Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Curators and Ceremonies

Detail, Blackfoot shirt 1893.67.3, Pitt Rivers Museum

In the summer of 2012, I attended a traditional Blackfoot ceremony in Alberta, Canada. These days, with museums developing relationships with Indigenous communities, curators are sometimes invited to ceremonies as part of the process of relationship-building and to educate us about their cultures. I have had the privilege of working with Blackfoot people and attending ceremonies with them since 2001.

There are protocols for attending Blackfoot ceremonies. Women wear moccasins and long skirts and shawls, and I have a special set of clothing that I keep for these occasions. It is not permitted to photograph or take notes during ceremonies: you are expected to learn by observing and thinking about what you see, and taking it into your heart. Since traditional knowledge is passed on experientially and by various forms of initiation, it is also not appropriate to describe ceremonies online, especially for an outsider such as myself. Sometimes, though, there are things that I notice during ceremonies that have more to do with the bigger picture of what is happening, rather than what is going on in the ceremony, and these observations can be a way of learning. They can, especially, be a way of learning why it is that a museum curator like myself comes to be sitting in a ceremony, feeling clumsy and bewildered, hoping desperately not to make embarrassing mistakes. There’s a reason you’re here.

June 2012, somewhere in Blackfoot Territory, Alberta, Canada: Two enormous tipis have been pinned together to hold everyone for the ceremony, and they are now billowing and creaking in a prairie windstorm. It is a bit like being on a sailboat in a high wind. There is a fire in the other tipi near the elders and those who are running the ceremony; I can smell the smudge and hear the fire crackling, but am tucked in a corner and can’t see them. The grass sticks to my moccasins, the food is incredibly generous, and whoever put the berries in the frybread is a genius.

There is such a good feeling here, it’s relatives and friends gathering to be blessed and to support those holding the ceremony, and those of us ‘from away’ are welcomed warmly by friends. At one point there’s a pause in the proceedings while people are invited to have their faces painted, which is a way of blessing people, asking for protection and assistance. We all line up and as I am waiting my turn, I notice two little girls in front of me who look like they are about 4 and 7 years old. They go up to the ceremonial people who are painting us, completely confident. They tell their Blackfoot names to the woman who is praying for them, they know the prayer, they turn around at the right time, give the blessings back to the woman who is praying for them, and go skipping off together after it’s done, braids bouncing behind them.

These beautiful, confident girls have no idea of the weight of history and politics behind this. It’s normal to them. Where we are, what we are doing, what they have just done, is precisely what missionaries and government tried to destroy. I am humbled and very moved: what incredibly strong people, to have survived everything they have been through and to raise such children. It’s a reminder about why we are learning to work together across cultures. Every time I wonder why I am doing this work, I will remember those little girls.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Dancing in (and outside) the Museum

Haida dancers on lawn outside Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University
Museum of Natural History, September 2009. Photograph by Drew Davey.

In September 2009, the Pitt Rivers Museum was delighted to host a visit by nearly two dozen members of the Haida Nation, whose homeland is Haida Gwaii, a group of islands between Vancouver Island and Alaska. The Museum’s collections include a magnificent totem pole and some 300 other objects from Haida Gwaii. We wanted to learn more about these objects and to provide access to them for Haida people, and we hoped to create a permanent relationship with the Haida Nation around the collections to address these needs.
The visit was overwhelming. Few research visits of that scale have ever occurred, and retrieving, photographing, conserving, and updating records for 300 objects was a huge task. It was a great success, despite its challenges, and one of my abiding memories of the visit is of Haida song and dance, and of Haida drums echoing through the museum and across the front lawn. Music and dance have been an important focus for reclaiming cultural practices on Haida Gwaii after the decades of assimilation policies. Haida delegates wanted very much to share their culture through dance performances, and we created several opportunities: a potluck supper for the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, and public events held on the lawn outside the Natural History Museum. Dance also occurred in the research rooms with some of the objects that we were all looking at: a salmon dance wand, with moveable jaws, was danced gently with its appropriate songs. I will remember the ‘clack, clack’ that the jaws of the salmon wand made for the rest of my life.
Museum staff usually see objects lying motionless. To see dance wands, button blankets, headdresses and masks in action adds a special dimension to our understanding of the objects we care for, and reminds us that they belong to living traditions. For members of the public in Oxford to whom the totem pole is a much-loved part of the Museum, seeing and listening to Haida people was the first opportunity that most had ever had to experience some of the cultural context for the pole. It was also a reminder that the pole belongs to the Museum in some ways, but continues to belong to Haida people in other ways.
Part of maintaining a permanent relationship involves simply keeping in touch, and several of us at the Museum are Facebook friends with Haida people whom we met during that visit in 2009. Over the past few months, there have been two major earthquakes on Haida Gwaii, of 7.7 and 7.2 magnitude, with numerous serious aftershocks. As I read the anxious postings of Haida friends, and then the reassurances they sent each other that all was well, I was reminded both of how fragile human societies are, and of how strong.
Haida friends, we are thinking of you, all the way over here in Oxford.

A video made about the Haida visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum, ‘Everything was Carved,’ is available on our website and is also available on Vimeo.
You can see photographs of the Haida collection at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
You can also search on the Museum’s database for ‘Haida’.