Category: Museum


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As I kid I lived in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, along Marine View Drive.  Wealth didn’t afford us a view of Lake Michigan living across the street from Margate Park. No, our benefactor was a lawsuit-driven housing equity program for low-income families.

The neighborhood was much different then than now.  The Skid Row of Argyle Street was slowly being transformed by Asian immigrants opening stores. Shop owners emerged every morning with brooms to perform a daily  ritual of sweeping up garbage around sleeping drunks. Walking to school involved crossing Sheridan Road to avoid the stench of stale alcohol and the lurking men at the strip club. As kids, we stopped at the Jewish deli  to fish crunchy, cool dill pickles from a big barrel. There was a butcher shop with meat hanging in the window.

Away from the parks and beaches, a potpourri of skin colors and languages flourished in apartment buildings small and large.  I didn’t speak the language of the Hispanic family receiving a ceremonial suckling pig on holidays, neatly tucked on its back in a cardboard box delivered to their door.  I didn’t share the religion of the Irish family who seemed to grow despite hosting intermittent, boisterous wakes. The quiet Chinese family who walked my classmate Kathy back and forth to school was more polite and reserved than my big, rugged family could ever pretend to be.

What we did have in common was school.  We all trudged to John T. McCutcheon Elementary School every morning and learned to write in cursive, speak proper grammatical English, perform basic math functions, study geography and history.

Decades later, as I stand in the restored Prairie Union Schoolhouse at American Prairie Reserve, the view is so familiar in a place so faraway that I find myself tumbling back to my youth. It doesn’t seem likely that I would have something in common with a child sitting at a desk in a one-room schoolhouse in what would have been outer space to me back then.  prairieschoolclassroom

American Prairie Reserve’s restoration of the Prairie Union School includes an audio interpreter.  It’s a little jarring to press a button and hear a human voice over a speaker when you’re in the middle of what you hope is nowhere.  But the narrative, the objects in the room, and the view tell a compelling story that is more relevant today than ever.  As I listened to the narrator, I looked at the prairie expanding away from the window like a growing universe.  I glanced back at the map of Asia, wondering what a ranch kid felt like looking at the exotic planet beyond view.

prairieschoolmapWhen you live in the inner city of a massive city and your family is poor, the schoolroom is a place that will make or break your future. You have no more access to services and benefits of the developed world than a ranch kid living 100 miles from a town. You have no wealth, power or authority behind you. Your only hope for any kind of future is to get a good education and move upward and out.  Like any ranch kid, you have to be able to gaze out the window and dream of a different place to keep studying. You have to learn to walk a gauntlet to school- maybe it’s prairie weather and rattlesnakes, or maybe social problems and crime that plague cities.

 

Today, this schoolroom looks quaint, a well-restored photo opp if you’re a hurried and thoughtless tourist looking to populate social media pages.  Stay for awhile, though.  Think about your life past and present.  Listen to the story the building and objects and view are telling you.    Think about the state and role of education today in our electronically-entangled world.  And know that now, as then, to kids all over the planet, education means everything to our future.

The best kind of graffitti- temporary and beautiful.  This signature includes what I believe is balsamroot flower.  

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My prairie selfie:  Looking outward to a world as far away to a ranch kid as it is to an inner city kid.

 

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Visiting the buffalo jump at American Prairie Reserve was a little like falling down a rabbit hole.   I’m positively the worst for spying something new (to me at least) and following it where ever it goes. I already heard about buffalo jumps  a couple years ago from a state park employee and fellow workshop trainee. After my first visit to the APR jump, the rabbit in the waistcoat appeared, and after him I went.

What’s a buffalo jump? For thousands of years, Plains Indians staged complex, collaborative efforts to lure bison toward a carefully selected cliff, then trigger a stampede that would send them running over it to their deaths.  Runners were trained from youth, like Olympians.  Their hunting life may have been equally short.

Buffalo jumps hold their secrets. Maybe the practice started with bison, as legend tells it, or perhaps early humans hunting woolly mammoths figured out it was safer to trick them into plummeting over a cliff than hunting them on foot.Use of North American buffalo hunts supposedly ended 1500-1700-ish, when horses allowed year-round hunting of bison, but there is at least one later account that involves horses and guns. Earliest hunters used less of the animals than later groups, and there is evidence of “gourmet butchering” at an early Folsom site.

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Diorama of a buffalo jump

The details will be worried over by academicians and tribes, but you can skip the intellectual discussion, visit the places and fire up your imagination.  I was lucky enough to find Madison Buffalo Jump State Park completely abandoned on a September Tuesday and spent a few hours hiking and imagining the dramatic hunt.

Montana State Parks did a great job with the language on the signs:  one walks through the entire process, from pre-hunt rituals to buffalo runners luring grazing bison forward, running them into drive lines with buffalo “frighteners” on either side, then causing them to stampede over the cliff to a slope below.  The front runners would have to leap to safe places on ledges below.  The bison that survived the fall would be finished off and then a mass effort to process commenced.

It’s obvious in this Google Earth aerial what made the Madison Jump a good site, but I suggest going there and walking it to imagine the logistics and danger involved first hand. After all, the Plains Indians didn’t find the site on the internet, and neither should you.

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And if you’re blessed to find yourself without other people distracting you, the lonely site is a perfect place to walk and imagine you’re wearing a buffalo runner disguise. You can hear the bison herd vocalizing in low rumblings that drift in from far away.

Your walk begins at the end of the hunt. As you hike up the old buffalo trail leading around the north side of the cliff, look at the processing area and imagine groups of women killing bellowing, immobilized bison after they’ve fallen. Imagine a staging area for processing, with the same women energetically removing hide, meat, organs, sinew for housing, clothing, tools, and food.

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From a park sign

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Farther up the trail, the grazing and driving areas start coming into view.  You can see the natural ramp that winds toward the jump and imagine runners luring the animals forward, careful not to start a stampede too soon and lose the whole herd.  Rock cairns along the way would guide the animals and hide “frighteners”. The animals would be restless, unsure, but move forward warily.  They would be twitchy, ready to bolt and turn the whole herd into a boiling mass of big brown bodies, horns, and hooves.

And then toward the top, on the last rist to the cliff, the frighteners would make thunder happen.  Runners disguised by wolf hides would leap out whooping, yelling, scaring the animals into a blind stampede.  Runners up front might have to leap to ledges below and out of the way as the pounding herd ran straight for the cliff edge and over.  As you stand with a bison’s last view, you understand.  You can feel your blood pounding in your ears, hear the bellows and people shouting and grass and insects and dust kicked up into a storm around you.  You hear the thuds below.

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It would be quiet afterward once the last animal bled out and expired.  The hunters would be drained, completely spent from exertion and adrenaline.  Maybe some would be injured.  Maybe part of the herd balked, peeled away, and stampeded away to safety, or ended up in the forested bowl below the other side of the cliff.

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I sat on the cliff and drank a bottle of water, gazing at the expansive view as the imaginary hunt faded in my mind.  A few hunter-leery deer tip-toed into view before they caught sight and scent of me and bounded away.  The loud rattling calls of sandhill cranes rose from the river snaking through the Madison River Valley past green crop circles.

These jumps were abandoned long ago by native hunters, and then excavated for bone to use as fertilizer.  I’m sure artifact pilfering has been common.

But the feeling of the place is powerful enough that it will draw me back.  I’ll read some books, look for documentaries, research Native American perspectives on the jumps.  I’ll go to First People’s Buffalo Jump in Ulm the next trip.  I’ll walk where the bison walked, be the animal next time, and not imagine myself as a specatator of a movie in my head.  It’s that crazy rabbit hole again.

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Resting buffalo head rock- you see it, right?

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This has to have been a ritual stage- I would make it one, anyway

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Blessed to see some fresh fall flowers…

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But the faded ones have their own rich beauty.

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These rocks look like they calved from the cliff and tumbled in a line down a ravine, but they’re so- well, orderly.  Your mind starts to see the imprint of ghosts everywhere.

 

 

 

The Home People

 

The scene couldn’t have been more grand. Two men dressed in black carrying long carved horns heralded us from the long ramp descending to Floor 3 of Te Papa Museum.  They motioned us to move forward and disappeared around the corner into the airy and elaborate Te Marae hall. We followed, well over a hundred of us, herded by our Maori hosts as we gaped. The meeting house (wharenui) rafters danced with radiantly colored exotic beings that had just banished their father to the sky to liberate us all from darkness.  Reveling in their success, they now reined in the sun to slow it down and give the people full days.

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The women in our group took seats in the back row not, as we were told before the ceremony, because we were lesser people or unclean.  We represented the next generation, the future, and historically, if the greeting ceremony between the Home People and the Visitors didn’t go so well, we were closest to the door and could get out of Dodge fast.

The welcoming ceremony customs were all shaped by the potential for people to be warlike, which we might object to, though most certainly we are. Paora Tibble of Te Papa represents the Home People, and recites their whakapapa (roughly, genealogy, but more broadly, origin).  PaoraTibbleCeremony

Paora breathes imagination, and must live in more than three dimensions filled with stories (listen to “Kiore Whispers” as he transforms into a Polynesian rat sailing to the Land of the Long White Cloud).  Later, at a workshop, he will pass around a family mere pounamu, one that has been laid upon the dead.  “Don’t worry,” he tells us, “I’ve blessed it so you will be safe.” I’m deeply honored, but uncertain as your usual sinner whether the dead listened to the blessing.

Back at the ceremony, Paora closes his speech and Joe Hariwi, our representative, steps forward.  He tells the Home People we are from Aotearoa, Australia, and far abroad.  We are storytellers and we come to share stories and discuss the telling of each others stories.  We ask them to welcome us.JoesTeMoko

Joe is a compelling representative, with a full face te moko that he acquired in 2008 as a form of “cultural advocacy” despite concerns from coworkers.  He found an authentic te moko artist, who studied patterns from old photographs and paintings, the art having been lost when missionaries banned it as a heathen practice. “We all have moko,” he said.  “It’s your DNA, where you are from, your skills and talents.  Mine is in linear form, on my face.”

Joe is open, honest, and funny, so of course he should be our representative.  Paora accepts us on behalf on the Home People, and then we have to sing.  We have little pieces of paper with the lyrics in Maori, and I find that if 170 people are singing, and some are good, and some know the language, you can fake it and sing along without feeling too tone deaf.

We participate in the hongi, the gracious nod toward another that involves touching nose and forehead and breathing in the essence of the other.  It is so civilized, so dignified, to go through these ceremonies in a year of barroom brawls and snark fests that pretend to be presidential campaigns. I tap only one person’s forehead getting the hang of it (it’s not rugby).

But I am mostly lost to the ceiling of the whenui (meeting hall), with the radiant colors and wild spirits.  I will visit in a quiet time later, and realize that we are all there, the people who gained light from the strength of Tane:  musicians and scientists, prisoners, famers, carpenters, and film makers all stand in the panels beneath the surging gods and dragons.  I want to live there, in a panel, step backward and disappear as a figure forever, the new Home People.