16 August 2009

Celebrating Native American history and culture

Explore the rich tapestry of Native American history and culture by visiting these four museums and living history sites.

Teepees, Totem Poles, Tribal Music

On a quiet Sunday morning, the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, exudes a feeling of reverence. Perhaps it's the tribal music playing softly in the background, or the filtered light. As we venture forth, there’s a sense that the past is this mystery to explore—and respect.

My young daughter whispers excitedly and pulls me along. She’s attracted to the dioramas of long houses, round houses, pueblos, teepees, and igloos. These dwellings are unique but somehow similar to having split levels, colonials, and capes populating our town. A few of the diorama children are mostly naked, which reminds her of Mowgli from The Jungle Book. She stops in front of the life-size powwow dancers, a Sioux man and a Kiowa woman, admiring their colorful outfits and ornate jewelry.

We step deeper into the recesses of one room and, suddenly, the massive totem poles light up on automatic light sensors. My daughter hides behind me, momentarily frightened by the carved wooden faces from British Columbia.

Meeting a Native

Following the trail at Plimoth Plantation in the South Shore town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, we search for the Wampanoag Homesite. At a clearing, a cooking fire crackles near a traditional wetu (house). A man dressed in 17th-century deerskin clothing uses fire and tools to carve out the insides of a canoe. He invites us to look inside the wetu, to touch the woven bulrush mats and furs.

Unlike the Plantation's 1627 English Village, this man is not an actor re-enacting history. He's a native Wampanoag living nearby and working at Plimoth Plantation to share his experiences and his culture in this historic setting.

The Circle Quest

To the north is the unexpected treasure of the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, 20 minutes northwest of Concord, New Hampshire. The museum is divided into galleries that showcase Native Americans of the Northeast, the Southeast, the Southwest, the Plains, and the Northwest Coast. Each grouping highlights the diverse lifestyles of the tribes, from their shelters, tools, and clothing to their crafts and ceremonial artifacts. Tribes in the Northeast used birch bark containers, for example, while those in the Southwest created painted clay pots. The common threads throughout are the ways in which these people adapted to the land and respected nature.

We follow the Circle Quest, a series of clues to objects in the museum. It makes learning fun, part of a game. Outside, there’s the Medicine Woods Quest with clues to the native plants that the Indians used for food, medicine, and shelter. During the year, the museum offers special events and celebrations that include Native American craft demonstrations, traditional music, and dance performances. During the summers, the Indian Museum also has weekly camp programs for children ages 6 to 14.

Past and Present

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, is known for its maritime and East India trade collections. However, since its founding in 1799, the museum has also amassed thousands of Native American artifacts and works of art, from headdresses, beaded moccasins, spear points, and clay pipes to contemporary paintings, sculpture, and crafts. After viewing the Native American Art gallery, the Contemporary Native American Art gallery allows us to see how today's natives view the past, present, and future through their art works.

Visiting these places helps you put history and culture—and your genealogy—in perspective.

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