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Tsimshian prepare for national exhibition

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PRINCE RUPERT, British Columbia - Surrounded by culturally significant
artifacts every day at her work place, Lindsey Martin still gets a charge
from her role educating the public on the Tsimshian First Nation.

As the program director for the Museum of Northern British Columbia, Martin
is involved in coordinating the performances, lectures and Native
storytelling that awaits museum visitors in Prince Rupert's downtown.

These activities change frequently to meet the needs of differing audiences
whether they are an educational group or the tourists who congregate during
the summer in the heart of Canada's northwest territory.

A recent duty gave her a different perspective of viewing pieces. She,
along with two other colleagues from the museum, traveled to Maryland to
compose the Tsimshian display that will form part of an exhibition
sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in fall
2005.

Until her visit to the NMAI's Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland,
Md., the decisions made by Martin and her community as to which pieces to
choose were only determined based upon pictures sent by the CRC. Once she
saw and was able to touch these relics she was able to draw upon a fresh
perspective as a historian.

"When I got to hold these objects and look at them closely, and you have to
remember these were made hundreds of years ago when life was different,
there were almost no words to describe the experience," said Martin.

The George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan will portray 11 tribes from the
continent's Northwest coast, and while most are from British Columbia, the
presentation will also include the Makah and Coast Salish bands from
Washington and the Tlingit from Alaska. One of the harder duties in
preparing for a show is to prepare what will be presented and what will
remain behind as the restriction is 30 - 35 objects per tribe.

Martin mentioned her committee had hundreds of photos to wade through and
in addition to picking artifacts, part of the task also incorporated an
overall theme, or message, that each nation wants to get across. For the
Tsimshian, their concept focused on identity.

"The objects we were drawn to were aesthetically amazing artworks," said
Martin. "They were pieces that aroused your curiosity and to wonder 'How
they would have been used?' like this mask or carved bowl."

Each nation participating had their own selection committee, including
elders, band councils or tribal historians. Eventually individual tribes
decided on how to present their stories and culture and that's the
preference said NMAI liaison Rachel Griffin.

"We're trying to encourage a museum-to-museum and peer-to-peer relationship
at NMAI and we're only to act as a facilitator to the work that is decided
by the community curators," Griffin said.

Whatever the Tsimshian committee picked out of the photo album changed very
little once the band's entourage went to the CRC. Still, even from the
remaining 30 or so pictures of pieces that remained in the binder now on
her office desk, Martin couldn't just pick out one or two to describe their
importance to her people; they were all held in such high regard.

The importance of examining artifacts up close cannot be underestimated,
especially to the discriminating eye. While the original photos used were
helpful, after the Maryland trip, one such headdress dance mask contained a
story no picture could have told.

"When you looked at the bottom, you could see a human face that you
couldn't see [from the picture]," Martin described how there was a moving
piece of a bear's head. "That was a wonderful surprise."

In 2007 after the exhibition winds up, there are plans that each band will
have its pieces temporarily returned to their respective communities.
Meanwhile, Martin is pleased the NMAI is giving her tribe the chance to
tell its history and to also show the distinguishing nature between the
Northwest coast peoples.

"Some people come to Canada not knowing there are all these different
[Native] groups and this will show them who we are and we're excited about
that," she said.