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Archive for the ‘Exhibitions’ Category

I have been very much enjoying visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum several times these last few weeks. They have three exhibits up right now on different aspects of Okinawan modern art, which not only provide the opportunity for me to learn new things, to continue to work towards an ever-fuller (though never complete) vision, or understanding, of the infinite depth and breadth of all that is “Okinawa,” its people, and their history & culture, but they also remind me of who I want to be as a scholar. I feel in my element, in a way, in those galleries. I am not someone whose passion lies chiefly in wrestling with complex conceptual interpretive problems about how our society functions, or what anything “really” “means,” so much as I am someone who revels in learning new things – stories, images – and then sharing them with others.

I am not a specialist in modern art, and none of these exhibits really do much to inform my research in any direct way. They are addressing a different period, a different set of themes and questions: problems of modernity, of identity amid a particular context of 20th century political and cultural experience. But these are still Okinawan objects and images, Okinawan stories – stories that are only just now beginning to be told; stories I am glad to be learning, deepening and expanding my knowledge; and stories that I am eager to share with others, should I ever be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to teach a university course on Okinawan art history, or to curate an exhibit.

The museum’s exhibition calendar for 2016-17, which I’m putting here as a stand-in for the notion of Okinawa bijutsu no nagare, the “flow” of the history/development of Okinawan art.

The first of these exhibits is part of an ongoing, or at least quite frequent, series of rotations of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, constructing and conveying a standard narrative of the history of Okinawan art, as well as a canon for that art history. On those rare occasions when Okinawan art appears at all in museum exhibitions outside of Okinawa, or in textbooks or course syllabi, it almost always takes the form of folk arts or decorative artstextiles, lacquerwares, ceramics – or, if you’re really lucky, you just might see discussion of the aesthetic world of the Ryukyu Kingdom more broadly, one drawing heavily on Ming Dynasty Chinese styles, in terms of the bold colors of Shuri castle, and of the court costume of the Confucian scholar-officials who peopled its government; not to mention ships, paintings, traditional Okinawan architecture otherwise… Or, you might maybe see something of far more contemporary work, political art, speaking to contemporary indigenous identity struggles and/or the ongoing protest campaigns against the US military presence. And all of these are fantastic and wonderful in their own ways. But, what you won’t see at other institutions, and what therefore makes these exhibits at the Prefectural Museum so exciting, is the fuller narrative of how Okinawan art got from one to the other – and the fuller narrative of everything that happened in between.

Right: Nadoyama Aijun 名渡山愛順, one of the giants of Okinawa’s early postwar art scene.

Having studied Japanese art under John Szostak, a specialist in late 19th to early 20th century “modernist” movements in Japan, I have something of a basic knowledge of the vibrant and complex developments of that time. As Japanese artists began to engage with Western “modern” or “modernist” art, and with negotiating their own place in the “modern”/”modernist” art world, many took up European oil-painting (J: yôga, lit. “Western pictures”), creating works that drew heavily upon and emulated – sometimes more closely, sometimes less – the styles, approaches, and themes of French Academic painting, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and so forth, albeit while still creating works distinctively Japanese in their subject matter, thematic concerns, or otherwise. Meanwhile, other artists worked to maintain “traditional” Japanese painting – in traditional media, i.e. ink and colors on paper or silk, depicting traditional subjects, motifs, themes – and to adapt it to the modern age, giving birth to a movement known as Nihonga (lit. “Japanese pictures”). Both of these movements were also closely tied into issues of inventing a national identity, a set of national arts and national traditions, the creation of a canon of “Japanese art history,” and issues of performing modernity, proving to the world that the Japanese (1) can do modern art, and modernity in general, just as well as anyone else; that they are fully modern people and ought to be treated as respected equals, and that the Japanese (2) possess a history and cultural traditions that are just as noble, as beautiful, as anyone else’s.

The stories of this time in Japanese art history, of these movements in painting, and of parallel developments in architecture, textiles, ceramics, and countless other aspects of visual & material culture (or, aesthetic life), are beginning to be shared in major art museums, university classrooms, and elsewhere in the US, though they remain woefully under-discussed, under-known. Giants of Japanese art history such as Asai Chû, Kuroda Seiki, and Leonard Foujita; Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzô, Kanô Hôgai, Uemura Shôen, and Maeda Seison; among many, many, others, along with the stories of their competing art schools, the development of the salon-style Bunten national art exhibitions, and so forth, remain almost entirely unknown even among the most regular visitors to the Metropolitan (for the example), the most devoted, cultured, informed, passionate lovers of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, or whatever. And I am most certainly eager to someday hopefully be granted the opportunity to share these stories with college students, museumgoers, or some other portion of the willing public.

But Okinawa has its art history story, too, and it is fascinating to see how these very same trends manifested in Okinawa at the very same time, in ways that sometimes closely parallel what was going on in Japan, and sometimes diverge, speaking to Okinawa’s unique, particular, cultural and historical experience. I sadly missed the earlier rotations of this Okinawa bijutsu no nagare (“the flow of Okinawan art”) set of exhibits, which would have covered precisely that period, from roughly the 1860s until the 1900s, as the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished and absorbed into the newly-born modern nation-state of Japan, and as Okinawan artists first began to wrestle with the very same issues of tradition and modernity, Okinawanness/Japaneseness vs. the Western, and so forth, creating their own Okinawan version of the Nihonga movement, as well as oil paintings, and so forth. But, even in the rotation I did see, which begins around the 1930s and features artists and artworks up through the end of the 20th century, we see many of the same themes, and we see how they played out similarly, and differently, in Okinawa.

(More on this in my next post, coming up soon. Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Okinawan Art & History Part 2)

Thanks to the Ryukyu Cultural Archives for making the photo of Nadoyama, and so many other images easily accessible on the web, while the Prefectural Museum prevents one from right-clicking to either link to or save the images from their website. All images used here only for explanatory/educational fair use purposes.

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Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, which recently showed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, opened May 22 at LACMA, and I was so glad to not only see the show, but also to attend a talk by the curator, Christina Hellmich, and to just generally be there opening day. Though I didn’t get to see any of the opening ceremonies (some, or all, were held in private), and didn’t actually end up talking to very many people, it was a real pleasure to see this exhibit alongside members of the Hawaiian community. Many people in the gallery wore aloha shirts, muumuus, and/or lauhala hats, bringing that feeling of local community, which I always felt when visiting the Honolulu Museum, here to Los Angeles.

The exhibit itself was marvelous. I was excited to see it anyway, even not knowing much about it, simply because it’s Hawaiian art, but I don’t think I knew what to expect in the show. Just from the phrase “Hawaiian Featherwork,” and thinking of textile arts shows, I guess I expected smaller works, and more modern/contemporary fashion accessories, like feather earrings or something. But, no. They were serious when they said “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” and we got to see numerous capes and cloaks of the royalty (aliʻi), including pieces associated with such prominent figures as Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, Kapiʻolani, and Kalākaua, Kekuaokalani from the collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. I was extremely pleasantly surprised that they were willing to let these pieces travel – though, as the curator told us in her talk, the featherwork cloaks and the like are far more durable than you might think, and so as long as they’re packed carefully and properly and so forth, really they’re quite okay to travel.

A feather helmet (mahiole) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Royal cloaks (ʻahu ʻula) in the background.

Being there on opening day, it was a wonderful feeling to walk through the gallery amidst a crowd of Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, to appreciate this significant event and to engage with these powerful objects alongside them. It made me feel like I was “home” in Honolulu again, and at the Honolulu Museum of Art – I have never felt such a sense of community at any museum as I have at the HMA.

It is not often that a major mainland museum devotes this much space to Hawaiian history or culture, and shares those stories with the wider public, and so being there as members of the Hawaiian community engaged with these powerful artifacts, and thinking about how special an experience this might have been for them, was thus a special experience for me as well, secondhand. When we Westerners look at pieces from another culture, hopefully we are inspired, hopefully we learn something, but mostly it’s just another day at the museum – for these people, and I hope I’m not romanticizing overmuch or god forbid orientalizing, or putting too much onto it, but I really felt I could sense (or, at least, imagine) that there’s a real engagement as they connect to their own history and culture, to their own identity. There were also a number of people there who, from their dress, I am guessing belong to other Native Nations, and I overheard as Bishop Museum staffer & Hawaiian traditional arts practitioner Kamalu du Preez was approached by a Hopi woman, who presented her with a few small packets of seeds; I have been reading about, and watching videos of, meetings between the Hōkūleʻa crew and the Native peoples who have welcomed them at each of the places they have visited, and so there was a wonderful sense of interaction and fellowship here, too, between representatives of Native peoples. I’m still sad I’m going to miss the Hōkūleʻa’s visit to my hometown of New York, in the first week of June.

A cape (center) associated with King Kamehameha III, and two other cloaks from the Bishop Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the energy of walking through the exhibit alongside all these Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, I regret that I was not bold enough to try to talk to anyone, to ask just who exactly they were. After all, if I had been more bold, to try to talk to people, I wonder who I might have met! I wouldn’t be surprised if many were Bishop Museum staff, prominent traditional practitioners, or bigwigs of Hawaiian high society, or of the local LA Hawaiian community – I think I overheard someone say they were a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha – and, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were actually quite kind and friendly. But, alas, this was not a reception or mingling event – it was a regular museum gallery space, and you don’t go up to anyone and everyone in a museum gallery and try to engage them in conversation, do you? Right? If only I’d been closer with someone there already, they might have introduced me around a little bit… but, then, that’s why you have to introduce yourself, develop connections, to begin with.

I did get to meet, and speak very briefly, though, with Kamalu du Preez, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, who was excitedly getting her picture taken in front of the kāhili (feather standards) she had constructed for the exhibit. My sincere mahalo to her for being so accessible, and friendly, and for taking the time, just for a minute or two, to tell us more about the kāhili – the original exhibit design had them at the entrance to the gallery, framing the title, but due to concerns about light damaging them, they were replaced with wall graphics, as you can see above. The kāhili du Preez made were brought into the gallery, where they stand framing a series of photographs of the aliʻi, just as they would have stood to each side of the actual aliʻi or mōʻī (king or queen) during the time of the Kingdom.

Turning to the objects themselves, thanks to http://wehewehe.com/, we can come to understand a bit more deeply the terminology. Many of the key pieces on display are ʻahu ʻula – feather cloaks each made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, and worn only by the aliʻi (nobility, or royalty). As we learn from the Wehewehe dictionary, ʻahu refers to a garment worn over the shoulders, either a short “cape” or the much longer “cloak” in English parlance, while ʻula refers to red color, and to royal sacredness. Thus, these capes and cloaks, both, even when dominated by yellow, are called “red” or “royal capes”: ʻahu ʻula. ʻŌiwi TV has a series of videos for teaching oneself the basics of Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi) – hopefully maybe some day soon I’ll start making my way through those.

The crowd there to see the exhibit created a particular energy in the gallery, that I think made for a wonderfully different experience than if I had visited at any other time.

The capes and cloaks are stunningly beautiful, all the more so because their color shows little sign of having faded – they remain bright and bold – and, LACMA being an art museum, we are certainly there to appreciate the incredible traditional craft techniques, expertise, and unfathomable hours of work it took to produce each of these. But, they are incredible, too, for their historical significance and power. From a Western or modern point of view, we do often speak of artworks as having an “aura” as a result of their canonical status, or historical importance. And as the curator, Christina Hellmich, said in her talk that day, they are touchpoints for history. One could walk through this exhibit and tell much of the history of the Kingdom by pointing to objects associated with each of the kings and queens. But these pieces possess a great mana, too, an aura within traditional Hawaiian belief as well, as they still brim with the mana of the aliʻi who once wore them. It was traditionally considered kapu (taboo) for a commoner to touch anything associated with the aliʻi, not only simply because it was considered disrespectful, or simply not done, but beyond that, because it was believed that the spiritual energy of that person – their mana – was too much for a commoner to handle, and that it would severely injure or even kill them. Today, such kapu are not so strictly observed, but the objects are still considered to be quite powerful, and are still treated with much respect, including ritual. Not only are there various public celebrations, like there were for the opening of this exhibit, and as there were for welcoming Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole back to Hawaii a few months ago, but there are also more private rituals performed by those actually handling the objects, as they (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) call upon the gods and ancestors for permission to touch, handle, and move the objects.

A feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu and obtained by the Bishop Museum in 1968, from the Earl of Elgin.

Doing a little internet research for this blog post, I found an amazing post from the blog nupepa, translating a clip from a 1908 Hawaiian-language newspaper which tells of the Bishop Museum reacquiring from Tsarist Russia at that time an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, which had been given to Captain Cook and which had, seemingly by accident, been left by Cook’s men in Russia, way back in 1779-1780. The cloak and helmet were apparently found quickly by Russians, and brought back to St. Petersburg, where they had been preserved all this time. These do not appear to be the Kalaniʻōpuʻu artifacts included in the exhibit at LACMA, which have accession numbers indicating a 1968 date – and as the gallery labels tell us, it was in that year that these were purchased by the Bishop Museum from Lord Bruce of Kinnaird (Earl of Elgin). Neither are these 1908 objects the ones currently on long-term loan to the Bishop from Te Papa. It’s kind of incredible that so many pieces from so long ago – prior to the unification of the kingdom – still survive. Not just one, but at least three sets of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, have apparently been maintained in either British, Russian, New Zealander, or Hawaiian hands.

And this, given that Hellmich tells us only about three hundred such Hawaiian featherwork garments are known to be surviving in the world. It’s a small number, but at the same time a large one, considering that in this one exhibit at LACMA alone we have numerous ʻahu ʻula belonging to Hawaiian mōʻī, while only one Ryukyuan royal crown is known to survive, in all the world. This is thanks, I suppose, to a combination of factors, including the fact that Hawaiʻi, for all its troubles, was at least spared the shelling and bombing and devastation of land war visited upon Okinawa; the fact that these objects, however Orientalized and exoticized, were valued and thus carefully preserved in British, Russian, and American collections; and the fact that within Hawaiian culture, too, these things were considered powerful symbols of kingly legitimacy and power, and were passed down from one king to another. Stacy Kamehiro writes, in her book The Arts of Kingship, about King Kalākaua’s possession of numerous key objects belonging to the Kamehameha line. And, indeed, the Sacred Sash of Liloa (Kāʻei Kapu o Liloa) worn by Kamehameha I in his famous statue was possessed, too, by Kalākaua, and survives in the Bishop Museum collection today.

We also learned about the birds used to make this fabulous cloaks. Three of the most significant were the mamo, the ʻoʻo, and the ʻiʻiwi. The mamo and ʻoʻo, used for their black and yellow feathers, are today extinct, though the red ʻiʻiwi can still be found in Hawaiʻi today, and are merely designated as “Vulnerable.” To make a full-length cloak like many of those in this exhibit required the feathers of literally hundreds of thousands of birds, and since the mamo and ʻoʻo were black birds with only a few yellow feathers each, one can begin to imagine how rare, valuable, and precious these yellow feathers were – and thus how a yellow cloak, even a smaller cape, could serve as a great show of wealth and power. Brilliant as the red is – and, make no mistake, the red was considered a royal color too – it was the yellow, really, which made so much more of an impression. This being the case, an all-yellow ʻahu ʻula associated with Kamehameha I and still held by the Bishop Museum today, despite being less visually interesting than the red and yellow ones, must have provided an exceptionally powerful display of wealth and kingly authority.

Moa – a type of native Hawaiian duck far cuter and far less imposing than the large ratites which once lived in Aotearoa – were also used for featherwork, and are also extinct. Green feathers, used mainly in lei and not in cloaks, came from the ʻōʻū, which is today believed to be critically endangered, if not already extinct.

The mamo, as depicted by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1900.

Given that several of these bird species are today extinct, and that it did require so many birds to make a single cape, a number of people in the audience raised the perhaps obvious questions about how exactly the feathers were gathered, and how (why) precisely the birds went extinct. I have certainly in the past, too, heard various rumors about precisely how or why this happened – one that came up among the audience questions was the notion that even if you leave the mamo safe and alive after plucking only its yellow feathers, it won’t look recognizable anymore to the females, and that thus the feather collection has a profound negative impact on breeding, and thus on the mamo population overall. Who knows if this was the case, though. While no people ever truly lives in perfect harmony with nature, and while all human presence has some environmental impacts, Hellmich reminded us, too, that on a very practical level, since it’s clear that these cloaks continued to be made for at least a hundred years (that is, over the course of the time of the unified Kingdom), if not for many centuries before that, clearly people must have had techniques to ensure they were not depleting the bird population too severely. If the feather gathering process had been as devastating as some of these rumors suggest, the bird-catchers and cloak-weavers would have been out of a job in only a few years, or decades, and the existence of these artifacts clearly shows they were not. Further, I thought it interesting that, as Hellmich pointed out, people so often seem so concerned about the environmental impact of indigenous art – and yet, when it comes to Western art, we don’t ask those questions. What about the human & environmental costs of all many various materials collected and used for European visual and material culture?

Further, while all of these audience members were asking questions about the environmental conservation angle, I may have been the only one who asked a question about the significance of these objects to Hawaiians today, and about the museum’s involvement in allowing for the appropriate (pono) ritual protocols to be observed regarding the transport and display of these objects.

Tammeamea (Kamehameha I) by Louis Choris, 1816. Pen and ink, ink wash, and watercolor on paper. Honolulu Museum of Art.

A couple of final points. One, that Hawaiian featherwork, though generally quite obscure in the overall treatment of global art history, in fact had its impacts & influences beyond Polynesia. The 1824 visit of King Kamehameha II to England, where he wore at least one of his royal feather cloaks, inspired a boom in English fashion emulating this style of featherwork – one example of such a piece, a British featherwork cape or jacket, is on display in the exhibit. Second, that in Louis Choris’ famous watercolor painting of Kamehameha I in a red vest, he is still wearing the royal red & yellow, even in Western clothing; I never noticed this color significance before, but now that it has been pointed out to me, I think it a very interesting sign of the ways in which Hawaiians – like others, around the world – adapted to modernity while retaining their cultural identity and traditions. Tradition, culture, and identity are not irrevocably tied to the past, nor are they incompatible with modernity; we know this so well for ourselves, even for various minority cultures, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, for some reason we have a lot of difficulty with this concept. Choris’ painting shows that Kamehameha had no difficulty with that at all.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 7, 2016.

All photos are my own.

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While at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to see RDK Herman’s exhibit “E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation,” I also got to see the museum’s long-term exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” Treaties – or their absence – are a major feature in the histories we tell of the interactions between China, Japan, Hawaii, and other non-Western nations on the one hand, and Western powers on the other. The Treaties with the US, France, and the Netherlands which showed the Ryukyu Kingdom was recognized as a sovereign member of the international family of nations prior to its unilateral abolition and annexation by Imperial Japan. The Unequal Treaties imposed upon China by the British, and shortly afterward by the other major Western powers. The similar treaties signed with the Western powers by Japan, and the use by Japan of similar treaties to bring Korea out of its special tributary relationship with China and into independent sovereignty in a “modern” sense, so that Korea might be a “free” and “independent” diplomatic and trading partner with Japan. And the absence of a treaty of annexation, the absence of any treaty at all by which the Hawaiian Kingdom agreed to give up its sovereignty or its land to the United States, is arguably one of the most prominent elements in most tellings of the history of Hawaiʻi.

Of course, it would be a true victory of/for cultural relativism if we were to convince ourselves that all societies are truly worthy of our respect regardless of their political character or configuration. But, that remains a difficult thing to achieve, as we all (myself included, of course) are burdened by various biases based on the values and attitudes of our upbringing and the culture in which we are immersed, and so on. And thus, I think something like this is a valuable intermediate step. In the end, notions of the “nation” and indeed of “treaties” and the objectivity or universality of European/Western cultural practices of diplomacy & law, need to be questioned, and I think this exhibit does a rather good job of beginning to break that down – it shows that Western notions of these things were not necessarily better, or more logical, or more advanced, but were simply different, and that the Native Nations had every reason to think their own way was equally valid, or even more valid and true than the Western way. But, even as we try to question this and break this down, to get the average museum visitor to question and relativize things, at the same time, we need to cater to their biases to a certain extent, I think, to argue that, even within this biased Western notion of “nations” – even within this notion that one must be a real Nation to be worthy of certain kinds of respect – these Native Nations do constitute Nations, or should.

Native peoples are more than just another ethnic or cultural minority. They are more than simply another group whose particular needs, attitudes, and interests need to be incorporated into the US American societal, political, and legal landscape cares about or attends to. Native peoples are qualitatively something different from merely a descent group. While Asian-Americans and African-Americans are, by one means or another, diasporic groups, distanced from their ancestral Nations, Native peoples are not, and they constitute those Nations still, down to this day. Or, even if we might apply the term “diaspora,” it is like the Jewish diaspora, exiled from their homeland and scattered, but still a nation in exile, with rightful claims to past nationhood, and to a future return to sovereignty.

Native Nations are groups with which the US – and other members of the family of nations, e.g. Britain, France, Mexico, and Spain – signed Treaties, meaningful (if not necessarily actually binding) under international law. They are groups whose National governance and political identity was (and is) recognized to at least some extent, and who possess(ed) lands. They truly do (or at least did, once) fulfill most if not all of the fundamental features, or qualities, that characterize a sovereign nation according to our general conceptions of that notion – something than cannot be said of other ethnic groups.

And so, while there is most absolutely value in trying to garner support and respect for Native Americans through the typical avenues of identity politics, respect for minority cultures, attacking racism, and so on and so forth, I think that it is through discussion of the history of Treaties that their Nationhood, and not merely their Peoplehood, comes to the fore, highlighting or emphasizing all the more so their rights and claims, and the unjustness of the injustices that have been committed against them. Racism is something to be assaulted, to be combatted, to be dismantled, most certainly. But racism is also intangible and debatable in ways in which (inter)national rights and so forth are not – if we recognize Native Americans as merely a minority, then questions of what does and does not constitute racism against them, or of in what ways and to what extent their culture should be respected, versus an idea that they ought to behave like any other US American, are more debatable- but, by contrast, if we recognize Native peoples as independent, sovereign nations, whose independence and sovereignty has been unlawfully or wrongfully violated, and whose rights to practice their own systems of law, cultural practices, etc within their own sovereign communities have also been violated, I think this makes it more stark, and less debatable.

Turning now to the actual content, and approach, of the exhibit, from the very beginning, and throughout the exhibit, the displays place the Native perspective first, presenting it in a fashion that shows its logic, its reasonableness. It’s amazing how powerful and meaningful such a small, subtle, move can be. In doing so, this exhibit avoids entirely the stereotype of Native ways as superstitious, or illogical, cutting right through all that rhetoric and instead showing the museum visitor (1) how different cultures can simply have very different ways of understanding something, or of performing certain processes, without either one being inherently better, or more logical, and also (2) that Western notions, and ways of doing things, were honestly quite superstitious and illogical themselves. I was reminded of Greg Dening’s article “Possessing Tahiti,” in which, after the English come to Tahiti and claim the island by planting a flag, the French then claim it by burying a plank of wood, and a bottle with the French ship’s crew’s names on papers inside; the Spanish then come and plant a giant cross. Is any of this fundamentally more logical or reasonable, or inherently less superstitious, than the Native practices?

This approach was applied to explain competing cultural notions regarding land & land ownership, law, and the use of language in securing promises or agreements, as well as to show Native & Euro-American perspectives on each of the different treaty negotiations featured. I wish the exhibit had gone a little farther, to explain the Native perceptions, or practices, in each of these realms a little further, since the all-too-brief labels often left the visitor having to fill in the gaps themselves – and most visitors would not possess the knowledge to be able to do so. For example, why and how was it that many Native peoples found oral agreements more meaningful, and more binding, than written ones? How does oral tradition, and the transmission of oral agreements, function in their political culture? For another example, my father said he found the description of Native & Western leadership structures to be too vague, leaving him rather unclear as to just how Native Nations were governed, or politically organized. One thing that was quite interesting, and compelling, however, in this section of the exhibit was the competing, or incompatible, practices, between Western notions that a written and signed agreement (such as a Treaty) was secured for all time, versus the common Native notion that “treaty” relationships had to be constantly renewed, through the performance of actual interpersonal friendship. In other words, just as friendships between individuals shift and change, and are only maintained through actual ongoing friendly interactions, relationships between peoples, too, could not simply be determined in a single moment, and set down on paper for all time, but just the same had to be constantly engaged in, in an ongoing fashion. This same label also reminded us that European notions of treaty law, and international law, were only in their infancy at this time (in the 18th century, when the first treaties between Native Nations and British colonists were being worked out) – it is not as if European/American systems of international relations were already well-worked-out and mature.

“Audience Given by the Trustees of Georgia to a Delegation of Creek Indians,” by William Verelst, 1730s. Reproduced in the exhibit; photo my own.

I also appreciated the nuanced and at least somewhat sympathetic view the exhibit presented on the Westerners, showing that attitudes do change, that relations were once on a more equal basis and could be again. That maybe, just maybe, a lot of the suffering, dispossession, death, and so forth came about for reasons other than just pure, unadulterated, racism and greed, but that rather they came about, at least in part, due to misunderstandings, difficulties in reconciling very different cultures; ignorance and naivete; conflicting needs of two peoples; and so forth, alongside, yes, at times, horrifically racist, even genocidal, attitudes. And, also, that even amidst such racism, arrogance, and aggression, there were also prominent US figures who were far more sympathetic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’ve read my other blog posts, I hope you’ll know that I am as sympathetic as could be with the Indigenous cause. But, I appreciate the allowance of some suggestion, some hint, that even someone like Andrew Jackson may not have fully understood the implications of what he was doing – that the journey itself would be exceptionally difficult, bringing great suffering and numerous deaths; that dividing a people from their land meant disconnecting them from their history, their ancestors’ burials, their folkways; from the plants and mountains and rivers they knew, and how devastating that would be to their culture – and that he may have, at least to some extent, at least at this early stage, have had some greater respect for the Native Americans, and a desire to actually live in peace with them, albeit by removing them to other lands, so that their original lands could be settled by Whites. Cultural relativism is of vital importance as we seek to understand and respect others’ histories and cultures – and I think it of the utmost value that we should work to see Native cultures, histories, and Nations as equally valid, as equally worthy of our respect, as equally deserving of sovereignty and freedom and wellbeing. But cultural relativism has to cut both ways – just as we seek to understand and be sympathetic towards other cultures, we must not forget to also seek to understand and be sympathetic towards our own.

In any case, I was glad to learn a bit more, a bit deeper, about this history. And the exhibit did an amazingly good job of giving equal coverage to many corners of the country. Haudenosaunee Nations (New York/Quebec area) were covered in several sections, Pacific Northwest in another, California in another, the Southwest in another; and the Muscogee (Creek) and the Lakota/Sioux, the Cheyenne, and so on and so forth.

As we learned, unsurprisingly, there was a wide range, a diversity of experiences and interactions and results, as different Nations came up against the colonists or the US government, at different times. Some Treaties are actually still being honored, at least in part; other Nations got no Treaties, and many others’ experiences were in between. Some actually won negotiations, and even gained land or stronger assurances of independence, even if these didn’t last in the end. Others were utterly dispossessed, ruined, with the US using treaty law as a weapon, as a tool for dispossession, rather than as a means of respectful and mutually beneficial agreement. Still, of course, there are great similarities and connections across all these Native experiences – to have it spelled out explicitly, in a gallery label, that no Native Nation, not a single one, retained its land & sovereignty as the end result of contact with the US, is a pretty powerful thing to realize.

And, we learned that the Cherokee Trail of Tears was by far not the only story, or experience, of Removal. Not by a long shot. Some Natives felt this basically meant they could keep only their land, or their sovereignty, not both. Some, for a time, tried to stay. They simply said, “these are our lands, period. That is it. We are not talking to you any more,” and they simply stayed put, for as long as they could manage to resist. Others moved to new lands, but found this brought drastic changes in lifestyle. People lost their folkways – knowledge of those specific lands, of the weather, of the plants, were in many cases no longer valid in the new lands. Further, the actual process of walking to the new lands was exceptionally grueling, and for all too many, deadly. The exhibit leaves it somewhat open as to whether this was “genocide”. Was the utter and complete destruction of these peoples the intent? Or was the incredible extent of death, suffering, and cultural loss an unexpected effect, due to White naivete? I think this nuance, this complexity, is important.

Yet, still, regardless, the outcome was devastating – words fail me, to express how profoundly tragic and injust, we realize this was. Imagine the situation reversed, where some other people has taken over all of Europe, and everyone there is reduced to being regarded as simply “Native Europeans” – the distinctions between English, French, German, and Italian largely ignored, overlooked, and all just considered to be differences between cultural/ethnic minorities, and not Countries, Nations, Kingdoms, that once were sovereign and independent states of their own – and, further, equals, with the potential to have remained equals, as sovereign nations on the world stage. This is what has been lost – self-determination, freedom, sovereignty, land, equality, prosperity. The potential to have been free and prosperous people, sovereign in their own lands, and treated as equal members of the family of nations. The Western/modern concepts of the nation-state, territory, and sovereignty may be Western concepts – not universal, not inherently more right or more logical or more reasonable or more natural – but, even while there is incredible value in breaking down the false universality of such notions, and seeking to respect Native notions of nationhood, of sovereignty, etc., I think there is also value in emphasizing the ways in which Native Nations are still Nations, no different from any other Nation, and worthy of just the same respect.

This lesson of their equality, of their Nationhood, of the validity of their culture and their peoplehood, and this lesson of the horrific losses they have suffered, is a lesson that *must* be learned, shared, by US residents/citizens, and by people around the world, to appreciate the profound extent of the loss, of the destruction, and how it came about. To realize and respect what has been lost, what might have been, and to not only work to ensure that such things do not happen again, but also to seek to make restitution. I am so glad to see the NMAI up and running, and well-attended. The next step is to get this stuff into our textbooks, and to quit the whitewashing of our history.

All photos my own.

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Video tour of the exhibit by curator RDK Herman

I don’t recall where I first heard that the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was doing an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but when I heard, I blogged about it, and decided to try to make sure I would get to DC to see it.

E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation is described by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (in an article hidden behind a paywall but fortunately available on CA Legislation Action Hub of all places) as “the culmination of more than five years of research and development.” In that same article, curator RDK Herman is quoted as saying that this is “the first time Hawaii’s story has been told publicly in Washington, D.C.,” and it was accordingly celebrated with a number of presentations, performances, and events, including a sizable symposium on “The Future of Hawaiian Sovereignty,” much of which is visible on YouTube. And, paired with the “Nation to Nation” exhibit on the history of formal treaties between Native American Nations and the US, makes the exhibit all the more timely and powerful, by connections in themes and historical parallels. So, you can imagine my excitement about this exhibit.

From what little I know of Hawaiian history – I am still very much a novice – I have come to believe strongly in the importance of Hawaiʻi’s story being taught, and learned, and known, by Americans across the country. There is so much to Hawaiʻi’s history which helps us to understand the devastating impacts of capitalistic ideologies that place corporate profits over popular well-being; the power of ideals of pure democracy to steamroll over the rights of specific (minority) peoples; and the beauty and powerful validity of different cultures, and alternate modernities. Hawaiʻi’s history is also an excellent case which helps us to complicate our understanding of American history, and to come closer to a more inclusively complex understanding of our country – there is much more to US history than Whites and Blacks, and Britain and Spain and Mexico, and slavery and civil rights, and Manifest Destiny and the frontier, and the numerous other issues and topics that we tend to make central and prominent in our discussions of mainland US history and issues. Hawaiian history is American history, too, now, as a result of the overthrow. The people who live there are Americans, too, and their stories, their problems, their experiences of racial/ethnic identity, are just as authentically, genuinely, part of the US American story as anyone else’s.1

The NMAI is an incredible place – its “Nation to Nation” exhibit, which I saw the same day, was top-notch – and I had no doubt they would do an excellent job of this. I could not wait to see an exhibit that brought the story of the Hawaiian Kingdom, in all its glory and its tragedy, to the nation’s capital, bringing to DC museumgoing audiences something approximating the experience of visiting the Bishop Museum – an immersive exhibition, loaded with artifacts, from the feather cloaks of the aliʻi to the letters, treaties, petitions, and/or other documents associated with the overthrow.

Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum, Feb 2010. Photo my own.

What a shame, then, that “lack of adequate funding … forced Herman to downsize the exhibit.” I appreciate that there are complicated politics involved here, as they are in any museum exhibit, that museum budgets are generally far tighter than the public imagines, and that having this exhibit come together at all is still a massive accomplishment. Not to mention the fact that this is the National Museum of the American Indian, and there is undoubtedly, and quite understandably, politics surrounding the inclusion of the Hawaiian people, especially where it might take away space and attention from the Ho-Chunk, Chumash, Snohomish, Seminoles, and other mainland Native Nations. I appreciate the difficulties, and I appreciate the accomplishment that this exhibit still nevertheless represents, and so I feel bad to criticize at all. Indeed, I trust that all involved did as much as they could, and so there is no person or institution to criticize – rather, it’s just the circumstances, the limitations of budget, security, space, and so forth; and thus, not a criticism, but simply a shame.

The historical narrative and its powerful lessons are still told in rather good detail, however, in this small exhibition. As you can see in Herman’s video tour (above), and in my own photos (there is unfortunately no exhibit catalog), the beautiful, well-crafted, well-curated, panels cover everything from Hawaiian literacy, symbols of sovereignty, and treaties, to the annexation, to cultural resurgence, sovereignty movements and prospects for the future. And, the panels included some really excellent information, such as treatment of the kingdom’s use of both Native and Western modes of symbolizing sovereignty, a chart of demographic changes over time, and a 2012 anti-annexation (Kū’ē) protest on the National Mall, which I had not known about.

Visitors to E Mau Ke Ea in early May 2016, Photo my own.

I saw quite a number of people make their way through the exhibit while I was there, talking, pointing, questioning – so I do think this exhibit, however small, will make a significant impact. The inclusion of audio stations playing songs evocative of the various periods & historical moments, and of the video Act of War were excellent, and do a lot, too, towards imparting a fuller, more culturally immersive, impact upon visitors.

Yet, still, there were by my count only six artifacts in the gallery, four of which are from the 2010s, and one of which was a reproduction,2 despite the originals being held by the National Archives (NARA) – an institution under the very same broader umbrella organization as the NMAI, namely the federal government, and located only a five-minute walk away, literally. Similarly, I would be very surprised if the Smithsonian doesn’t own, somewhere in one of its various museums, other Hawaiian artifacts. Whatever the conservation concerns may be, and security concerns, it’s hard to imagine the NMAI could not have handled it. It’s not as if they don’t have conservation and security for the rest of their exhibits… But, then again, I don’t work there, I don’t know the behind-the-scenes true details of the situation. Herman’s video would seem to suggest that it was simply security concerns, and the Star-Advertiser budget concerns… So, it is a shame, but, sometimes it truly is the most mundane logistical circumstances which do us in, and sometimes that’s just how it is.

Based on the catalog, it sounds like the 1980 exhibit Hawaiʻi: The Royal Isles was everything this exhibit might have been. I do not know if there have been other such exhibits since, but regardless, I think it is time to see such an exhibit again – large-scale, filling a major gallery (such as the one “Nation to Nation” is in now, or one of similar size and prominence at the American History Museum across the Mall), and filled with numerous significant, precious, and impactful artifacts, conveying a fuller, more thorough narrative and more immersive experience of Hawaiʻi’s greatness, and its tragedy.

Someday. Hopefully, soon. In the meantime, though, my congratulations to Dr. Herman on the accomplishment – an excellent and historic exhibit, the successful culmination of many year’s work, bringing the story of Hawaiʻi’s history to Smithsonian visitors, and an exhibit which I do think will have a significant impact, teaching visitors important and shocking truths of which they had been unaware. My sympathies to him as well that it could not (yet, in this iteration) be all that he had hoped for. I eagerly look forward to seeing the project continue, and grow, and hopefully reach greater successes in future – and I look forward to hopefully being in some position someday where I can contribute somehow to helping to make that happen.


1. With acknowledgement, of course, for the fact that many Native Hawaiians (and people of many other indigenous Nations) do not recognize US authority over them, and do not consider themselves Americans. Still, I think this makes it all the more incumbent upon us to know about their history, their struggles.

2. A pre-overthrow human hair necklace (lei niho palaoa) was the only pre-2010s artifact on display.

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In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.

Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:

This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.

The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.

The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)

In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .

Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.

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Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).

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Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…

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“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:

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Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

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It has been far too long since I’ve written an exhibit review. After all of these book reviews, maybe this could help mix it up a little.

Right: Eagle Gala Dress (2013), by Dorothy Grant (Haida).

The Peabody-Essex is really a wonderful museum. I would love to work there someday. An amazing collection of East Asian and Pacific art, the Yin Yu Tang house, and really top-notch temporary/traveling exhibits, especially for a small town museum. Plus, Salem is a wonderful cute little town; I have only ever been there for day trips, but I have *always* had a great time. I’m actually really kind of surprised that I don’t seem to have more photos from Salem; then again, I hadn’t been in many years, so maybe I wasn’t yet in the habit of using Flickr yet.

Right now, all the way up until March 6, the Peabody-Essex is showing an exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which highlights contemporary fashion designs inspired by Native American traditions. Hyperallergic, I guess I should not be surprised, has done a very nice review of the show, so if you want a better summary/overview of what the show actually features/contains, go read that first and then come back here, and we’ll see what sort of commentary I might be able to add.

Dorothy Grant, “She-Wolf” tuxedo (2014). I’m annoyed the photo didn’t come out sharper. But hopefully you can still make out the Haida patterning on the lapels. Click through for a larger image.

I do love the dresses, and the more art fashion pieces, but there’s also something wonderful about this very sleek, simple, elegant piece, with just enough of a hint of the Native motif. I can imagine that for a Haida person wearing this, it could feel quite powerful, as an expression of one’s identity – attending a black tie affair, and still expressing their identity, wearing a motif exclusive to them.

I have blogged on here about a few exhibits I’ve been fortunate to see, of high art fashion (mostly by Westerner designers) inspired by China, and of contemporary Japanese fashion. And I find all of this terribly fascinating. Just walking around Tokyo, or Kyoto, or elsewhere in Japan, one can see a huge range of fashions, all of them quite arguably “Japanese”, or “authentically Japanese,” authentic simply by virtue of the fact that real Japanese people are indeed choosing to wear them. Basically, a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to culture. TokyoFashion.com is a great website for this sort of thing, too – though they do tend to focus on Harajuku, there’s a pretty wide variety of approaches and styles in there. Basically, the point I mean to reach in this side tangent is simply to say I do think it fascinating how Japanese (or Chinese, or people of many other cultures) employ, adapt, re-invent elements of their own cultural tradition to make a contemporary statement. That’s what a lot of Neo-Nihonga and such is, and what I find fascinating in that realm, too. And I would love to see a museum exhibit about, specifically, that sort of fashion – specifically Japanese fashion that incorporates elements of “Japanese culture” or “tradition.”

But, returning to Native Fashion Now, in a nutshell, “Native Fashion Now” beautifully exhibits how people can, and do, express their Native American identity, embrace it, perform it, display it, in thoroughly modern ways.

While it may be relatively easy to see the contemporary and the traditional as two parts of Japanese culture, neither less authentic or real than the other, Native American cultures (or perhaps, indigenous cultures, more broadly) tend not to be seen that way, in the mainstream imagination. Conventional mainstream attitudes view, or imagine, Native American culture and identity in a unique way, notably dissimilar from how we understand Jewish, Arab/Muslim, East Asian, or African identities and cultures. Or, if not unique to the Native American experience, perhaps it is something particular to how we approach indigenous cultures, as a category. There are few who would look twice, or protest, if they saw Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Africans adapting their traditional styles and motifs into modern fashions. Cultures change and evolve, and few (I should hope) would have much difficulty imagining, and accepting, that all of these cultures exist in a modern form, and that these people lead fully modern lives. Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. “perform” their ethnic/national identities in thoroughly contemporary ways, adapting and innovating. But, because of the particular discursive constructions surrounding Indigenous Peoples – that is, because of the way 18th-20th century people conceived of indigenous peoples as primitive, as un-modern, as being in need of education & civilizing – mainstream attitudes have a problem with conceiving of how one could be Native American, and also modern. Native American and also “regular” American. In the mainstream discourse, in the mainstream mind, being indigenous means being traditional, and if living a typical modern life means being less traditional, then it means being less Native American, too, right? Wrong. If living a modern life doesn’t make you any less Jewish(-American) or Chinese(-American), just because the traditions have changed or evolved or diluted (weakened, arguably), then why should anyone be seen as being less Native American, less truly or authentically Native American, just because their lifestyle doesn’t match that of their ancestors?

Louis Vuitton Quiver (2007), Kent Monkman (Cree). Monkman plays off of the expectations, the demands of mainstream stereotypes that associate Native Americans so closely with archery, and with feathers. What, as if they all wear feathers and carry a bow all the time? But then he combines this with Louis Vuitton patterning, a parody of sorts of what indigenous modernity should look like. Does being a Native American in the modern world mean having a Louis Vuitton quiver? Or maybe it means not having a quiver at all. I may be totally off-base, but I imagine that perhaps the artist seeks to shock with this very basic concept – what do you mean Native Americans are just like the rest of us, in t-shirts and jeans, or in suits and slacks? How can you be Native American without feathers and bows & arrows?

Maybe it’s just my own experience, growing up where and how I did, not being exposed very much to any Native American presence in my life growing up, that I had come to hold these stereotyped views about Native Americans. But I do get the sense – both from my own experience, and from serious classroom lectures, readings, etc. – that this is a widespread and extensive discourse, growing out of colonialism and racism and so forth of (especially) the 19th century. I would be curious what experiences or impressions those who grew up in other parts of the country – or in other countries – might have had. For those of you who grew up in areas, or communities, where Native American or First Nation culture was much more present, did you grow up having the same ideas about Native American culture & identity, as traditional, as being opposed to modernity? Similar ideas about people being somehow less authentic if they didn’t lead more wholly traditional lives?

Of course, talking about Native American fashions, and adapting them creatively, one can’t easily avoid the question, or issue, of cultural appropriation. After all, Native American culture – like other indigenous cultures around the world – has faced particularly severe assaults, such that traditions and identity, and in some cases entire peoples, have severely diminished or disappeared entirely; so these cultures, as understood and practiced and cherished by Native people, and not as appropriated and re-invented by others, ought to be approached with an extra degree of respect. Further, unlike many elements of many cultures, which have no real sacred or taboo power to them (*achem* like the kimono *cough*), in many Native American cultures, many garments, accessories, motifs, and so forth are very strictly associated only with particular events or rituals, or can only be worn by particular people, or have to be earned; and for anyone else to wear it, use it, or even touch it – let alone to appropriate it – is sacrilegious, a violation. It is taboo in the truest, original sense of the word.

I quite liked the way the exhibit addressed these issues, when it came to designs by non-Native designers. As one gallery label reads:

Totem-pole designs of the Pacific Northwest Coast captivated the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, inspiring him to create this masterfully embroidered dress. … And yet Mizrahi is not Native – so what to think of his appropriation of these motifs?

Cultural borrowing is complex. Fashion designers are renowned remixers – voracious consumers of images and ideas. Mizrahi makes reference to totem poles, but he does not replicate one exactly. He emulates, yet he also produces a new style.

I am by no means saying this is perfect, or that there is (or should be) any one, singular, way that is the only way these things should be addressed. I’m not putting my foot down and taking a stand behind this approach. But, I like it. It acknowledges that appropriation is problematic, but also acknowledges that cultural borrowing is complex (oh my god thank you. yes. nuance and complexity, people. come on, get it together.), and it encourages visitors to think about the complexities for themselves. Artists and designers, and indeed all people, are inspired by all the things around them. And a great many of those things are from other cultures, that are not one’s own, but they are present in one’s life, one’s experiences, and they are inspiring nonetheless. What kinds of derivative works – that is, what kinds of “inspired by” – are okay, and which are not? Who has the right to produce inspired or derivative works? As the label states, all the designers in this show, including both Mizrahi and the Native American designers, are borrowers, are remixers. And, as the Hyperallergic article says, let us not forget that many of these designers “have been consistently told they were “not Native enough” to be lauded as Native artists.” So, what kind of borrowing and remixing is okay, and by whom, and which is not? And as much as many blog posts, academic journal articles, and the like assert that there is a single definitive answer to that question, I’m not sure that’s really the case.

Left: Kimono and Obi (2011), Toni Williams (Northern Arapaho)

This brings us to another interesting item in the exhibit. A kimono – very clearly patterned after the Japanese garment – adapted with a Native American design. The artist, Toni Williams, is Arapaho, but she’s not Japanese (as far as we are told, on the gallery labels). Is this not cultural appropriation? For those screaming bloody murder about the thing at the MFA, is this not just as offensive? If not, why not? Is it perfectly okay because the Native American designer is a person of color? Can only white people perform cultural appropriation? Are all people of color, from Latinos to Native Americans to Asians to Arabs incapable of racism, even when it concerns a culture vastly different from their own? If the main objection to the kimono at the MFA was that using the kimono as merely a costume, merely an accessory, is offensive because it relates to a notion of simply taking anything you want from any other culture, willy-nilly, then isn’t this the same? Are all Native American cultures or identities one big group, and are they allowed to borrow from one another’s cultures? If a Diné were to appropriate elements of Haida culture for their designs, where does that fall on a spectrum of offensiveness, compared to a Japanese artist, or a Jewish artist, appropriating those Haida designs?

Did the Native American designer Toni Williams get special permission from a professional kimono designer to do this? And even if she did get permission from a professional kimono-maker in Kyoto, well, so did the MFA, so does it matter? After all, the Asian-American experience is not the same as the Japanese one (in Asia), and so how could a Japanese understand how Asian-Americans feel about this? Anyway.. I think it’s worth thinking about, and discussing. Is this okay? If it is, why? What makes it different? What makes this inoffensive, and how can we (others, everyone) seek to emulate that, in order to avoid offense?

Right: Carla Hemlock (Mohawk), Treaty Cloth Shirt (2012). Features the 1794 Treaty between the US and the Iroquois Confederation. I’m a bit surprised that the artist would choose a Treaty that’s actually been consistently honored, rather than the more political art message of choosing one the US has trampled on. I’m also surprised there are any Native American treaties the US has actually consistently honored.

Apologies to have allowed the cultural appropriation talk to dominate this post. It’s really not that central or prominent a theme within the exhibit. Rather, the theme I most took away was one of “indigenous modernity,” though I doubt that term would have appeared verbatim anywhere on the labels. Native American culture is living, and it is contemporary. Native Americans are no more obligated to be traditional in order to be “true” Native Americans than Jews or Chinese or Dutchmen or anyone else is. They are not less Native American for being less traditional – just as I am myself no less Jewish for not observing the same traditions and leading the same lifestyle as my ancestors. And once you “get” this concept, boy, contemporary Native American culture can be really cool.

Native Fashion Now is showing at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. until March 6, 2016. It is included with regular museum admission – no extra charge. A huge thank you to the PEM for that, and for allowing photos!

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