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Smoke from burning buffalo sage and red cedar circles over a recently carved totem pole. Indigenous tradition says wherever there is sage, evil spirits cannot enter. An elder from the Lummi Nation — a coastal Salish fishing people who’ve lived for millennia on Washington State’s Northwest coast — drums and chants. He urges the crowd gathered at a Seattle church to touch the totem pole and offer blessings for its cross-country journey. Hands reach out to touch an image of a nine-foot bear. At its side are images of salmon and salmon eggs, painted in blue and red ocher. Bears are a part of Lummi mythology, says master carver Jewell James. If rivers and lands are polluted, salmon won’t spawn. Bears won’t eat. At the top of the totem pole is a bowl representing the full moon. Seated next to it is a tribal member performing a fire ceremony, which in Native tradition offers an opportunity to release energy or emotions from the past.
Since 2013, the Lummi Nation has taken totem poles on yearly journeys. Each year, the totem pole has been delivered to a different tribal community confronting fossil fuel projects which threaten sacred lands and waters: the Northern Cheyenne and Crow fighting coal mining in Wyoming and Montana; the Sioux fighting the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. The totem pole journeys are meant to unite and strengthen cooperation between tribes and faith-based, environmental and community allies.
This year, the totem pole journey is doing something different. It’s collaborating with a museum to draw attention to fossil fuel development and climate change. The exhibit, “Kwel Hoy’: We Draw the Line,” is a collaboration between the Lummi Nation and The Natural History Museum. Created by a New York-based collection of artists, scientists and activists three years ago to bring attention to current natural world challenges like climate change into the museum environment, The Natural History Museum is a mobile/pop-up museum. Named in the New York Times and Artnet’s “Best of Art in 2015,” the group’s work has been widely exhibited in museums nationally and internationally. “Kwel Hoy'” opened at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 25 for a six-month stay. In the spring of 2018, the exhibit is slated to move to other museums.
Museums as Education HubsSurveys show the US public considers museums, especially science and natural history museums, to be among their most trusted sources of information. They see more visitors than theme parks and sporting events combined. “When we learned about the Lummi totem pole journey,” says Beka Economopoulos, co-curator of The Natural History Museum, “we thought it presented an incredibly powerful way to build alliances and help the public understand why Indigenous and allied communities are drawing a line in the sand to block fossil fuel projects.” The exhibit includes the totem pole, a documentation of its journey from Washington State to Pennsylvania, and objects collected on the journey: a jar of water from the Columbia River contaminated with coal; a mural collectively painted by dozens of people — Indigenous and non-Indigenous — along the totem pole journey, and a 150-year-old sacred pipe. These “aren’t just static objects to be isolated and preserved by an institution,” said Economopoulos. Instead, they’re charged with the stories of resilience they’ve picked up on their cross-country journey.
Totem poles are powerful symbols, says Jewell James, the Lummi master carver. And symbols are based on experience “that allow people to interpret what they see based on how they feel inside.” Carl Jung says we dream in symbols, James adds, which connect us to the collective unconscious. “We hope the totem touches into a deeper chord and moves people to action. We always say it’s your constitutional right to assemble and speak out, but you need to make those rights so important to yourself that you’ll stand up and use them. Without you … how are we going to make the change from a fossil fuel economy to a clean energy one?”
READ THE ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: “We Draw the Line”: Lummi Nation Connects With Museum to Grow the Climate Justice Movement
Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” available on Amazon.com. In it, I discuss basic themes of Nawa philosophy, and how these themes can be practiced in the modern age.
Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name.
Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa
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