A Poisoned Legacy

A carved wooden mask is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in Gallery 746. According to the Met, it was made and used by the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq people of northern North America and “collected” from them in about 1870. The image is now part of the Met’s public domain image collection and was originally pictured here. But until we find out whether or not the mask should be displayed this way, we are not sharing its image in public. Here is what the website says about the mask (the text refers to two masks, only one of which was pictured):

“The peoples of the Arctic region use music and performance to invoke the spirit realm. According to native Alaskan beliefs, spirits communicate with people through whistling: these masks may be the faces of such supernatural beings, as they appear to whistle at their beholders. The formal resemblance between the pair, including the prominent noses, minimal eyes, and pointed head decorations, may mark them as specific, linked characters in a myth. Early twentieth-century modernist artists and collectors were drawn to the bold simplicity of such works.”

What’s important here is that the description of the mask — the explanation of its significance — is written by people outside the tradition, culture, and worldview within which the mask was made and to which it belongs. The “bold simplicity” of the work mentioned in the last line, which is meant to help explain why the object can or should be seen as meaningful, is standard language used to signify what was until recently called “primitive art.” There are many issues here, related to this mask being in this location with this description, but the one I want to focus on is the difference between the ways Indigenous and Western peoples understand art. In Western culture, art is primarily seen as decorative or, in the case of “advanced” or “more modern” art, expressive of emotions and impressions of life. In some special cases, art is also seen as representational and/or symbolic, in which case human beings selectively choose objects that can be drawn or painted to communicate something else. So for example, the image of a rose in a stained glass window or floor mosaic represents the Virgin Mary in many old European cathedrals. But in all cases, Western culture sees art as the product of human minds and therefore as a derivative object rather than something with its own autonomy and agency.

Indigenous peoples understand art very differently. A mask such as this one manifests Knowledge that may also be transmitted in a story, song, or ritual. The mask was a living manifestation of Knowledge when it was made. This Knowledge still exists, so the mask is still a living manifestation of that Knowledge now, just as it was when the mask was first carved. The story, song, and/or ritual that recreate the experience of Knowing manifested in the mask still exist too. Because the mask is a manifestation of living Knowledge, it has autonomy and agency of its own. This is why, with respect to a different Indigenous “work of art,” “The Witness Blanket,” Canada recognized it as a “living entity” vested with legal rights of its own, rather than as a piece of property whose rights belong to human beings.

As you might guess, this means that a mask or other “work of art” must be made with great care. All the materials used to make the object must be selected and harvested with prayer and permission. Before work begins, the artist often engages in spiritual centering through fasting, prayer, or other ritual. During the time the work is done, the artist is careful not to harbor negative thoughts or emotions, but instead focuses thoughts and feelings on the nature and meaning of the item being fashioned and the larger story of which it is a part — the Knowledge it will help manifest as it comes into existence in a material form. Then once the object has been finished, it is cared for as a living thing. It is treated with respect, often smudged with tobacco or sage, and sometimes fed small bits of cornmeal or other foods. So Indigenous “works of art” such as this mask are not at all “primitive” but imbued with layer upon layer of meaning and significance. Western scholars are stuck trying to understand this because there is no correlate to the Indigenous understanding of “art” in Western culture. That’s because of Western culture’s deeply dualistic separation of matter from spirit, human from nature, and mind from body.

Once you start to understand an Indigenous view of “art” such as this mask, you may begin to realize that its display in a New York museum, so far from home, is actually imprisonment: a living thing that manifests essential Knowledge which maintains and nourishes relationship and reciprocity between the people to whom the mask belongs and the environment these people live in has been taken far from its home and its people and locked away where it can no longer interact with any of them. This is the problem Indigenous people have had for centuries with museum and private collections of clothing, ceremonial objects, masks, beadwork, and objects of daily life that were carefully designed to engage those who used them with the larger world and the Knowledge necessary for right living. As a result, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) called for the return of “funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony” to our people from museum collections, as well as the return of the bodily remains of our ancestors for burial or reburial (since in many cases they had been buried to begin with but dug up by archeologists).

This has been a long and difficult process, though many American museums have worked respectfully with Native people. But today Atlas Obscura reports a new wrinkle that’s developed in the process of restoring these objects to their rightful home communities: poison. It turns out that since the 1800s museums have used as many as 55 different poisons to protect the items in their collections from insect damage. The poisons are highly toxic, including lead and arsenic. And since these objects are used in rituals, they come in close contact with humans who can then be harmed. Atlas Obscura reports that, understandably, Indigenous people who were eager to finally get back long-lost and highly-cherished members of their community are distraught to learn they’ve been dangerously contaminated. To museum personnel, the most significant problem is the risk to the health and safety of the people using the restored objects. And of course that’s important to Native people too. But if you think about the way that a “work of art” is made in our traditional cultures — the way the materials are selected, for example — you can see that saturating these items with poison is a shocking idea to someone in Indigenous worldview. The sacred thing has literally been poisoned in a way that contaminates and harms all the layers of reality that live in and manifest through the object.

“The revelations about pesticide use were like “the straw that broke the camel’s back” for many indigenous communities, says Alyce Sadongei, one of Odegaard’s museum colleagues and a member of the Kiowa and Tohono O’odham peoples. “A lot of people were angry and upset because these aren’t just typical utilitarian objects, they were very, very significant objects. . .’” (Atlas Obscura)

I hope this statement will mean more to you, now that you have read this bit of explanation about Indigenous “works of art,” than it meant to someone reading the well-intentioned and helpful, but still Western-culture-based, Atlas Obscure article today. That’s the purpose of many of our Tapestry blog posts, is to provide information that helps people of the dominant culture better understand Indigenous peoples and ways so we can work together more productively. Tribes and museums are working together now to come up with solutions that can still bring the objects kept in museums for so many decades back home again safely, and restore them to the lives and communities of which they have always been a sacred part. But it would not have been necessary to restore the items to begin with, or to find ways to identify the poisons they now carry and try to decontaminate them, if the people of Western culture understood Indigenous views of art as a Way of Knowing rather than a body of objects that are merely beautiful and decorative, that are sometimes representational or symbolic. Art is, of course, all those things. It’s just so much more in Indigenous worldview.