum immerses visitors into the history of Native Americans in California.

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Baskets the size of pinheads. Forest management via burning. A gigantic basket sculpture made from crushed cans. A botanical garden composed only of plants native to California.

In a living, three-dimensional tribute to and acknowledgement of Native traditional ecological knowledge in California, the Autry Museum exhibit, California Continued, immerses visitors into spaces that convey a vision of the environment as indigenous Californians view it.

“It’s the most transformative project in the Autry's history," the museum says of the exhibit, which spans 20,000 square feet in two new galleries and an outdoor garden. Extending the dimension further, the exhibit is working in partnership with local television station KCET, which is airing a six-part series exploring in video the main aspects of the exhibit: fire, salmon, plants as materials, plants as food, plants as medicine, and desert.

The interactive exhibit incorporates art, history, ethnography and technology to tell a story about the place now known as California, but from an indigenous perspective. That story blends into a seamless whole ancient knowledge and the human relationship to the land that has always been at the center of Natives’ lives.

The most significant renovation since the Autry's founding in 1988, the exhibit is organized into four sections. Human Nature is a long-term core exhibition focusing on ongoing cultural practices for tending the environment. The Life and Work of Mabel McKay is a temporary exhibition showcasing the life of this prominent Pomo basket maker. It’s showcased in the Human Nature Garden, a finely sculpted outdoor space that explores traditional and contemporary uses of more than 60 plants native to California via the California Road Trip, a virtual journey through the state's most scenic and extreme landscapes.

Visitors are immediately engaged at the entry point, titled Human Nature, where the question emblazoned on a wall is posed: "Are humans part of nature?"

A rainbow melange of sticky notes adorns the wall, inscribed with peoples' responses. A glass case arranged in the shape of the state of California displays artifacts from different regions, some contemporary, and some, like an ancient fishhook from the islands off the coast, thousands of years old. This room is a gateway to sub-displays that explore the subjects of salmon and rivers, fire, deserts and plants.

"What's underlying in this exhibit is an environmental justice awareness," Joshua Garrett-Davis, a contributing curator to California Continued, told Indian Country Media Network.

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And that's what sets this exhibit apart, considering a progressive trend over the last few years of museum curation that has sought to blend Western science with indigenous knowledge in environmental representations. But California Continued takes it a step further by highlighting the ways that Natives in the state have been affected by human interventions like dams, which flood homelands and destroy salmon habitats, in turn contributing to cultural loss.

"Salmon is an indicator of how healthy a river ecology is," Garret-Davis said, pointing out a copy of a Los Angeles Times article telling about the scheduled removal of four dams on the Klamath River that is mounted on the wall.

Particularly striking is the exhibit's attention to the ways Native peoples in California historically managed their landscapes through controlled burning. But modern conservation campaigns (embodied, for example, in the iconic Smokey the Bear) have led to ecological imbalance.

"The absence of traditional burning has led to overgrowth of forests, causing hotter, more catastrophic fires,” Garrett-Davis said. “This results in sterilization of the soil, and hampers regrowth. Smoke chokes out parasitic plants like mistletoe that harm the health of trees. Fire is also needed to cultivate basketry plants."

The importance of baskets in Native cultures grounds the exhibition of famous Pomo basket maker Mable McKay, who is larger than life in this memorial. Several thousand square feet are dedicated to showcasing the life of this revered elder who was legendary not only for her basketry, but also as a political activist and healer.

The Autry's exceptional collection of Pomo feather baskets (many of them McKay's) is here, but perhaps most stunning are the miniature baskets, some remarkably as small as a pinhead.

California Continued is storytelling made visible, and nothing can tell Native stories like art. In addition to the Pomo basket collection, the work of renowned Native artists is showcased to enhance the educational objectives of the displays.

For example, the work of Cahuilla sculptor and conceptual artist Gerald Clarke is a centerpiece in the desert exhibit, showing how the destruction of sacred and archeological sites is caused by solar projects in the Mohave. A six foot-diameter sculpture replicating a basket is made from a recycled satellite dish and crushed aluminum cans, highlighting the ways trash is also a source of environmental problems in Native spaces.

“California Road Trip” invites visitors into a darkened quiet space where a close-up dual-projection film shows California’s most stunning scenery over six continuous hours. The tour’s conclusion takes visitors through a 7,000-square-foot ethnobotanical Human Nature Garden. Designed by Ponca landscape architect Matthew Kennedy, it features more than 60 varieties of native California plants interspersed with seating and relaxation areas, a wetlands cove, a waterfall, pond and simulated rock structures.