SPOKANE, Wash. – The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture recently opened an exhibit, “Living Legacy: The American Indian Collection,” which will run through July 2010.
Included in the exhibit is a flat bag from the Spokane Tribe that was the first item logged into the museum and part of the William Manning collection from 1916. This was the initial collection acquired by the museum, then called the Spokane Historical Society. Manning was a surveyor in the area during the early years of the 20th century; his collection consisted of items he had collected from specific individuals during those early years.
Michael Holloman explained that the exhibit was designed to highlight the Manning collection but also to talk about how things have changed at the museum and how the concept of collecting American Indian items has changed. Holloman, an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes, is director of the Center for Plateau Cultural Studies at the MAC, essentially overseeing all operations of the American Indian collections. He’s served in that position for seven years after moving from Seattle University, where he was a professor in the fine arts department.
“Collecting was seen as an acquisition of materials of a people they felt would soon maybe become extinct, so they were collecting the history of a people soon to be gone. Maybe it was a sense of cultural superiority, a sense of social Darwinism,” he explained. “We found that obviously not to be true.”
“The Northern Plateau are the main tribes we focus on in this exhibition because that was where the Manning collection focused. We wanted to highlight those materials and also the materials of the tribes from this region today – to really exemplify the title of ‘Living Legacy.’ Our people today are still working at these traditions, still living these traditions. We have a feather bustle by George Flett that he made and a basket from Elaine Emerson, a beautiful basket with the same tradition.”
The entire collection of Native items at the MAC numbers about 17,000 from tribes all over North and Central America. This particular exhibition numbers 192; however, plans call for making some changes during the ensuing months. In October 2009, for example, the large gallery will be altered to show lots of horse regalia.
Some of the current items on exhibit include a number of flat bags, beaded bags, and baskets. There is a sturgeon-nosed canoe from the Kalispel tribe that was made by Chief Massalaw in 1905, and a buckskin shirt and pants outfit once owned by the famed Nez Perce bronco rider, Jackson Sundown.
Holloman talked of the changes happening in Native culture. The exhibit “shows how tribes have adopted changes. Tribal culture isn’t stagnant; it evolves over time. What might have been embroidered with porcupine quills at one time soon became beads. Contemporary materials like tops of Copenhagen cans have been twisted for jingle dresses. This has always been going on, and this exhibit shows that.”
“Each has a story that can place it in the time it was made,” he explained. “A cornhusk bag can talk about the change of tradition from a bag originally made with Indian hemp, bear grass, rye grass, and the designs you would see would be created by the weaves of those specific grasses.
“In the latter 1800s, you start to see these bags change. You see the introduction for the first time of materials outside our traditional culture. It might be wool from a trade cloth that was integrated with other fabrics. You have dyes. You see a significant change to what was known as a cornhusk bag because Native peoples were going to become farmers, so they were introduced to corn. They realized you could twine corn as much as other materials, so they, again, change.”
The MAC has an American Indian Cultural Council. “I don’t know of another institution that has a council such as ours that is at the level of our board of trustees. Many institutions have advisory committees, and that’s fabulous, but the final decision comes down to the curators. Ours doesn’t. Our council makes these decisions that say they agree these objects are appropriate, they agree language in the exhibition is appropriate, and they sign off on that. This gives us a quality of trust within the tribal communities.”
Holloman concluded, saying, “This is the beginning of many exhibitions where we can bring out these materials. It allows us to look back with a more critical eye, a more honest eye, and say, ‘Yes, this is who we were but this is who we are today.’ That has resonated well within the communities, both Native and non-Native.”