Whatcom Museum opens heritage exhibits to indigenous people; part of ‘bigger conversation’

The exhibit “Tribal Canoe Journeys” has helped open conversation locally about indigenous peoples’ access to museum displays of heritage items. Above, an image from the exhibit shows a canoe navigating the Salish Sea during the 2019 Paddle to Lummi. Photo courtesy of Children of the Setting Sun Productions, Inc.

By Kimberly Cauvel

— New exhibits and a new perspective on access at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art have become threads in a national conversation about the relationship between museums and indigenous people. 

For the duration of “Tribal Canoe Journeys,” which features photographs of the 2019 Paddle to Lummi, the museum will waive entrance fees for indigenous people. The exhibit features photographs from the tribal nonprofit Children of the Setting Sun Productions. 

“There were some public conversations and some visitors who asked why we charge money for indigenous peoples to see items from their heritage,” said Christina Claassen, the museum’s marketing and public relations manager. “It’s a bigger conversation that we have to have more time to discuss … but we felt in the short term we could offer free admission during the run of this exhibit.” 

The exhibit opened in January and runs through March 8 in the Lightcatcher building at 250 Flora St., Bellingham.

The 2019 Paddle to Lummi culminated in late July with the arrival of hundreds of canoes at the Lummi Reservation north of Bellingham. Canoe families came from as far as Bella Bella, north of Vancouver Island, and Quinault, on the Olympic Peninsula, on voyages that took as long as two weeks.

Old ways for new generations

Darrell Hillaire, founder and executive director of Children of the Setting Sun Productions, said the exhibit “showcases the emergence of our young people practicing their culture through song and dance, and being in touch with the water through the old way of travel.” 

Traditional dances were among cultural activities shared during the 2019 Paddle to Lummi. Photo courtesy Children of the Setting Sun Productions, Inc.

Children of the Setting Sun Productions is dedicated to capturing those types of cultural events, of Lummi and all Coast Salish people, through multimedia, film and theater arts. Hillaire said the nonprofit is excited to have its work featured at a museum for the first time. 

“We’re very grateful for that honor,” he said. “It’s not often we get that kind of invitation, so it’s really cool.” 

Claassen said the museum has a goal to partner with the Lummi and Nooksack tribes to include more of their contemporary artwork and activities in rotating exhibitions. The museum is also now looking to other museums, large and small, to see how concerns about indigenous access and representation could be addressed long term. 

Because the Whatcom Museum, operated in partnership between the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the City of Bellingham, relies on revenue from admission fees, it can’t permanently waive them as it is doing during the Canoe Journey exhibit. “That was sort of a short-term solution while we continue discussing what to do long term,” Claassen said. “It’s happening simultaneously with big, big conversations that are happening nationally.” 

Museums are grappling with how to address their handling of cultural artifacts, including ownership, control and presentation.

“Historically, museums have been known as organizations that collect artifacts and items, often from other cultures or areas,” Claassen said. “There is a real movement now to really work with those indigenous peoples to tell their stories from their perspectives and have their involvement in shaping how they and their cultures or heritage are presented to the community. These are living cultures and they have a say in how their heritage and history is presented. How do we provide access and inclusion in places where they have historically been cut out?”

For Hillaire, the opportunity to share work by Children of the Setting Sun Productions was a positive step. “We’re thankful of the inclusion of our work into the museum,” he said. “We think our stories are ripe to be told.”

Traditions — and contemporary art

While the Whatcom Museum looks for grants that could supplement entrance fees and considers policies that would waive fees during certain exhibits or events, more work from Native American artists and artifacts from indigenous cultures is on display at the Lightcatcher building. 

  • The museum has been working for several years to build relationships with the Lummi and Nooksack tribes. It has curated, with the help of local tribal members, an ongoing and still evolving exhibit called “People of the Sea and Cedar.” That exhibit at the Lightcatcher building showcases traditions of the region’s Coast Salish People, who hunted, fished, foraged and raised families in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. 
  • The museum also in 2019 introduced a project called “In the Spirit of the People: Native Contemporary Artists,” which will feature a revolving series of pieces. The first, a glass sculpture by Raya Friday of Lummi, was installed in July 2019 and will stay until early October. 
  • As part of a five-year program with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whatcom Museum unveiled Jan. 31 three master works on loan from the national institution. Two are pieces by Native American artists and will be displayed with the “People of the Sea and Cedar” exhibit until Jan. 3, 2021. “One of the artworks really reflects on the topic of treaty and land rights for native people. Our exhibit talks about the Point Elliott Treaty and touches on those topics,” Claassen said. 
  • On Feb. 1, “The Global Language of Headwear: Cultural Identity, Rites of Passage, and Spirituality” also opened at the museum. It includes 89 traveling hats and headdresses from a private collection, as well as two Coast Salish cedar hats from the Whatcom Museum’s collection. 

Creating, sharing, educating down the generations

Meanwhile, in a historic journey from Washington, D.C., the Treaty of Point Elliott signed 165 years ago in what is now Mukilteo returned to Western Washington for display at the Hibulb Cultural Center operated by the Tulalip Tribes. 

The Everett Herald reported that about 150 tribal members from across the region viewed the treaty on Jan. 22. For many it was the first time to see the document that created reservations for their people and has been interpreted to uphold their rights to fish for salmon and harvest other natural resources. It was signed by their ancestors Jan. 22, 1855. The treaty will be on display until July as part of the exhibit “The Power of Words: A History of Tulalip Literacy.”

Hillaire said that the day of the treaty’s signing inspired what is now Children of the Setting Sun Productions. 

“My great-grandfather was at that treaty signing when he was a little boy, with his parents, and they told him never to forget — so he didn’t,” he said. 

That boy turned tribal elder formed a dance group about 100 years ago — the namesake of Children of the Setting Sun Productions – and told his children not to forget, but to keep his fires burning. That’s the mission the nonprofit works to fulfill. 

“My great-grandfather left those instructions to his children, that they were to create, share and educate,” Hillaire said. “We are just continuing his work of communication through art.”  

Now a tribal elder himself, Hillaire is proud to see youth continuing the momentum. Front and center, as a sort of poster child for the Canoe Journeys exhibit, is Hillaire’s own grandnephew

“He is a descendant of my great-grandfather … he represents the sixth generation of my great-grandfather’s lineage,” Hillaire said. 

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Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.