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'We Are Part of A Living Culture': Learning Not To Discuss Native People in the Past Tense

Gerald Clarke Jr. (Cahuilla) partly based his design for  Continuum Basket: Flora on designs like those in this early-20th-century basket by a Luiseno, Cupeno, or Mountain Cahuilla weaver. | Photo: The Autry Museum
Gerald Clarke Jr. (Cahuilla) partly based his design for Continuum Basket: Flora on designs like those in this early-20th-century basket by a Luiseno, Cupeno, or Mountain Cahuilla weaver. | Photo: The Autry Museum

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

In several places in the “California Continued” galleries at the Autry Museum of the American West, the exhibition that accompanies this web series on KCET, mundane present-day artifacts sit next to historic objects from the museum’s Native California collections. A hundred-year-old iris-twine fishing net pairs with a monofilament drift net weighted by a garden hose. A willow seed beater made by an Owens Valley Paiute weaver in the early twentieth century with a fly swatter. A pre-17th-century Chumash mortar and pestle with a Magic Bullet blender.

Our exhibition team, in conversation with various Native advisors, decided on this method as a way of reinforcing the exhibition’s main message: that the traditional ecological knowledge of California Indian people remains as vital and relevant as ever, if not more than ever. Hopefully it also conveys the way the types of objects in the historic Southwest Museum collections were, and still are, fully embedded in everyday life for Native people.

As Terria Smith (Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla), editor of News from Native California, said recently: “We, as indigenous peoples of California, are part of a living culture and are far more than historical figures of the past. Many of us live in modern houses, drive cars, and use an array of contemporary tools while carrying on the ways of our ancestors.” She added, “Showing our lifestyles in this way is something many museums still have not yet completely tackled.”

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Smith raises a few related issues worth discussing: popular expectations about Native people and the modern world; expectations about Indians and technology; and the ways museums have collected and displayed Indigenous materials over the past century (and longer). Of particular concern in “California Continued” and “Tending the Wild” are the ways those expectations and histories may affect Indigenous influence on environmental policy.

American Progress (1872), a painting by John Gast, depicts American Indians repelled magically westward by the technology of the telegraph. | Photo: The Autry Museum
American Progress (1872), a painting by John Gast, depicts American Indians repelled magically westward by the technology of the telegraph. | Photo: The Autry Museum

Portraying American Indians solely as “historical figures of the past” is an old trick. In other galleries, the Autry Museum displays numerous artworks and artifacts that reinforced the myth that Indians “vanished,” one of the most iconic being a cast of James Earle Frazier’s sculpture The End of the Trail, from 1896. There would be no real Indians left in the twentieth century, this bronze declared. (Today, when they see this juxtaposed with works by contemporary Native artists, visitors can view it differently.) Another of the Autry’s most iconic paintings is John Gast’s American Progress, from 1872. This image spread the more specific fiction that technology would bring the end of the trail: a goddess strings telegraph wires across the continent, repelling Indians as she flies west.

Versions of this trope—“representations of untutored primitives looking on in astonishment at the wonders of the West,” as historian Philip J. Deloria describes them in his book Indians in Unexpected Places—appear with trains, guns, cameras, cars, phonographs, and other technologies. Deloria combats these images by presenting the stories of “unexpected” Native people in the early twentieth century: professional baseball players, opera singers, silent film directors, and automobile enthusiasts, from the era of The End of the Trail. The new exhibitions at the Autry aim for a similar kind of unexpectedness through objects.

Watch Tending the Wild: Weaving Community

As Terria Smith suggests, museums have contributed substantially to the invisibility of contemporary Native people. (To be fair, generations of non-Native politicians, scholars, movie-makers, and artists like Frazier and Gast are equally culpable.) Until recently, many museums with Native holdings collected those artifacts that non-Indian curators deemed to represent pure, pre-modern forms of Indigenous cultures. Exhibit labels referred to Native people and practices exclusively in the past tense. Nowhere visible was the notion that a tribal person might, say, eat acorn mush at a family gathering one day and a hamburger at a drive-in movie the next. When we are not careful we can still slip, more subtly, into these patterns.

But, like many of our peer institutions, our museum now looks for ways to display stellar historical collections so that they speak to Indigenous resilience. One technique was to use the fly swatter, the blender, the fishing net, and so on.

a Gabrielino/Tongva cooking basket and a Paiute cooking stick (just visible at the lower right), both from the early 20th century, and a Gabrielino/Tongva cooking bowl, sit beside a stainless steel cooking pot. Photo: The Autry Museum
A Gabrielino/Tongva cooking basket and a Paiute cooking stick (just visible at the lower right), both from the early 20th century, and a Gabrielino/Tongva cooking bowl, sit beside a stainless steel cooking pot. Photo: The Autry Museum

It turns out that a fly swatter is a useful tool for harvesting small seeds such as chia. Some Native people beat the seeds into a bucket, others into a woven basket. As shown in the “Tending the Wild” video on the Chia Cafe Collective, these seeds can be deliciously toasted on the stovetop. A blender works well for grinding acorn flour, which can then be leached of its bitter tannins in a kitchen sink. Yurok, Hupa, and Karuk fishermen continue to steward the Klamath River and feed themselves using a monofilament net and a motorboat. Native land managers continue to conduct cultural burns, sometimes using steel drip torches to ignite them.

Parallel examples appear in expressive culture, where Native artists carry on the ways of their ancestors with new media. Contemporary artist Gerald Clarke Jr. (Cahuilla) “wove” a five-foot basket made of crushed aluminum cans for “California Continued.” “We come from a long line of basket makers,” Clarke explains. “I wanted to recognize that tradition, the beauty, the complexity of the tradition, but I’m an artist, I’m a sculptor, and I wanted to do it my own way.” The piece, Continuum Basket: Flora honors his ancestors, those historical figures of the past, and at the same time situates Cahuilla people in the here and now, with a dose of old-fashioned Indian humor. Juxtaposing Clarke’s piece with some of the stellar historic baskets that inspired it emphasizes the “continuum,” to borrow his title, that joins what we too often discuss as opposites: natural-unnatural, tradition-innovation, or historic-modern.

Accurate representations of Native people past and present can help form the basis for a society that consults its Indigenous peoples on land use, landscape histories, sacred sites, and best practices. If we see Native people as experts, colleagues, and neighbors, we all stand a greater chance of working together for environmental justice and survival.

Banner: An Owens Valley Paiute seed beater and a Pomo burden basket, both from the early 20th century, share a case with a fly swatter, which can be used as a seed beater as well. Image: The Autry Museum

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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