Via The New York Times, May 5, 2022
Crafted of wood, iron, plant fiber and animal sinew, the model of 10 men paddling a canoe would strike most viewers as a beautiful object. But to Haa’yuups, head of the House of Takiishtakamlthat-h of the Huupa‘chesat-h First Nation, on Vancouver Island, Canada, it also holds a mystical power. A spirit canoe, it represents the ripple of invisible oars in the water — a sound that people of his community report hearing after they have purified themselves through fasting and bathing.
When the Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History reopens to the public on May 13, after a five-year, $19 million renovation, the spirit canoe — which was not previously shown — will be one of more than 1,000 artifacts on view. Organized by Haa’yuups and Peter Whiteley, the curator of North American ethnology at the museum, the redesigned exhibit expresses the perspectives of the 10 nations whose cultures are on display: placing an emphasis on the spiritual and functional purposes of the objects for the people who made them, and incorporating testimony from community representatives about government repression of their culture.
The Northwest Coast Hall was the first gallery to open at the museum. Inaugurated in 1899 by Franz Boas, a giant of anthropology who conducted extensive field work in the Pacific Northwest, it embodied what was at the time cutting-edge thinking. At other museums, notably the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Indigenous people were regarded as “savages” who needed to be “civilized.”