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Feature

Changing with the Times

A New Exhibition Shows How the Plateau Indians Incorporate Culture

By Sara E. Wilson | HUMANITIES, September/October 1999 | Volume 20, Number 5

Thousands of years before the arrival of American settlers in the early nineteenth century, the Plateau Indians of the American West had experience with introducing change into their lives. How their lives were altered, from the arrival of horses to the motor car, is part of a new exhibition at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.

Consisting of several tribes that include the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama, Spokane, and others, the Plateau Indians first lived along the Columbia River and its tributaries in what are now Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Although each tribe has its own identity, the group as a whole shares cultural traditions developed through centuries of shared experiences along the Columbia River. They interacted with the Northwest Coast Indians to their west, as well as the Plains Indians to their east and exchanged ideas and consumer items with both groups. Guns and horses were brought to this continent by European explorers in the three centuries before American settlement and the tribes of the Plateau Indians, like many other tribes across North America, quickly incorporated them into their culture.

Phil Deloria, one of the historical consultants on the exhibition, summarizes this cultural fluidity this way: “Look, culture is not any one thing and it’s not bound in time or space; it changes constantly. There’s a great Lakota saying, ‘Our tradition is a tradition of change,’ and that’s exactly what the whole thing is about: horses come along, we like them, so we take horses. We create our own forms out of them, we adapt older forms, and then those things we have now newly created become tradition.”

“By Hand Through Memory,” opening September 11, traces the adaptation of Plateau Indian traditional lifestyles to the realities of twentieth-century America. Focusing on economics, family life, arts, religion, and politics, the exhibition emphasizes the different strategies used by the tribal members to retain a sense of cultural continuity amidst the wider American culture in which they live. Rather than portraying Plateau Indians primarily as victims of white America, the museum has chosen to stress the active way the people have responded to the threats against the survival of their way of life. Kevin Britz, the museum’s director of exhibitions, says, “Most museums portray Indian cultures as static, frozen in time, and we’re saying that their culture modernized like everybody else’s. Museums often, because of the nature of their collections, don’t treat it that way. We want to get away from that and show that cultures change constantly and they take in new things. People always look out for their best interests and they make conscious decisions.”

The exhibition will be a permanent fixture at the High Desert Museum. Public lectures on different aspects of Plateau culture are planned to coincide with the exhibition’s first year. Consultants from both academia and the Plateau Indian community advised and worked with the museum’s staff. Vivian Adams, curator of native heritage at the museum and herself a member of the Yakama tribe, was responsible for interviewing members of the Plateau tribes to gather information for the exhibition. She says that the tribes responded enthusiastically. “A lot of native people believe that we need to begin introducing ourselves and defining ourselves to the general public at large so that they will understand who were are, why we think the way we do, and why we live the way we do,” Adams says.

In development for several years, “By Hand Through Memory” takes its unusual title from a short poem by Elizabeth Woody, a member of the Warm Springs tribe:

By our hand, through memory
This house is more than form.

“The idea that goes all the way through the exhibition is the power of memory, choosing what to remember and the stories and rituals and the objects themselves that continue to evoke memory,” Britz says.

Despite its emphasis on the active role of American Indians in preserving their culture, the exhibition also owes a great deal to a non-native woman whose love of Indian culture ensured the preservation of thousands of objects that might otherwise have been lost. Doris Swayze Bounds, an Oregonian banker and avid collector of Indian artifacts, donated her collection to the High Desert Museum in 1990. Adopted by the Blackfeet tribe in a 1965 ceremony and given the name Na-Do-E-Kaw-Kaw-Do-Saki, Sacred Star Woman, Bounds spent most of her life helping to preserve the culture of different tribes of the Intermountain West. Recognizing its debt to her, the museum devotes one section of the exhibition to Bounds, not only noting her specific contribution as a preservationist, but also making the larger point that many interactions between white and American Indians have been positive ones that led to mutual benefit.

“You have to look at the whole context of American history,” Britz points out, noting that it is in general the story of different cultural groups blending their traditions with those of the dominant American culture. The general strategy of the Plateau Indians to adopt certain American consumer items, values, and beliefs while rejecting others was a common one, practiced not only by other native peoples, but also by the different immigrant groups coming to this country from colonial times through the present day. But the specific ways the Plateau Indians went about it is what is of interest to the High Desert Museum. The description of their specific choices in all realms of life—from family to religion to careers—is the contribution of the exhibition.

Items adopted from Europeans and from other Indian tribes became a central part of Plateau Indian culture along the Columbia River and helped its tribes adapt to the changes made necessary by white settlement in the nineteenth century. For example, after their nomadic lifestyle was curtailed, many Plateau Indians used their expertise in horse culture and turned to cattle-ranching in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Preservation of this buckaroo aspect of their culture in the present day is displayed by items such as cattle brands in the shape of tipis, beaded clothing worn by the buckaroos, and photographs of Indians participating in modern-day festivals featuring horse parades and roundups.

Beadwork is yet another example of a cultural adaptation since American settlement. Over the years, a distinctive style of beadwork came to adorn not only the clothing of Plateau cowboys, but many other kinds of clothing and other utilitarian items such as cradleboards, purses, and “sally bags,” woven bags worn around the waist which were used to carry and transport roots gathered by women of the Plateau tribes. These traditional items are on display, but are still used in everyday Plateau life. “New ones are always being made,” Adams says, “Old ones are cherished and of course they try to keep them in pristine condition and they have newer ones to replace them.” Beaded sally bags, for example, are used in modern root festivals, ceremonies that replicate those held annually for thousands of years. “The only thing that has changed is the adoption of modern materials,” Adams says. “You might now jump in a pickup and drive up to a root gathering area rather than loading up your horse. Technology is what has changed, but the ceremony and the thanking of the food, the gathering of it, pretty much stays the same.”

One example of bead craftsmanship on display in the exhibition is a beaded bag depicting Uncle Sam. The inclusion of this item reiterates the point that the exhibition is about the blending of cultures. Created in the early twentieth century, the bag jolts the viewer because of its unexpected subject. It is, at first, surprising to think of Indian artwork using motifs symbolizing American patriotism. But, as the exhibition points out, the Plateau Indians, like most American Indians, are a highly patriotic group who frequently use symbols such as the bald eagle, Uncle Sam, and the Stars and Stripes. Kevin Britz explains: “Remember that Indians are a people of symbols. The flag symbol represents the concept of freedom. When men went off to fight and women went to work in factories, they were not defending necessarily the United States government, but the land. The definition of the land was the reservation, the homeland, and they just broadened that definition to the United States. And that remains to this day; they are inordinately patriotic.” Adams adds, “It’s still our country, it’s still the land where our ancestors are buried, and that’s why it’s so important to help decorate warriors, or a proud mother, wife or sister of a warrior with those kinds of motifs—to show that we still have that connection but it now comes through what’s called the United States of America.”

Just as Indians used symbols taken from the dominant American culture to convey their own ideas about concepts like freedom and defense of one’s homeland, so too, did white Americans use Indian imagery to express ideas about changing American culture. A photograph in the exhibition of a Nez Perce family sitting in a 1910 Chalmers Convertible demonstrates this point. The text accompanying this picture argues that the photographer’s intent was to accentuate the disjunction between modern technology and the traditions that were being replaced by it, symbolized by the Indians. Whatever the photographer’s message, the photograph also can be seen as a simple representation of an Indian family’s successful adaptation; the family was well-off enough to afford a car in 1910, something that was quite uncommon for the average American at that time. Plateau Indians bought cars for the same practical reasons other Americans bought them, but also acquired them for reasons unique to Indian needs and experiences. “A car allows you to live a certain kind of mobile life, like you would live with a horse and a tipi,” Deloria says. “They use them to preserve older ways of doing things.”

Preserving the traditional ways while learning to live within the mainstream American culture was sometimes a gradual and peaceful process, but could also cause conflict. “By Hand Through Memory” does not shy away from depicting the more unpleasant aspects of Indian/American interaction. In many cases, the conflict resulted in the Plateau Indians losing something of value to them. For example, the damming of Celilo Falls in 1956 proceeded despite the resistance of the Plateau peoples. The Falls were an ancient and extremely valuable part of the Plateau salmon fishing culture. The exhibition poignantly quotes Chief Tommy Thompson of the Wyams at the dedication of the Dalles Dam, “There goes my life. My people will never be the same.”

But conflict did not always result in loss. The fishing culture of the Plateau Indians has been defended with non-violent protest for decades by Indians asserting the rights preserved by treaties signed with the U.S. government in the nineteenth century. Indian fishermen have defied state laws requiring a fishing license and banning traditional fishing techniques. When arrested for this defiance, they have used the court system to their advantage, taking some fishing rights cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although this issue continues to be a contentious one, the Plateau Indians have won several legal battles relating to their rights to fish. Emphasizing the connection between political activism and the fishing culture, the display of a traditional fishing platform is contained in the section of the exhibition titled, “Politics and Empowerment.”

The efforts to preserve Plateau culture continue. The exhibition concludes with examples of new and ongoing efforts, including an interactive section where visitors can view some of the computer websites created by Plateau tribes. Like people all over the world, the Plateau Indians are joining the information revolution brought about by the Internet in the hopes of bringing information about their customs to the world at large. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, for example, use the latest technology on their website to raise community awareness of traditional issues such as gaming profits, reburial of Indian remains, and salmon fishing. Adams says, “You know how things change, don’t you? And how you as an individual can make change? You make it through your own physical use of your body and all your senses. You can make those changes by hand, but also using memory. It’s just a matter of evolution but still maintaining, remembering what’s most important to us.”

About the Author

Sara Wilson is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.

Funding Information

The High Desert Museum received $288,971 from NEH to plan and produce this permanent exhibition.