Sunday, May 19, 2024

Another Culture II

This current Missive is a follow-up on one I wrote 3 months ago ...

On the same theme. As you may realize I am trying to to work out my thoughts on the subject by writing them down.

This latest is my response to our visit to the Field Museum in Chicago, also known as the Field Museum of Natural History. It is a massive building with a continuous cacophony of cavernous spaces with no sound-absorbing materials and hoards of school kids running free and shouting to each other with teachers or chaperones who do not seem to care to teach their students respect for other visitors … sorry, I am showing my age.

The museum is best known for its dinosaur exhibits and SUE, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus-Rex ever discovered, but it has also been known for its Native American Collection. Even though I knew that exhibits deemed sensitive had been covered to conform to the new NAGPRA rulings, I was not prepared to be confronted by hallway after hallway of cases taped over with brown paper with occasional apologetic labels. (3 images in this order Covered Wall, Mystery Box, and label )

I must admit to being upset since I was taught and grew up understanding that museums were where we learned about other cultures through art and artifacts. To my relief, there were a couple of galleries of Northwest Coast art with amazing masks and monumental carved log poles still on view to be awed and inspired by.

I have now had a couple of weeks to mull this over in the light of a book that I can highly recommend if you are interested in the vibrant Native America of the Southwest. It is “Talking to the Ground”, a non-fiction work by Douglas Preston who is known for his novels and thrillers. Preston lives in Santa Fe and this book documents his 1992 journey on horseback with the woman he would marry and her 9-year-old daughter across some of the lands of the Navajo (DinĂ©) Reservation. They covered only a fraction of the total 25,000 square miles of the reservation which is the largest territory belonging to one of the Indian Nations.

Monument Valley

They had Native guides and interacted with many Navajo along the way who told them the stories of their land and conveyed their way of understanding the creation story which relates to it. One of the Indians tells Preston that he cannot just come out for a month and ask some questions and then think he understands the Indian culture. He learns that he has to keep coming back, not asking questions but absorbing the culture by listening. My wife reminded me that we were taught this on our trips to the Hopi Reservation years ago: don’t ask questions just listen. Very wise advice if you think about it.

Utah Strip of the Navajo Nation

Preston and his family felt small and overwhelmed by the land, buttes, and valleys. The Navajo did not have this problem. A Medicine Man, John Begay, explained it this way. “You have your bible we have the land. The land is our book.” The stories of the creation are explained by the specific mountains and valleys. In sum, Preston’s journey with his family took him to a greater depth of understanding of a different culture.


Although my wife and I have never undertaken so ambitious a journey we have traveled in the Southwest for over 25 years and for 15 it has been our home. The art and artifacts of Native peoples are what first drew us in. There is much we still do not understand about this part of the world but we have slowly come to an increased appreciation and understanding of Native cultures not only by travel but by collecting and living with Native works.

The issue of closing exhibits while consulting with the 574 Federally recognized tribes when there is no one recognized representative for most of them, from my Anglo point of view, seems an exercise in frustration on all sides. But life is just made up of continuous compromises and I am sure that somewhere in the middle both sides shall meet and we Anglos will learn more along the way.

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