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Guiding Spirit

American Indian Museum Curators Look Beyond the Objects to the Power Within

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page C01

To interpret the objects in the National Museum of the American Indian, you need to know their language: the history of a tribe, the meaning of its ceremonies, the names of the ancestors. Or you need a translator, someone like George Horse Capture, one of the museum's senior curators, to tell you what things mean -- how colors and designs and bear claws can carry energy; how the inspiration for what to put in sacred medicine bundles comes to people in dreams.

If you believe in the power of objects, you see a war shirt in terms that are decidedly unshirtlike. It is a poem of sorts that tells of "pain, massacres, diseases, hope," Horse Capture says. It is a living object, as those at the museum like to say. It tells the story of an ancestor.

George Horse Capture, a senior curator at the American Indian museum, with a painting of the God of Thunder from a chief's house on Vancouver Island. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

"He wore that shirt and then, through all of his activities, he sweated and he transferred some of his body onto that shirt," Horse Capture says, standing in the museum, which he's been working to make real for 11 years. Imagine touching that shirt, Horse Capture says, as he reaches over and tugs your sleeve. "The connection is made, a direct and physical connection. A bridge is formed between our ancestors and us."

Throughout the new museum, which opens Tuesday, is the explicit message that its displays have layers of meaning, that many objects here have spiritual dimensions greater than their aesthetic value. In a collection known as "Our Universes," a beaded pouch in the shape of a turtle turns out to be a navel amulet. A Lakota object that holds a child's umbilical cord acts as spiritual protection. In the Lelawi Theater there are several red stone pipes on display. The stems are separated from the bowls because many Indians believe it is only during ceremonies that they should be connected, and their full power realized.

Horse Capture, 66, a member of the Montana tribe known as the A'aninin (or Gros Ventre), draws his hands toward his belly when he talks about power, as if it's a force he can feel in his gut. He says that when he curated the Plains Indian Museum in Cody, Wyo., he put together a show that included a cane that had belonged to Sitting Bull. "When no one was looking, I took off my glove -- it was lunch time -- and I held that cane like this and bzzz! You could feel the power."

But how do you quantify a feeling? What if not everyone feels it? The challenge of the new museum is the scope and diversity of the stories it must tell, on behalf of millions of people with different notions of what is beautiful and meaningful and holy. In its collections are brightly colored Hopi kachina dolls, whimsical-looking figures carved from cottonwood root that are traditionally given to children to teach them about kachinas -- beneficent spirit messengers. Some Hopis believe these dolls need to breathe, so their heads should never be covered. Some call the dolls "sacred" and "living," and say they should never be sold.

Other Hopis sell them to tourists as souvenirs.

What's sacred? Words get slippery here. You start talking about the museum's objects and an Osage scholar corrects you. He doesn't like that word, object. It is too utilitarian, perhaps, too stripped of power. As if a war shirt could be just a shirt.

'Life in All of Nature'

The way many American Indians see it, an object can carry the energy of a person who once owned it. An item decorated with an eagle feather can carry the spirit of that eagle. A rock can be seen as having power because it belongs to the natural world. Because of their histories and their associations, objects tell stories.

"There is a very important respect in which Native American people see objects as being living, as animate instead of inanimate," says W. Richard West Jr., director of the museum. There is "life in all of nature," West says, and therefore life in things people craft out of nature. West, a Southern Cheyenne chief, says the buckskin shirt he wears to powwows has a connection to the animal it came from.

Objects used in ceremonies also have power. When West was recovering this winter from prostate cancer surgery, he kept close a shawl his brother had used in a Cheyenne sun dance, an annual summer ceremony of renewal. "It was a comfort to me, and it was strengthening," he says. "It was an object that had been prayed over, if you will, by the leaders of the sun dance, and it had been around the sun dance fire."

Suzan Shown Harjo, a former museum trustee who is Cheyenne and Muscogee and heads an Indian-rights advocacy group in Washington, expresses reverence for the connection between people and their objects.

"I would never walk into any place, any home and touch a doll or a mask or anything where I didn't know what it was," she says. "There is about the reality of a doll for a child that is about as spiritual as you can get. I mean, that's a real being. And you don't know what happened to that child. . . . You don't know what that doll represents."

In other words, you don't know its power.

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