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Longtime Kake fisherman Clarence Jackson, 71, has served on the board of Sealaska Heritage Institute for almost 20 years and is a respected elder and oral historian. But he was humbled when the National Museum of the American Indian invited him to curate the Tlingit section of "Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life along the North Pacific Coast," an 11-community exhibit that opens at noon Friday in Washington, D.C.
"I feel very inadequate," Jackson said. "I'm not an artist, but I know a little about the Indian art from way back and from now. This is something new to me, and I'm learning a lot. I'm enjoying it immensely."
"Listening to Our Ancestors" will include more than 400 items from Alaska, Washington state and British Columbia. It will be the second show in the Changing Exhibitions Gallery since the museum opened in September 2004, and it will be on display until Jan. 2, 2007.
The exhibit includes Tsimshian items from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Haida collections from three communities, including Hydaburg.
The other communities in the exhibit are Coast Salish, Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootkan), Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl),Heiltsuk (Bella Bella), Bella Bella (Waglisa), Nuxalk (Bella Coola), Gitxsan and Nisga'a.
Eventually, each section of the exhibit will travel to the community it represents. The dates and locations have not been finalized.
"By inviting the tribes to help develop the exhibition, an important partnership and dialogue has emerged through which the museum, the communities and visitors can learn about the cultures from the North Pacific Coast," said museum founder W. Richard West Jr., in a press release.
Museum staff and Northwest Coast scholars Jay Stewart and Peter Macnair invited curators from each community to help assemble the show out of contents from the museum's collection.
Jackson visited the museum for its grand opening celebration in 2004 on the National Mall. He's returned twice since then, including an April 2005 visit with Yakutat elder George Ramos, Haida artist Delores Churchill, Angoon elder Peter Jack and Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl. The group looked at items in the Smithsonian Institution collection that will be brought to the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in 2009 for a long-term exhibition. The National Museum of the American Indian is under the Smithsonian umbrella of museums.
Jackson also visited with a group from Kake to look at items that could be repatriated in the future.
"Like everybody else, we have things that need to be repatriated, and we're still working on all of those things," Jackson said. "There were quite a bit of small items, a lot of stuff that maybe came from cemeteries, and that's a very delicate subject," Jackson said. "We have to think about whether or not someone should take something from a cemetery. Things like that, the museum should really return to where they came from."
The Tlingit section is roughly 100 feet and will include tunics, hats, ceremonial dress, artwork, potlatch dishes and more. The collection includes a Tlingit carved chest from Klukwan that could date back as far as 1790. A bear bowl, also from Klukwan, may be as old as 135 years. Some of the Tlingit art is more recent, from the last 50 years.
"There was a lot to pick from, just a terrific amount of stuff that the museum had in storage," Jackson said. "I just wanted people to see the difference in the art, and how beautiful the handiwork was without all the tools that are available today."