Indian relics, native voices shine at California Museum
By Suzanne Hurt
Published on March 15, 2011
Rare artifacts will be unveiled this month in a new exhibit documenting the culture and contributions of California’s first people at the California Museum in Sacramento.
A huge stuffed condor from the Smithsonian, Modoc chief Captain Jack’s buckskin jacket and a cape and arrowhead that belonged to Ishi, reputedly the last Native American to live a primitive life in California, will be showcased in “California Indians: Making A Difference,” which opens March 31.
“We have some objects that have never been on exhibit before,” said curator P. Christiaan Klieger, an anthropologist affiliated with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. “It’s not your typical sort of basket exhibit at all.”
However, old and new baskets will be among the items on exhibit because California Indian basketweavers are recognized as some of the best weavers in the world. The exhibit includes what anthropologists have described as one of the finest baskets ever made – a 101-year-old basket made by a Washoe weaver named Dat So La Lee (also spelled Datso Lalee), who died in 1929, he said.
The exhibit will use more than 400 artifacts, photos, art, documents and multimedia presentations to tell stories of the peoples’ early life, survival, adaptation and resilience. The displays include contemporary paintings by artists such as Frank La Pena, a local Wintu, and botanical specimens of foods still eaten by Indians.
Klieger and the museum put together a California native advisory panel with 12 elders, artists and other leaders from separate tribes to guide creation of the exhibit. The result is a collaboration that enables descendants of the state’s first inhabitants to tell the stories of their people with their own voices.
At one time, more than 150 tribes or bands lived in the region that later became California. The exhibit being installed this week by the museum’s crew represents more than 60 tribes from the coast, the Central Valley, the deserts and the lake and mountain region.
The displays include an interactive kiosk where visitors can hear eight native languages spoken and six video stations for an oral history project about life as a native person.
“We’re directed by what native people themselves want to see in the exhibit,” he said. “That’s the only way we can be authentic about it these days.”
The California Museum is one of only three museums in California whose collections and exhibits represent the entire state. The others are the Oakland Museum of California and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
The small State Indian Museum operates nearby at Sutter’s Fort, but the California Museum was established in the Capitol as the official state museum. This exhibit is being installed to add to the museum’s diversity by documenting native peoples in a permanent exhibit, Klieger said.
More artifacts will be rotated into the 3,000-square-foot long-term exhibit next year. The museum provides a showcase for items from the California State Archives and borrows from other museums’ collections and individuals to create its exhibits.
“The exhibit was built to be expanded upon,” said Brenna Hamilton, the museum’s communications director. “There are so many tribes and so many stories, we can’t tell all of them at the same time.”
Museum visitors will soon have a chance to see the entire exhibit, including artifacts that are very hard to get.
Stuffed condors – which are important to many California tribes – are even more rare than the living creatures, with only a few museums in the world possessing condor specimens. A specimen with an approximately 13-foot wingspan is on loan from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
“It’s like a small airplane,” Klieger said. “It’s huge.”
The collection also features a buckskin jacket once worn by Captain Jack, a famous chief who in 1873 lost the Modoc War, the last of the Indian wars in California or Oregon. The jacket has never been exhibited before.
A private collector has loaned the museum a cape that was worn by Ishi, the last Yahi clan member who followed the ways of his ancestors and lived in the wilds apart from European-American culture until 1911. He had survived in his tribe’s homeland in the foothills near Lassen Peak until making contact with the outside world near Oroville.
Ishi, who was about 49, spent the last five years of his life at the University of California, San Francisco. The exhibit also contains an arrowhead Ishi made from a glass bottle and gave to a boy who was in a nearby hospital after breaking his leg. The boy grew up and died in World War II, but his widow kept the arrowhead. She gave it to the California Academy of Sciences in 1976.
A reception introducing the exhibit will be held for museum members from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. on March 30. The museum, 1020 O St., is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Saturday and noon – 5 p.m. Sundays. The cost is $8.50 for adults, $6 for youths and free for children 5 and under.
The curator and museum staff refer to the exhibit as “the native voice.” As such, the exhibit’s official name reflects the word native peoples use for themselves, rather than the term “Native Americans.” The latter was used widely, starting in the 1970s and 1980s, by the majority culture, Klieger said.
“That was rejected soundly by the Native Americans,” Klieger added. “They said, ‘Call us Indians.’ ”