Walking in two worlds
Have you ever seen a real Indian?”
Until a few years ago, this provocative question regularly appeared in print ads around the country, as the tagline of the American Indian College Fund. Ad portraits of “real Indians” included a dancer, a film director, a judge, a surgeon, and an aspiring veterinarian, among others. Nobody wore feather headdresses or wielded tomahawks.
But that doesn’t mean the people in the campaign (created, in part, by Portland advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy) weren’t proud to be Native American. They were powwow dancers, beadwork artists, and activists. They were, in other words, people who refused to be stereotyped.
Around Oregon, the state’s many Native American museums and exhibits emphasize a similar awareness of a modern people with a strong sense of history.
“These are dynamic cultures that we’re demonstrating and living,” says Bobbie Conner, director of the museum at the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute just outside Pendleton. “When we were designing the museum, one of our elders said something rather eloquent and simple: We should talk about the way we were, the way we are today, and who we will be in the future.”
Bob Boyd, the Western-history curator at the High Desert Museum south of Bend, agrees.
Tepees near Pendleton, Oregon.
“Often people have this stereotypical idea that once Chief Joseph makes his ‘I will fight no more forever’ surrender speech, these people fade from the landscape and sort of disappear,” he says.
Instead, he says, Native Americans became skilled at “walking in two worlds.”
Like the people profiled in the college fund’s ad campaign, Native Americans in Oregon are still here, but not quite in the ways some might expect. Oregon’s museums are a good place to start exploring who they were, are, and might be.
Oregon has two tribal-owned museums, Tamástslikt (opened in 1998; the name means “turn/translate”) and the Museum at Warm Springs (opened in 1993).
Both follow Conner’s outline: past, present and future. Both are repositories of tribal artifacts — beaded bags, woven baskets, ceremonial clothing, and the like. But both are meant to be experiences, not just collections of items under glass.
Dioramas about traditional tribal culture at the Warm Springs museum, for example, show women picking huckleberries and filling those gorgeous woven baskets with dark purple berries, or a marriage ceremony in which the bride and groom are presented to each other, complete with beaded regalia and elaborate gifts. The dioramas aren’t static; spotlights synchronized with recorded voiceovers describe the significance of each item and its use.
At Tamástslikt, dioramas about tribal culture in transition include a replica of a trading post, showing not only goods for sale (blankets, thimbles, coins) but also the process of “Indianizing,” or the creative uses Native Americans invented for their purchases (turning those blankets into clothing, or using thimbles and coins as jewelry and decor).
Historical photographs at both museums show tribal ancestors as they were in the 1800s, while videos show contemporary tribal members talking, dancing, singing, and simply living their lives. Maps show just how much the tribes lost when their traditional lands were shrunk by treaty down to reservations. And back outdoors, visitors can wander through replicas of traditional housing (Tamástslikt) and along a nature trail (Warm Springs).
The Museum at Warm Springs, says executive director Carol Leone, originated in the 1960s, when tribal members realized that their artistic heritage was being sold off to collectors.
“Families would sometimes have a financial difficulty and would sell heirlooms to tide them over,” Leone says. “So the tribes began allocating funds to buy the items and keep them in the community.”
In the late 1980s, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs began raising money to build a museum to house all those heirlooms; the result cost more than $7 million. Over the main entrance today is the word “Twanat” in huge letters. Pronounced TWAH-nat, the word, Leone says, means “to follow” in the Warm Springs language, in the sense of following tradition.
Last year’s major exhibit, Leone says, was about Celilo Falls, the enormous falls on the Columbia River that was drowned in 1957 by dam construction at The Dalles. The exhibit went beyond displays: “We had an open mike to have people, tribal and non-native alike, get up and talk about what they saw, what they experienced.”
The falls weren’t just a natural wonder; they were also a hugely important fishing ground and meeting place for Native Americans. Dams, wars, land destruction, disease, schools that refused to let students speak Native American languages — the sense of catastrophic loss, in both museums, can be overwhelming.
Unlike the Warm Springs museum, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation had no official collection that needed housing. As they developed Tamástslikt — the institute eventually cost $18.5 million — they solicited donations of family heirlooms.
“We’ve had thousands of donations since we opened,” Conner says. “These are not monuments to a culture that is gone; these are monuments to our survival.”
Part of that story, most evident in the latter sections of the museums, is how the contemporary tribes have adapted to the modern need to make money.
Celilo Falls may be long gone, but the Pelton/Round Butte Hydroelectric Project on the Deschutes River is one of the Warm Springs tribes’ many business endeavors today, including forest products and the Kah-Nee-Ta resort and casino. The Umatilla Indian Reservation tribes have a resort and casino of their own, the Wildhorse, and are busy with salmon-restoration projects.
“When I was a child, most people (in the tribes) worked seasonal jobs in the wheat harvest and other resource industries,” Conner says. “For me to grow up and be the director of a tribal museum — it never even occurred to me. I’m grateful that the tribes are doing what they’re doing to diversify the tribal economy.”
Boyd’s work at the High Desert Museum, meanwhile, pushes visitors toward a different type of diversification. The museum’s main permanent exhibit about the Native American experience, “By Hand Through Memory,” follows the same timeline as that of Warm Springs and Tamástslikt — the transition from traditional culture to contemporary culture — but includes an unusual look at the mundane.
“The museum’s collection had marvelous treasures of beadwork and basketry and cultural objects, but not much in the everyday, 20th-century-life type of objects,” Boyd says. “And naturally so. Who collects faded canvas tipis put up at berry picking or elk hunting or Pendleton Round-Up or for the kids to sleep in out back when they’re home from school?”
So Boyd hit the road, traveling around the region looking for artifacts of the everyday.
The results of Boyd’s efforts are visible in the exhibit’s replica of a typical reservation home of the 1950s and 1960s. Before the replica was built, tribal focus groups were asked questions like “What would be at your grandma’s house in 1960?”
The replica, Boyd says, looks like an average midcentury home, but it’s dotted with distinctively Native American touches: an open tin trunk with traditional clothing inside, a laundry basket draped with a uniform shirt from the Bureau of Indian Affairs forestry department.
Whether they’re displaying intricate handmade heirlooms or scenes of everyday life, what these museums all demonstrate is a tribal sense of ownership.
At September’s tribal art show at Tamástslikt, the last exhibit was, at first glance, a copy of the Mona Lisa: a slim, dark-haired woman in dark clothing, seated quietly for her portrait. But this woman was wearing Native American beads around her neck, and her cryptic half-smile was all her own.
Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, Pendleton; 541-966-9748; tamastslikt.org. Owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla). Permanent and rotating exhibits, including regular tribal art shows. Temporary exhibits include “Oregon Is Indian Country” (through Feb. 16).
The Museum at Warm Springs, Warm Springs; 541-553-3331; warmsprings.com. Owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Warm Springs, Wasco and northern Paiute). Permanent and rotating exhibits, including regular tribal art shows.
High Desert Museum, Bend; highdesertmuseum.org; 541-382-4754. Permanent exhibit titled “By Hand Through Memory” explores the journeys of regional Native American tribes from the 19th century to the present; temporary exhibits include “Rock Art Perspectives: Pictographs and Petroglyphs” (opening Feb. 13).
Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem; 503-370-6855; willamette.edu/museum_of_art. With anthropology professor Rebecca Dobkins as its Native American art curator, Willamette University’s art museum regularly hosts groundbreaking Native American exhibits. Current exhibits include “The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon” (ends today).
Portland Art Museum, Portland; 503-226-2811; pam.org. Permanent exhibit of artifacts from Native American cultures across North America, with emphasis on Pacific Northwest Coast and Plateau cultures; temporary exhibits include “Gifts of Honor: Beaded Bags From the Columbia River Plateau” (through June 30).
Oregon Historical Society, Portland; 503-222-1741; ohs.org. Temporary exhibits include “So Prized, So Rare: Western Native Basketry from the Oregon Historical Society Collections” (through March 29).
Other Oregon museums with permanent exhibits about the Native American experience include the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, the University of Oregon Natural History Museum in Eugene, the Lincoln County Historical Society museum in Newport and the Klamath County Museums in Klamath Falls. The Confederated Tribes of Siletz and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are also developing tribal museums.