Art/Design relationship continued…




Just like this trip to D.C., the new camera has been amazing.  Being able to study these incredible cultural objects and archival materials, and knowing that I have ethnic ties to the communities that produced them, has been… well… transformative.  That isn’t a word I use lightly and the last time I applied it to myself in the same way was when I attended a course at Pilchuck Glass School in the summer of 2008.  All of my arguments about the public roles of art and design aside, if I look at the evidence, I personally feel a much stronger pull towards being an artist than pursuing a traditional design career.  What does this mean?  It’s too early to say.  But it does give me something to focus on after graduation besides looking at grad school immediately. 


Yesterday I was roaming around on the Mall with all of the tourists and found it amusing that while they were so focused on photographing the various monuments, I was more fascinated by the textures on the ground.  What I love so much about the many Karuk artifacts is how much they are products of their environment, even when the materials used aren’t as traditional (i.e. thimbles and buttons on a skirt instead of shells and acorns).  Having had to give these presentations that were more focused on my art, I’ve realized that the common thread passing through much of my design and artwork is related to landscapes and the natural world.  Because of the time and culture I’ve been raised in, I interpret things differently than the people who made the objects I’ve been working with.  But, I do feel a certain kinship in that I like paying attention to the details of my environment.  And even here, in the nation’s capitol, I’m able to find these amazing landscapes just by being willing to look down at the ground beneath my feet.


NMAI Visit – Day Four


CRC Rotunda 


Another day of research!  I could easily spend the rest of the year (or the rest of my life?) investigating the collections and archives here at the Cultural Resource Center (CRC) and Museum Support Center (MSC).  I’ve also been really fascinated by the architecture of the museum (NMAI), and also of the CRC.  Above is the main entry rotunda at the CRC which is centered around four different quarters.  The center has a skylight above and also a small glass block section in the floor below which allows light to filter down into the library below. 


CRC Rotunda-Library light


It was interesting that the CRC, which is an extension of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, had been built (in the 1990s) with such attention to detail in comparison with the adjacent MSC, which supports the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  Not that the MSC is poorly built, but it had a much more “storage-like” feeling to it.  Is it a sense of national guilt that allowed the CRC to have a more “sensitive” structure?  The whole building is pretty cool and the roof structure incorporates a spiral based upon the golden ratio.  Compare all of these with a view of the interior of the MSC below, and you’ll see what I mean.  Well-built, but in more of a no-nonsense 1980s style.



NMAI Visit – Day Three




Today Jim Yellowhawk (Lakota—pictured above), a participant in the Artist Leadership Program, and I had to give two presentations, one to NMAI staff and another that was open to the public.  Luckily, since I hate public speaking, the public session was sparsely attended and most of the attendees were museum staff who didn’t make it to the earlier one.  The first presentation was in a really cool board room (pictured below) up on the top floor with a view of the Capitol building.  Also, before that session I got to have a conference call training session with a professional practices instructor at Columbia University that was really great.  The whole experience here has been invaluable and I’ve also made a lot of great connections!  Tomorrow, I’m going to be doing research in the collections at the Museum Support Center for the National Museum of Natural History in the morning and then I’ll be in the National Anthropological Archives in the afternoon.  Oh, and we’ll have to give another staff presentation at lunch.   


NMAI Boardroom

NMAI Visit – Day Two


CRC view 1


This is an image of the collections room at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland.  I was working here all day yesterday and then again this morning.  (In the afternoon I got to work in the photo archives.)  There were tons of things to look at and I’ve got all sorts of photographs and notes so far.  Tomorrow I’ll be at the main museum building near the Capitol on the mall to do a training session in the morning and give a couple of presentations in the afternoon, one to museum staff and another that is open to the public. 


Some of my favorite Karuk objects I got to study were the strands of dentalium shells that were used as money.  When I first saw them I was really amazed because dentalium shells are usually white and these had all sorts of brilliant colors.  It turned out that some of them, especially the ones used as money, were adorned with snakeskin.  Some also have feathers and carving on them.  You can see in the image below what I’m talking about.  Also, they are about 2 inches long to give you a sense of scale.  For now, I’m off to bed to try and catch up on some sleep!


Dentalium strands closeup

How I can tell I’m on the right track…

Today, out of nowhere, I decided I needed to e-mail artist/architect Alex Schweder, who I had been told by the SAM Native Arts Curator worked as part of a team on the recent Coast Salish show.  I figured since that memories of that show had been really pivotal for me in finding a direction for my thesis proposal, I ought to at least try to talk to someone who had worked on it!  Well… I got a reply along with a link to their website and an offer to speak by phone sometime in the future.  That right there was more than I’d been expecting and made me really happy!


But what truly sent me over the top was the publications section on their website with PDF articles on exactly the topics I’m wanting to work with!  It made me feel like an absolute nerd that I was so completely excited to find these academic readings, but also made me really glad I’d finally zoomed in on a topic that I’m really passionate about.  This is also especially helpful because I’ll have a focus while I’m in D.C. next week!  Can’t wait!

“Bringing artifacts to life!”


Last year, I assumed I already would have had my proposal for this spring’s thesis project worked out by now.  Things never seem to go as planned!  I’ve known for over a year that I wanted to work with some sort of Native American topic, but I just haven’t been able to narrow it down much further than that.  Today though, I had a breakthrough thanks to a conversation with one of my fellow interior design students.  (Thanks Jasmine!)


I’d initially thought that I was interested in looking at ways that cultural content are infused into buildings, but for some reason that topic hasn’t captured my attentions as fully as I’d expected.  I kept circling around ideas of working with art and museums without being able to land on anything that felt right.  Talking to Jasmine I was struck by inspiration to focus less on museum buildings and more on exhibits.  Although I love museums, there is always a part of me that feels slightly disturbed by how mausoleum-like they can feel.  One of the things that I really loved about the recent Coast Salish show at Seattle Art Museum was two parts that combined projected videos/images with larger objects.  It really made the objects come alive and gave them more context. 


So that’s where I’m at.  I’ve got a mission now, and it is all starting with a note I scribbled to myself this afternoon saying, “Bringing artifacts to life!”  



One of my facebook contacts recently posted a link to a piece from RezNet about an article titled “Aboriginal Sin” by Jay Adler which appeared in the Jewish-based magazine, Tikkun.  I found myself pausing over the following sentence:

“Having grown up around African Americans in New York, he [Adler] had always appreciated their plight. But he also began to wonder why indigenous issues in America were never discussed on a national level the way black issues were.”

This came up again today when I was doing some reading for my online “Federal Indian Law & Policy” course.  This week we’re studying the time period from about 1945 (Termination) up to the present (Self-Determination).  I’m not sure how prevalent they were, but there was a brief period of time when the American Indian Movement caught the national spotlight, especially with the nineteen-month occupation of Alcaztraz Island from 1969-1971.  (As one of my readings stated: “The Alcatraz occupation drew wide public attention, and resulting support lasted several years.  Then in 1971, when federal officials found that public interest in Indian causes had waned, they quietly removed the demonstrators from the island.”)

Why is it that indigenous issues have been ignored on a national level for so long?  Was it due to a general fatigue about civil-rights issues in general?  Not that there isn’t the occasional bit of native news, however, many of (the few) native-related articles from the national media that I can recall have had negative connotations.  There have been articles about Indian casinos, an illegal Makah whale hunt, and a six-month old baby being taken from his adoptive parents and returned to the Ojibwe Tribe.  From the Alcatraz example, it seems apparent that public interest is closely tied to federal policy and actions, so I can’t see that the lack of national awareness about American Indians is a good thing.  As a potential solution, I’ll offer up another quote from one of my class readings called “Destination: Determination”

“For the last 100 years of Indian policy in the United States, assimilation has crept into the actions of legislators.  It has become apparent that to achieve the type of society required for self-determination, the Indians of the United States will have to unite within tribal affiliations for a sense of identity to continue the society.  Along with the civil rights reform and education acts of the 1960’s and 1970’s, questions of economics and land holdings add to the list of concerns for American Indians in their quest for an identity as a nation.”