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People of the Rivers

Old Voices Resonate in a New Museum

By Joanna Rudnick | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

As one legend tells it, Spokane sat on a late that was one day sucked into the “Below World” until the merciful mountains looked down and melted the winter snows into a river, making the area habitable.

The creation story is one of a dozen featured in a coming exhibition at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane, Washington. “People of the Rivers: Lifeways of the Northern Plateau” tells the story of the region’s first inhabitants -- the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, and Colville nations -- and draws from twenty-six-thousand objects that that had been part of the Museum of Native American Cultures (MONAC).

In the exhibition, the four Plateau nations tell their stories in their own words and at times, in their own language, Salish. In wall panels and recordings, tribal members relay the stories passed on to them by their ancestors.

Visitors will encounter a range of hands-on exhibits. They can squeeze a bottle to release the smell of salmon; pick up a telephone to hear the sound of the Salish language; enter the darkness of a hut covered with mats of tule; and listen to the melodies of native music and the sound of the roaring river. The exhibition also showcases Northern Plateau “keepsakes.” There is no word in the Salish language for art; the Plateau Indians consider cornhusk bags, gathering baskets, and clothing functional items rather than decoration.

Visitors will also have the opportunity to go on a simulated root dig. Each year, Northern Plateau natives gather bitterroots and camas, the main staples of their diet. An actual root dig, curator Lynn Pankonin says, is much more difficult -- especially when the semi-frozen scabland ground can feel like concrete against a digging stick.

“People of the Rivers” openly addresses the history of relations with the white world. Tribal members’ personal accounts and stories speak of the small-pox epidemic, relocation, extermination, boarding schools, the influence of missionaries, and the effects of land reclamation and environmental destruction.

The process of bringing the two communities closer began in 1992 with the acquisition of the MONAC collection. That year, Pankonin and Glenn Mason, then director of the muse-um, set out to improve the relationship between their organization -- formerly the Cheney Cowles Museum -- and the four tribes, and to involve tribal members in the museum’s activities.

“I had an epiphany,” says Mason. “I asked myself, ‘who are we to care for all of these objects if we don’t know who these people are?’” He and Pankonin left the corridors of the museum for the reservation, attending every activity they could: powwows, tribal council meetings, gathering rituals, and ceremonies. According to Mason, at first they received criticism from tribal members as well as the museum community.

Francis Cullooyah, a powwow dancer from the Kalispel Nation and long-time tribal council member, acknowledges that he was skeptical, but says that Mason and Pankonin's presence on the reservation reassured him. "We didn't even know who they were, but it was so great to see them coming out and breaking bread with us," says Cullooyah. "Tradition is very important to us and right off the bat they understood that." In addition to acting as cultural officer for the Kalispel nation, Cullooyah is now chairman of the museum's Indian Advisory Committee.

Mason and Pankonin say they listened to the advice of Elders -- tribal members of any age who serve as historians and spiritual advisers to the community. Pankonin remembers one Elder telling her, “Don’t go asking questions like other researchers and historians. Don’t look at the Indian people as something to be studied. Get to know them as people.”

The “People of the Rivers” exhibition will open December 5. It builds on several previous exhibitions, including one on baby boards, another on Indian boarding schools, and an art display of 350 objects called “Earth and Sky.”

“People of the Rivers” expands on its predecessors by introducing what Pankonin terms “the personal touch.” As a social historian, she feels that the project’s essential element is its inclusion of local tribes and native voices. “Each exhibition is built on the next. But it’s not just information gathering. We’ve made friendships and established relationships that have allowed this,” she says. “We have had to build up trust on both sides to get to the point where we can create ‘People of the Rivers.’”

Mason summarizes the philosophy of their approach. “We need to change from being custodians of stuff to being facilitators for communities telling their own stories.”

Cullooyah sees it as a form of restitution as well. “This exhibit is a reconnection of feelings and thoughts. The things we are sharing with the public, we are sharing as a united group. At one time, many years ago, all of us were one people and it was not until white people came that we were separated. I believe this has been a long time coming.”

The four nations share in common their reliance on the Spokane, Columbia, and Pend d’Oreille watersheds for their sustenance and livelihood. The watersheds are situated in the heart of the Northern Plateau, which extends from the Rocky Mountains in the east to the Cascades in the west, and from the Blue Mountains in the south to the Cascade River in Canada. Collaborating on the “People of the Rivers” exhibition has brought the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, and Colville nations together to preserve their history.

The project’s organizers hope that the exhibition will also occasion increased contact between native and non-native neighbors -- some of whom live within twenty miles of each other, but have very limited interaction. Representatives from the four tribes have been invited to the museum to act as docents. “We want people to connect personally to the objects. We want a basket to talk to the people and say, ‘I was made by someone’s Ya Ya and this is my great grandson,’” says Mason. “We want people to walk through the exhibition and run into native people and literally have to talk to them.”

“It is like the wheel of life -- the medicine wheel -- everything that goes around comes around,” says Cullooyah. “Things in this exhibit were made by our grandmothers and our aunts. It has something to do with pride.”

About the Author

Joanna Rudnick is a writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture received $286,345 in NEH funds for “People of the Rivers.”