WASHINGTON -- The sound of pounding drums and West Coast songs echoed
through the grand entrance at the National Museum of the American Indian.
On the third floor, the music could still be clearly heard, as visitors
were welcomed into a new exhibit celebrating the ancient cultures of the
people of the Pacific Northwest.
"Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific
Coast" is only the second exhibit to be shown in the Changing Exhibitions
Gallery at the NMAI, which opened in September 2004.
At the official opening on Feb. 2, 232 singers and dancers from 11
Northwest Indian nations performed songs and dances, introducing
Smithsonian sponsors, benefactors and staff members to vibrant West Coast
Performances were given by Suquamish, Makah, Tlingit, Ditidaht,
Kwakwaka'wakw, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Nisga'a, Gitxsan and Haida.
The exhibit was two years in the making, as NMAI curators travelled to
communities along the coast, meeting with leaders and developing
"'Listening to Our Ancestors' reflects the museum's commitment to working
with Native communities and presenting first-person Native voice in
exhibitions and public programming," said museum founding Director Richard
West Jr., Southern Cheyenne. "By inviting the tribes to help develop the
exhibition, an important partnership and dialogue has emerged through which
the museum, the communities and visitors can learn about the cultures from
the North Pacific Coast," he said.
Communities appointed their own curators, who then worked closely with
museum staff to develop their parts of the exhibit.
Two days before the opening, spiritual leaders from the nations cleansed
and blessed their areas.
"We danced the Chief's Dance and blessed our artifacts," said
world-renowned artist Roy Henry Vickers. "It was so powerful for me. We
danced in our modern regalia in front of these magnificent ancient cedar
capes and headdresses that would have done the same dance 200 years ago.
I've done that dance hundreds of times, but this time I was overcome by the
power of everything and broke down after we finished," he said.
Ron Hamilton (Ki-ke-in) and his wife, Sharon Marshall (Yaawilthma), sang an
ancient ciquaa (prayer chant) and spread eagle down throughout the
Nuu-chah-nulth area, speaking to the artifacts in his language and assuring
them they are safe and in a good place. "I thanked the chiefs, and called
all the ancestors to be here and make sure things are done respectfully,"
said Hamilton. "I also assured them we're doing everything we can to bring
them home by having our own museum," he smiled.
The Nuu-chah-nulth exhibit features a cloth curtain of unknown origin, a
sealskin whaling float, hinkeets dance masks, rattles, bowls, cedar capes,
and war clubs, but it is the collection of six woven hats belonging to
noble women that Hamilton is most proud of.
"These six hats have never been shown before and they're absolutely
incredible," said Hamilton. "We talk a lot about our ha'wiih (chiefs) in
this exhibit and in everything we do, but we don't talk enough about our
ha'kuum (queens), so that is why I argued to have a sealing spear replaced
with these magnificent hats," he said.
Hamilton has worked with the museum for the past month, writing artifact
descriptions and a chapter in the accompanying exhibit book.
Walking past the 10 Plexiglas cases holding 44 Nuu-chah-nulth artifacts,
Hamilton talked about the difficulties involved in such a selection. "The
items here represent only one-quarter of one percent of the Nuu-chah-nulth
artifacts in the Smithsonian's collection," said Hamilton. "I've been
talking and corresponding with the archivists here for many years, and
every time I talk to them, I talk about how we want to bring these things
home. That's why we're here, trying to make their opening successful so we
create good will and respect between us," he said.
That night, museum sponsors and staff gathered for a lavish dinner where
Ditidaht singers and dancers performed along with the Haida, Nisga'a,
Tsimshian, Heiltsuk and Kwakwaka'wakw nations.
In an interesting clash of cultures, a Suquamish elder asked that people
drinking wine move away from the circular dance area to the mezzanine area
to keep the previously blessed area clean and pure. The dignitaries
The exhibit opened the next day at noon, and people were lined up to get
in. Lectures and dance performances complemented the opening weekend. The
Kwakwaka'wakw delegation offered colorful dance displays twice daily, and
Hamilton facilitated a pair of lectures.
The lecture on potlatches was attended by more than 90 people, who listened
attentively as Hamilton spoke about the oppression of the 1884 Potlatch Ban
in Canada that stayed in place until 1952.
"Because we put away our songs and dances so as not to get arrested, we
forgot who we were," said Sampson Bryant from the Tsimshian Nation. "When
they lifted the ban, very few people knew how to do things, but what we
thought was lost is now starting to come back," he said.
Bill Cranmer, a Kwakwaka'wakw hereditary chief, said his nation launched a
groundbreaking lawsuit against the government for the potlatch ban, and is
seeking compensation that they will use to fund language and cultural
The next day was family day, and the Pawaats (a Nuu-chah-nulth word meaning
"nest") education center was filled with laughing children learning about
the people of the Northwest Coast, their culture, language and lives.
People touring the many museums along the National Mall were treated to a
real sense of the West Coast as the air outside the museum filled with the
sweet smells of a salmon barbecue; while inside the museum, Kwakwaka'wakw
songs echoed through the cavernous entryway and dancers performed in the
Heiltsuk Chief Harvey Humchitt talked with visitors as he cooked a few
salmon he had brought from Bella Bella, British Columbia.
The NMAI provided $4,300 in funding to each community to allow two
"community curators" to attend the opening. Communities, such as Gitxsan in
New Hazelton, British Columbia, with a 90 percent unemployment rate, could
only afford to send the two positions funded through the museum, while
others such as Makah held fund-raisers for eight months to bring a
delegation of 82 people to the event.
"Having the descendants of the people who made these artifacts here with us
to open the exhibition has just been amazing," said West. "It really
empowers and enlivens the collection and shows the sheer power and potency
of the North Pacific Coast cultures," he said.
Located near the Capitol building, the NMAI was designed by Cree architect
Douglas Cardinal and is strikingly different from any other building in the
When "Listening to Our Ancestors" closes next year, it will then embark on
a tour to the nations represented, so everyone on the coast can see what
set the U.S. capital abuzz.