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.

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