National Museum of the American
Indian in Washington D.C.
Story & photos by JUDY HODGSONz
ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO MERV GEORGE SR. WAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee on some issues. While he was there he decided to tour the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's exhibit of the Hupa, his own tribe. What he saw was a male mannequin standing with a spear -- a weapon more appropriate for an African exhibit. The female mannequin wearing a crude, matted horsehair wig and a beaded dress that is normally used only for the tribe's sacred dances was inexplicably grinding acorns, a kitchen chore. A young child looking at the exhibit said to his mother, "Look Mommy, she doesn't have clothes on" underneath the elaborately beaded top of the dress. The mother replied that was how Indians dressed in the old days -- long ago.
"I was embarrassed by it," George said earlier this month in an interview with the Journal. He said he wanted to tell the Smithsonian visitors that the Hupa are still very much alive -- that they still dance and sing and practice their own religion. He wanted to tell them the Hupa -- his people -- never fully stopped practicing their cultural way of life despite decades of attempts at forced assimilation by the U.S. government.
Front row left to right: Merv George Sr., religious dance leader and keeper of the regalia for the Hupa tribe; Laura Lee George; two of their 12 grandchildren, Merv George III (behind) and Deja Rain George; and David Risling. [Photo by Bob Hodgson]
George was silent and ashamed that day in the old Smithsonian. But he was beaming with pride last week as he, his family and other Hupa, Yurok, Tolowa, Wiyot and Karuk from the North Coast, joined an estimated 25,000 other Native Americans on the National Mall. With many in full regalia -- and with great dignity and joy -- they walked toward the Capitol that day to celebrate the opening of the newest Smithsonian: the National Museum of the American Indian.
George [photo below left] , now 60, grew up on the Hoopa Reservation listening to stories. (Hoopa is the land, Hupa are the people.) His mother told him of the government-run boarding school she was forced to attend as a girl when the reservation was occupied by federal troops stationed there at Fort Gaston.
"It was a school they put them in to teach them how to be a seamstress, leather worker, [or] farmer," George said. "You weren't allowed to speak your language. You weren't allowed to do your dances."
The federal government was not alone in its attempt to "civilize" the Hupa. Christian churches sprang up and, with the blessing of the government, competed for converts.
"At one time there must have been seven or eight churches in the valley," George said. "They were trying to get younger people involved. What I didn't like when I was growing up is ... they used to march us over to the Presbyterian Church from the school and set us down and preach to us for an hour -- tell us we're going to die, we're going to burn in Hell if we didn't believe.
"Do you know what that does to an 8-year-old psyche? I used to go home and ask my mother, am I going to die if I don't believe in that, what they believe in?"
The obvious conflict is that the Hupa have always had their own spiritual beliefs.
"From day one I was taught that you believe in the spirit people," George said. "The spirit people [take] care of us. We talk to them, we pray to them. Everything has a life -- everything. Even the trees dance."
The Hupa religion is one based on balance, explained George, who is the religious dance leader of the tribe and keeper of the regalia. If there is a war going on somewhere in the world as there is now [some Hupa are serving in Iraq], if someone is sick, the Hupa dance and pray.
"Our Jump Dance is designed for that -- to try to drive evil things, bad things, away [and] bring back balance again," George said. The Deerskin Dance is done before the Hupa set out to gather things -- deer meat, fish, acorns -- "so we can live our lives in balance."
Some Hupa did convert to Christianity and remain Christian today, creating a conflict of beliefs in the tribe. For a time when the dances were forbidden, some tribal members danced and prayed in secret in the hills. George's grandmother told him of the time the Hupa tribe formally petitioned the federal government for permission to perform their sacred dances, and it was granted on one condition.
"They had to walk under this [American] flag hanging in the tree up in Bald Hill," where the dances would end up.
George said in 1954 the government wanted to make a reservoir out of the Hoopa Valley by putting a dam near Weitchpec.
"I was a young fellow then," he said. He recalls that it was the sacred dances performed on land that the government wanted to flood that raised questions of religious freedom and eventually saved the valley.
George worked for the city of Eureka for 30 years before he retired as a maintenance supervisor six years ago. He raised his family in the city but always called Hoopa home. He also has been a professional musician since he was 12. Occasionally his band, the Merv George Band, comes out of retirement, with his 31-year-old son, Merv George Jr., on drums. His music -- the country tunes, rock 'n' roll and funk -- are all retained in his memory. So are his tribal prayers, songs and chants. He said he can sometimes still hear the voice of his grandfather, who was also a gifted singer, in the back of his head.
"There is nothing written. People used to put them down on tapes [but] some of the songs are nothing more than just sounds," he said.
"When I was growing up, my mother told me, don't bother the people over there. They're putting on a dance," George said. So he used to sit and listen to the elders sing, and he learned from them.
George received his family's dance regalia from his great uncle through his uncle. He was chosen to lead the religious dances.
"It's handed down through generations. We have always done these dances, no matter what they [the federal government] tried to do to us."
Because of his interest, knowledge and leadership position in the nearly 3,000-member tribe, George was recommended five years ago to the Smithsonian as a consultant by David Risling, a retired professor from UC-Davis and a tribal member. It was a great honor for the Hupa because only 24 or the more than 400 tribes of the Americas were chosen to have a major exhibit at the opening of the new museum.
Museum officials came out to Hoopa and asked if George would serve as a curator along with his wife, Laura Lee George, assistant superintendent of the Klamath-Trinity School District; his son, George Jr., a fisheries consultant; and his daughter-in-law, Wendy George, a firefighter who serves on the Hoopa Tribal Council. The four were flown back to Washington to help identify artifacts and explain how they were used and how they should be displayed. Some of the pieces were from the original Smithsonian collection and many others were recently donated as part of the collection of the late George Gustav Heye of New York. Daughter Melodie George, a linguist who teaches the Hupa language at Hoopa High School and Hoopa Elementary, was also instrumental in the final design and content of the new exhibit, as was Risling.
George Sr., in particular, was excited about the project because of his experience a decade ago. "[I thought] here's my way of trying to right the wrong [of how] they depicted us back there."
In doing so, George chose a path of cooperation with a government that unfairly treated his people in the past. He even contributed a few modern items to the current exhibit, including a ceremonial stick that holds the museum's white deerskin. There are others in his tribe, he said, who believe all artifacts possessed by the government and private museums should be returned to the tribes, not just sacred items and human remains. (See sidebar.)
The day dawned clear on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Visitors arriving by the nearest Metro station two blocks away emerged from the underground to see the sun rising over the new $219 million museum, a tan edifice resembling the windswept sand cliffs of the American Southwest. Approaching from the rear along Maryland Avenue, the structure looks enormous compared to the adjacent gleaming white Capitol dome.
In front of the museum entrance on the Mall is a wetlands with a meandering stream and water spilling over slabs of rock. Giant boulders, called grandfather rocks, a sacred Native American symbol, dot the landscape, along with native plants. Along one side is a vegetable garden of corn and squash.
Early morning view on Maryland Avenue.
Groups of First Americans, the term used during the opening week of celebration, representing more than 400 tribes, began arriving shortly after daybreak. Their regalia was sometimes more colorful, and certainly as varied, as the birds of the world. From South America came one dignified group in somber-tone handwoven plaid shirts buttoned up to the neck. Turn another way and there was a proud warrior from Colombia elaborately clad head to toe in peacock feathers, beads and gold.
Tribes gathered at the opposite end of the Mall, past the Smithsonian Castle near the Washington Monument. The plan was for each tribe to report to a color-and-number-coded sign --3, for instance -- which were set up in neat rows. At exactly 10 a.m. the tribes were to merge alphabetically into two lines and proceed up the Mall to seats facing the stage in front of the Capitol.
But the celebration began hours early with impromptu performances of chanters, dancers and drummers, groups posing for photographs and video cameras. Every once in a while organizers would ask over a loudspeaker for one line or another to move forward, closer toward the starting point. Finally, about 20 minutes ahead of schedule, the procession surged forward, with volunteers attempting in vain to keep the spectators at bay. No one appeared to be the least bit upset about the festive disorganization, except for a television news crew from MSNBC who were jostled around.
The mood of the participants was triumphant. It was the largest gathering of Native Americans ever, and those participating sensed the historic significance. Somewhere along the route, tribes starting with the letter "S" began appearing before those with an "M" and nobody cared.
Once settled in their seats, the crowd listened to speeches by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) who, along with Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), sponsored the 1989 legislation passed by Congress that mandated the museum's construction. Inouye said it was nearly two decades ago that he realized out of the 400 statues and monuments in D.C., there was not one for the Native American -- a wrong that needed righting.
W. Richard West Jr., the museum's director and a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, told the gathering just prior to the ribbon cutting: "To those of you within sight and sound of this occasion, and who descend from those who came, welcome to Native America. And I say to those of you who descend from the native ancestors, who are already here, welcome home."
Due to crowds, estimated to be about 80,000, only those with advanced tickets could actually tour the museum that day. Inside visitors were greeted by a 120-foot-tall glass-topped rotunda shaped like a perfect sphere and ringed by balconies on each of the four levels. The first floor has a main theater for stage plays, storytelling, dance and music presentations. A cafe features cedar-planked salmon, nuts and fresh berries, buffalo burgers and Indian frybread.
Approximately 8,000 objects from the museum's permanent collection are on view throughout. The Hupa exhibit, on the fourth floor, is part of three permanent groupings called "Our Universes," "Our People" and "Our Lives." These 24 inaugural exhibits will be on display until at least 2006 when the museum will begin to rotate exhibits from other tribes.
The George family and Risling are featured in a photo gallery as curators near the entrance to the Hupa exhibit. In the interview two weeks ago, George Sr. said his son had previewed the final display last month and was pleased, but he himself would be viewing it for the first time at the opening.
Just past the entry, visitors step through a round opening made of wood that resembles a cedar plank house. (George said the museum staff originally wanted to reconstruct an entire building but there wasn't enough room.) Inside behind glass are artifacts and mannequins in dance regalia authentically depicting the Hupa people.
One Tolowa youth stared at a male mannequin opening day and excitedly told a friend, "See that headdress? That's just like mine. That looks like my tribe, too."
Against the back curved wall -- the building is entirely nonlinear -- is a small video screen set in an open case lined with familiar river rock. On the screen is a short video that plays continually. With a backdrop of spectacular scenery from the Hoopa Reservation, Merv Sr. explains the healing brush dance held in the church house. Melodie George talks of the significance of the Flower Dance for young girls coming of age, a dance that has been resurrected after a 25-year gap. Wendy George tells visitors of the challenges facing basket makers today because of herbicides on the basket reeds that are run through the weaver's mouth as they work.
But it is Merv George Jr., a fisheries specialist, on video who leaves a powerful and lasting impression -- that this museum is about current events and issues, not just the past. He explains that the Hoopa Reservation, the largest is California, is dependent on the Trinity River.
"It is who we are. It runs directly through the reservation like blood through our veins," he says. Yet today the tribe's life and culture continue to be disrupted, threatened -- out of balance -- due to water diversion, he says.
In 2001, on the third day of the White Deerskin Dance, the dancers entered their dugout canoes for a trip up the Trinity. That day, due to low water flows, one canoe hit a rock, became stuck and began taking on water, forcing the dancers out of the boat.
So the Hupa continue to dance and pray for water to be returned to the river. In the meantime, Merv George Jr. says, they are forced to periodically apply to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to release more water from federal government's dam upstream just prior to their sacred dances so the canoes won't bottom out, throwing the ceremony -- and their world -- out of balance.
by BOB DORAN
SEVEN-YEAR-OLD MERV GEORGE III, GRANDSON OF the Hupa's keeper of regalia, walked proudly in the procession celebrating the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian last week wearing a traditional headdress, a brilliant splash of red and white made by his father, Merv George Jr., from white deerskin decorated with dozens of shining woodpecker scalps.
A similar headdress is stored in the Hoopa Tribal Museum on the reservation. Double-wrapped in plastic bags, it's stashed away, never to be worn. Even handling it requires protective gloves since some long-forgotten cultural anthropologist treated it with poisonous chemicals.
[Right: Historical photo showing traditional headdresses made from white deerskin decorated with dozens of shining woodpecker scalps from Jump Dance held in Pecwan, Humboldt County, circa 1900.]
It's a dilemma faced by tribes all over the United States. Federal law now allows them to retrieve long lost artifacts stored in museums, but they often find the objects, once vital elements of their culture, tainted by chemicals used to preserve them.
An important element in the Hupa religion is keeping the world in balance, a process that involves periodic renewal ceremonies including the Jump Dance and the White Deerskin Dance. Both involve ceremonial objects and regalia. While some of the regalia has been passed down from generation to generation, pieces were lost over the years, seized by the military or sometimes traded away when times were hard.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, signed by the first President Bush in 1990, requires federally funded institutions like the Smithsonian to return sacred objects and human remains, but not other artifacts, to the tribes they were taken from.
Passage of the law allowed the Hupa to seek the return of a number of ceremonial items -- headdresses, dance costumes and baskets -- many of them taken away in the early 1900s at a time when the federal government was trying to "civilize" tribes by outlawing many of their cultural practices.
Merv George Sr. recalled stories about when the troops left. "They took wagon loads of this stuff that they confiscated from people, loaded it up and headed out."
Some of the tribe's artifacts ended up in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. A few years ago David Hostler, who served as curator for the Hoopa Tribal Museum, obtained an inventory of the Peabody's holdings and traveled to Harvard to reclaim items that once belonged to the tribe.
Hostler said he was surprised when he arrived at the museum. Before he could look at the Hupa pieces, museum officials insisted that he put on gloves and a mask for protection from toxic materials.
"Some of the stuff [had been] sprayed with arsenic and mercury and whatever else," said George. Turn-of-the-century museum curators, using preservation methods from a time when awareness of toxic substances was negligible, had rendered the Hupa sacred artifacts poisonous. In particular, George recalled the woodpecker headdress.
"We can't use it," he said with a note of sadness. "It was so full of this stuff, it was just oily. If you put it on, [the poison] goes in your pores because you sweat. It's up in Hoopa in the museum, but they've got it all wrapped up."
George said the tribe's relationship with the Smithsonian is different, and the Hupa have not asked for the return of items from its collection.
"Some people [think] we should get all of it back. But I'm one who feels that I can work with them. Maybe they could send the stuff when we dance. I could tell them what we need ... and maybe [they] could send me some feathers or a Jump Dance basket."
The loan-back idea was put into practice a few years ago when George's granddaughter celebrated her coming of age with a traditional Flower Dance.
In response to George's request, a representative from the Smithsonian flew out to California and hand delivered a woven hat to be used in the ceremony.
"They brought me a flower dance hat. We danced for her and I wore it," George said. "It was more or less a symbolic gesture on their part. I gave it back and they put it back in the museum."
© Copyright 2004, North Coast Journal, Inc.