Every year since 2008, the Denver Museum has hosted Native
community members through its Visiting Indigenous Fellowship
Program, generously funded by the Dodge Family Fund and the Calvin
A. and Virginia J. Powers Family Fund. This year we were honored to
host Dallin Maybee and Adrian John, who chose to focus their time
examining historic cultural items made by Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)
and Plains artisans. Below is an excerpt of an interview I
conducted at the end of their fellowship.
Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh: First, could you
please introduce yourselves?
Dallin Maybee: My name is Dallin Maybee. I'm
Northern Arapahoe and Seneca, from New York and Wyoming. I
currently live in Phoenix.
Adrian John: I'll do it in both … [introduction
in Seneca language]. Adrian John is my English name, Yat
Deyo is my Seneca name. Hawk Clan of the Seneca nation and I'm
35-years-old from the Allegheny territory.
CCC: So did you guys have a good time here
looking at the museum's collections?
DM: It's been a great opportunity to juxtapose
the art forms that we do now with what has been done in the past,
even a couple hundred years ago. To place the contemporary stuff in
context against the traditional has been a unique opportunity. Just
because there are differences with materials and construction has
changed a little bit. For the most part, a lot of the design
elements have remained the same. More importantly, the purposes
behind what we are doing and why we are doing it has essentially
remained the same. It has been awesome to see.
CCC: Native artists have always been looking
for new inspiration, drawing from other cultures and personal
experiences. But sometimes we think about traditional arts as being
frozen in time while contemporary arts as being so dynamic. How do
you think about this traditional and contemporary dichotomy?
AJ: I think it's always changing. It has
to--cultures, languages--because it adapts and moves forward. Even
going from clay pots to metal pots, everything changes. I know, as
Iroquois, we've always adapted quickly.
DM: Culture was always evolving as it was
exposed to different environments. There was a lot of
cross-cultural sharing going on. Our art forms are very utilitarian
but I think there is a difference between beautified utilitarian
objects and things that were created as part of ceremony, which are
recreated very specifically and with a certain purpose and they are
the exact same as they have been done since time immemorial. In
terms of the art forms it was a matter of just allowing the artist
to simply construct things that were beautiful and that changed
simply because the culture itself was changing.
CCC: What pieces in the collection particularly
resonated with you?
DM: I really liked the 18th Century dolls. In a
lot of cultures dolls were not just playthings, they were teaching
tools. In Plains cultures, they would create miniature bows and
arrows for the boys and little parfleches for the girls. The doll
was created as detail-oriented as possible to help them understand
that roll-based society of Plains cultures. Those dolls had a lot
of little details that would be completely lost on somebody who did
not have the knowledge and cultural context to understand them.
When I create dolls I create them exactly as I create large, fully
functional pieces--just as miniature as possible.
CCC: This question might be premature, but do
you have a sense of how this fellowship might shape your work?
AJ: I think it helped with motivation,
inspiration to get back home and start working; it definitely
drives that. Seeing how some things were made. Some of these things
I've seen just in pictures, so to see it in 3D, to be able to hold
it, look at it, turn it around, and see its actual shape and how
they are made is helpful. The size and shapes, the angles that they
have, helps a lot for going home and working on some stuff that
goes in that direction.
DM: Yeah, definitely. I would see the older
pieces and it inspired new ideas for creating the same type of
objects, but with my own personal interpretation. So just on that
level alone, the inspiration is invaluable. Like the Plains hoof
bags that we saw: that tradition has sort of disappeared, but then
seeing the flat hoof bag that I didn't know they had created was
CCC: How do you think about museum that have so
many cultural items, but is now working to reach out to community
members and reconnect people to things?
AJ: It's a bit of a catch 22 at this time. We
hardly have any heirlooms at home because most of it is in museums.
I think that is a good thing, in a sense up to this time, where the
museums have all these items and a program like this is good, where
they can share and invite and provide this kind of experience for
people to come in a see traditional items. I think that is a great
thing because it was really excited to see the things we saw and to
be able to touch them and handle them, and figure out who made
them. I think the whole thing with cultural learning is that we
keep practicing those traditions. We have to keep making these
things. We have to keep teaching younger people how to make these
things. But we don't have those items at home; the only place we do
see it is in the museums. Because of this, museums should all be
not just be places of preservation, but also of cultural teachings
and cultural sharing.