Before it was renamed by European settlers, the land mass we know as North America was inhabited by a diverse group of Native cultures that developed and diversified over a span of 12,000 years. Although they belonged to different tribes, they often functioned as one, borrowing from each other to create technologies for farming, fishing, hunting, pottery making and long-distance travel.
Across the nation, they were once called Lenni Lenape, Iroquois, Sasquesahanough, Hopi, Attaock, Tesinigh, Utchowig, Cheyenne and Cepowig, among others.
Now, although the names remain, Native American culture as we know it today is just a shell of what it once was. Inspired to preserve and help redevelop the culture of their ancestors, a series of contemporary voices are working together to change perceptions of what it means to Native American.
Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now, which opened Saturday at the Penn Museum, is one step in working to mend the cultural and spiritual ties of Native Americans in the states. Years in the making, this multi-media exhibit challenges visitors to leave preconceptions about Native Americans behind and discover a living tapestry of nations with distinct stories, identities and contemporary leaders.
The richly interactive exhibition features a wide range of contemporary Native American people—including artists, activists, journalists, scholars, and community leaders—from around the continent. They speak out in video and in audio, sharing stories, poetry and short essays on issues that matter to them today: identity, political sovereignty, religious freedom and sacred places, language, celebrations, art and cultural continuity.
Patty Talahongva, a Hopi from Sichomovi village located on First Mesa in northeastern Arizona, knows firsthand how others mistakenly perceive her culture. As a journalist and educator, she’s routinely asked a similar question by curious schoolchildren and misinformed adults. “Students always ask me, ‘Do you speak Indian?’” says Talahongva. “When I say, ‘I speak Hopi,’ I am often met with confused glares.”
Talahongva directed and produced the video-documentary aspect of Native American Voices, which runs on a ceiling-to-floor, touchscreen monitor. Over the course of three years, Talahovgva and exhibit curator Dr. Lucy Fowler-Williams traveled to Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska, New Jersey and Washington D.C. to collect first-person accounts of what it means to be an indigenous person living in modern America. The stories they collected display the vast difference in thoughts and ideas pertaining to issues of identity, art and culture.
Far from having disappeared into the American “melting pot,” today’s Native Americans are culturally distinct and diverse. Today, there are more than 565 federally recognized tribal entities in the United States alone—far more if one counts U.S. tribes that are not federally recognized and Canadian First Nations.
Exhibit contributor Namorah Gayle Byrd, a Gloucester County College associate professor of composition and literature, is a descendent of southern Native American traditions of Louisiana and West Virginia. She looks like she came from another time: With two long braids falling down to her shoulders, adorned in a blue and white ruffled halter top, she is a walking piece of history, a living testament to the past. Her eyeglasses are the only indication of her modern ties.
In a tradition that interweaves art and life, oral tradition is paramount. Cave markings recorded events, the Tlingit tribes wove their stories into their blankets, and the use of song was used to convey emotion and mark special occasions. “I learned these songs, stories and traditions from a community of women,” Byrd says. “We cooked together, raised our children together and learned these songs together, singing them over and over again until they rested in our hearts.”
Artifacts for viewing in Native American Voices include Lenape objects from the Delaware Valley region, war bonnets and regalia from the plains and prairie, intricately woven baskets from Maine and California, robes and regalia, moccasins, jewelry, children’s toys and clothing, and world-renowned stone tools from Clovis, New Mexico that are among the oldest objects in the museum’s collection. Over the course of five years, nearly 300 objects representing more than 100 tribes will be rotated on display. At interactive digital stations, visitors may investigate and sort these objects according to personal interests, fashioning their own unique experiences while gaining insight into the materials.
Talahongva finds that people are surprised when they realize that Native American culture still exists in any form. “There are so few of us, but despite all the persecution, we still have our identity,” she says. “Many of us still have our own language, culture and religion and remain our own people despite everything. That speaks to the ability of Native Americans to survive. And that’s what this exhibit is about. We didn’t all die, we didn’t all assimilate, we didn’t all disappear. I like to joke that I am a Native American in a museum exhibit—and I’m not dead.”
Free to $15. Penn Museum, 3260 South St. 215.898.4000. penn.museum