Salish Spotlight

People of the sea and cedar

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

If the title of the exhibit “People of the Sea and Cedar: A Journey through the Tribal Cultures and History of the Northwest Coast” sounds familiar, it might be because Whatcom Museum has been offering a similarly named program to Bellingham and Whatcom County students for more than 20 years.

Since mid-July, however, the exhibit that opened on the second floor of the museum’s Lightcatcher Building has made it evident that educating people both young and old about the region’s oldest inhabitants is of tantamount importance.

“The Whatcom Museum hasn’t had a permanent presence of Coast Salish culture and history, past and present,” museum director Patricia Leach says. “Now that our state legislature has mandated the teaching of Native cultures in our schools, the timing on the creation of this new gallery space couldn’t be better. The museum is excited to be enhancing the education of our local schoolchildren with the ‘People of the Sea and Cedar’ school program, which will actually take place in the new gallery.”

A recent walk-through of the new exhibit made it clear that the museum’s commitment to telling the stories of the Lummi and Nooksack tribes of Whatcom County goes beyond images, artifacts and text. While an array of objects such as woven blankets, handmade tools, cedar hats and traditional crafts add to black-and-white photographs that tell the tale of how tribal life has both changed and stayed the same over the years, there are also parts of the exhibit that allow attendees to get up-close-and-personal with what’s on display.

For example, in a section on weaving techniques, swaths of cherry and various cedar barks, roots and grasses are there to be touched. A facsimile of a traditional fire pit can also explored, samples of both tribe’s languages can be heard, and videos from contemporary Lummi Nation carvers explain why it’s so important to keep their crafts alive.

“Artistry suffered greatly beginning in the mid-1800s when laws were enacted that made it illegal to practice religious and spiritual ceremonies,” a missive under “Reviving the Arts” further explains. “Youth sent to boarding schools—which were more like forced labor camps—were no longer able to apprentice as carvers and weavers. Symbols had to be hidden from view. Songs were silenced and legends were whispered. But elders held fast to their beliefs.

“Fighting for their rights, these brave people were slowly able to bring their culture back into the open, free to practice as they did for thousands of years. A resurgence in art, from basket weaving to canoe carving to story poles, brought together master artisans with youth eager to learn—a resurgence that continues today.”

It should also be noted that input by tribal reps, researchers and educators contributed to the final product, and that retaining the culture of those who first made their homes and their livelihoods on the shores of the Pacific Northwest was a primary goal—one that has been met.

Although “People of the Sea and Cedar” will be added to and changed over the years as curators switch out pieces from the museum’s collection and from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the exhibit is, thankfully, here to stay.

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