Museum Blog

Cultural Sharing

Posted 8/24/2011 12:08 AM by Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh | Comments

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 inspiring.

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.


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