"If you are in New York in the next few months there is a small visiting exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called Listening to Our Ancestors, which is worth a visit. It is an amazing building, the exhibition is free and the layout and structure is professional and engaging. The content was extraordinary and something of a revelation to me. The aesthetic of Native American art has never particularly appealed to me. Many of the masks in the show, and I apologise for the analogy because these are sacred objects, reminded me of Mr Punch - the exaggerated facial features and so on. Others were strikingly original and the images of women flying on the back of birds and a carved canoe were beautiful. There were, however, two aspects of the show that stood out.
The first was the notion of songs in the culture of Native Americans. The tribes represented here were from the north Pacific coast, ancient peoples closely associated with the sea. Images of whales reminded us of the movie Whale Rider. The songs were sacred in the sense that they were given - the songs came. I had never really understood this idea before. The exhibit, however, made it clear that these songs would come to the people who wrote them and the act of their creation was seen as a divine act. The notion of song being given seems to me to be as good an explanation of creativity as any. The coming of the song, like the coming of a poem or a piece of music, cannot be explained so it is turned into a divine act, the coming of a god into the life of the tribe. These songs are then guarded and protected.
The second thing that came out of the exhibition for me only occurred when I read the catalogue back here in London. The objects were all in remarkably good condition. I did not question this as I walked around but afterwards I realised it was because most of them were made in the last hundred years. They were recreations of objects made much earlier that had been collected by the Canadian authorities and shown for a fee in parish halls. To an extent this was not an exhibition of Native American civilisation so much as an exhibition of the reconstruction of that civilisation after its destruction. Not in the sense of an invented tradition but in the sense of rebuilding from the fragments of what remained after a continental genocide."
Get the Story:
Brian Brivati: An unmarked genocide?
(The Guardian 9/5)
National Museum of the American Indian - http://www.nmai.si.edu