Beyond the Frame – To Be Native is the name of a series of exhibits around the region, honoring the 150th birthday of Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis.
Curtis is a controversial figure. He sought to document Native American cultures, based on the belief that they would soon vanish.
This year’s exhibits are revisiting his iconic photographs by exploring contemporary native identity. The project is led by The Seattle Public Library, where a small exhibit focuses on indigenous stewardship of the Salish Sea.
Protecting x̌ʷəlč (pronounced roughly "hull-ch") is the name of the exhibit, which is tucked between the stacks in a gallery on the library’s eighth floor. x̌ʷəlč is the native Lushootseed word for saltwater, or the Salish Sea.
Co-curator Jennifer Ott, an environmental historian and co-director at the online encyclopedia HistoryLink, says they came up with the theme after spending a lot of time looking at Curtis’ images.
“And we realized as we were looking at the Coast Salish volume, just how prevalent water is -- just interactions with water, water in the background and the canoes of course,“ Ott says.
Those images fill the thick books of Curtis’ work, which are laid out in display cases, along with some of the copper plates used to make them. Sepia-tone prints of his images are on the gallery walls. Each shows a different facet of local cultures intimately connected with uses of the water.
“So we have ‘The Mussel Gatherer,’ which was taken in 1900. We have ‘Digging Clams’ in 1912 and then also, ‘Clam Digger’ in 1900,” says Shannon Kopelva, who co-curated the show and is also the project coordinator for Beyond the Frame.
She says the Curtis images inspired the show. But what’s more important is that the activities shown here haven’t stopped. Images of canoeing, fishing, whaling and shellfish-gathering are all connected to cultures that have kept going.
Still, she says it’s a gift to have hundred-year-old pictures, available for tribal members.
“I mean, this is their ancestors, this is their elders. So it’s great to be able to have that history recorded,” she says.
Kopelva is a member of the Hopi tribe. She grew up in Arizona and says she has personally been captivated by Curtis’ images of her native culture. She says she sees a bit of herself in his pictures of Hopi girls with their hair done in traditional butterfly whorls. And she identifies with the many of the objects he documented.
“In the sense that I see home – I see pottery, or I see baskets, people just gathered around and it definitely does make me home sick,” Kopelva says.
But she acknowledges that Curtis’s work is controversial. He was a white ethnologist and it’s unlikely that he told his subjects what he would use their photos for or how he might benefit. But on balance, she’s glad they exist.
“I tend to be a little bit on the pro side, to try to find a little bit more out about those individuals, instead of them being this very static, romanticized image. We really tried to, within this exhibit, look at what the individuals were actually doing and really try to incorporate modern information,” Kopelva says.
Each Curtis print in the show is presented with context that connects the images to current cultural events. Old images of canoes are coupled with contemporary images of the annual canoe journey, hosted this year by the Puyallup Tribe. And a striking image of a Makah whale hunter from 1915 is shown with information about the modern-day hunt that restarted in 1999, but currently is on hold because of legal disputes surrounding it.
There’s also an entire section of the exhibit on food sovereignty. Jennifer Ott says they worked with the Muckleshoot tribe to show how many of the Coast Salish cultures see the old way of doing things as a bridge to the future.
The tribe contributed a traditional cedar bentwood box used for cooking and storage to the show, along with indigenous foods such as salmon, shellfish, berries and seaweed. Cattail, used to make mats for cooking and serving, is also shown.
The Muckleshoot argue that eating traditionally could be a path to greater public health. And they also shared a traditional food map for the exhibit, showing how the ecosystem and modern cultural innovations could bring back some of the old ways.
“And so, we wanted to be sure and tell the story that would pull the images to the present and talk about what tribal communities are doing today,” Ott says.
“And what’s striking – and the last part of the exhibit really digs into this – is how much tribes in the area are doing to protect and restore water resources,” she says.
That section has information on a number of local efforts, from restoration work on several area estuaries, to the big dam removal on the Elwha, to the series of recent fights against fossil fuel infrastructure being built on the shores of the Salish Sea.
Ott says these are all issues that have relevance for anyone living here.
“The tribes are doing the work they’re doing to protect their treaty rights and their access to traditional foods, but they’re also doing it as a way for the whole community to benefit, that we have a healthy place to live,” she says.
All of these issues, and especially the role of salmon in the Salish Sea, are the topic of a storytelling and panel discussion taking place Tuesday night at the library. Panelists include Dr. Charlotte Cote (Tseshaht/Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation), Valerie Segrest (Muckleshoot), Susan Balbas (Cherokee and Yaqui Nations) and Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha Band S’Klallam).
The exhibit continues through Aug. 30. There’s also a three-day symposium on the entire Beyond the Frame - To Be Native series, coming up Nov. 16-18.