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Wonderworks of the Pacific Northwest's First Nations

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - How do you top a place whose doors (when closed) replicate a traditional wooden box of the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest? Answer: you go inside and encounter its dazzling atrium of totem poles, house posts and carved figures.

And after wondering about the people who made these massive and enduring things, you can then proceed to the great things currently being made by their descendants.

The place in question is the Museum of Anthropology of the University of British Columbia, but don't be put off by that rather plain title. The museum is actually a storehouse of wonderworks.

Like the "bent boxes" that the closed doors of the museum replicate. There are a few real ones on display inside, decorated with designs and one hand carved, showing a human in the mouth of a bear.

If you wonder how these were made, the MOA, a teaching museum, explains it to you. You steam a notched plank of cedar and bend it to form three corners. The fourth corner is sewn on by cedar root, and the bottom is attached with wooden pegs.

There's an astonishing sculpture in the entryway as well, that of a man hypnotizing a bear. As if the unusual subject matter wasn't enough, the artist has carved the figures from an overhead perspective, so that they seem to be directly eye to eye.

Next you emerge into the Great Hall, an atrium more than 40 feet high and dominated by mid-19th century examples of the wood working of some of the 15 tribes that live in British Columbia.

The awesome totem poles "depict animals, spirits and persons from family stories," according to the museum, and some of the other great woodworks there provided the down-to-earth function of house posts.

Potlatch regalia, carved paddles, carved boats, and what look like toys can also be seen, from tribes like the Musqeuam, Haida and Kwagiutl.

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The museum has been collecting artifacts for six decades now, but instead of putting the bulk of them away, it has decided to make a virtue of necessity by storing 14,000 of them in a "visible storage" area that visitors can walk through.

MOA isn't all about potlatches and totem poles, though. "One important focus," it says, "is contemporary work by artists of First Nations ancestry." Four of them are on display in a "recent acquisitions" space, while a fifth, by Bill Reid, has a permanent display of his own.

Francis Williams, Haida, worked in gold and silver bracelets and pendants that are on display. Williams, who died just this year, may have been influenced by Charles Edenshaw, Haida (circa 1839 - 1920), whose style has inspired generations of artists, according to the museum.

Lyle Wilson, Haisla, makes small scale renditions of 19th century house screens from red cedar and acrylic. His "Kitasoo Memory" and "Bella Coola Memory" are on display, and the artist, born in 1955, notes "Monumental house screens are the epitome of traditional Pacific Northwest Coast painting - some were 15 metres long and five metres high."

Marianne Nicholson, Kwakwaka'wakw: Dzawada'enuxw, born in 1969, works in interesting mixed media made of designs, patterns and photos of contemporary and old-time people that frame each other in an intricate pattern. She states, "for me, it's very important to show we haven't jumped out of our history into this contemporary society - that there is a continuity - and that it is possible to create a visual language that can show that continuity."

Bill Reid, Haida, has his own permanent collection at the museum. His artist's statement is a clue to his own accomplishment: "one basic goal unites all the works of mankind that speak to us in human recognizable voices across the barriers of time, culture and space: the simple quality of being well-made."

His exhibit includes many of the well-made things he has constructed out of wood or precious metal, including a gold box with carvings of a bear, killer whale and eagle, a silver cigarette lighter and a silver box with a bear and human carving.

You can't miss Reid's "The Raven and the First Men," a monumental sculpture five feet high of yellow cedar. Here, Raven sits on a clam shell as "the first men," said to be the ancestors of the Haida, do their best to stubbornly push their way out. Raven has a sort of nesting tenderness to his aspect, but then again it is against his weight on the clamshell that the stubborn men are butting.

There is a lot to go through in this museum, and you haven't even gotten to the ceramics exhibit nor the featured exhibit, called "Pasifika: Island Journeys." But that can be for another time.

The 170,000 people of the First Nations of British Columbia, and their ancestors, are well represented by the Museum of Anthropology.