Our Stories

The Art of Understanding

When a woman from the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw dons a cap made of dentalium shells and feathers, she is honoring the coastal tribes' tradition of covering the head in white to mimic the bald eagle. Families from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation craft hand drums of deer skin, sinew and wood to use in their longhouse ceremonies. A wealthy young bride in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs might wear a veil of dentalium shells, beads and coins as part of a Columbia River Plateau tribal tradition.

The regalia items Oregon tribes use in their private ceremonies -- including weddings, funerals, feasts and dance ceremonies -- are as important as the celebrations themselves. These headdresses, staffs, drums, necklaces and other pieces reflect the tribes' traditions while showcasing the artistic talents of their creators.

"Outfitting a dancer for a ceremony requires an array of artistic skills and of natural materials," Anthropology Professor Rebecca Dobkins says. "The artist needs access to a body of knowledge, family connections and training. Generations of knowledge about artistic process and the natural environment are embedded in each object."

To share their traditions and artistic processes, all nine of Oregon's federally recognized tribes loaned regalia -- some from their personal family collections -- to an exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, The Art of Ceremony. These pieces are not what the public is used to seeing at powwows, says Dobkins, who curated the exhibition. Much of the regalia used at public powwows is based on intertribal styles originating in the Great Plains.

To create ceremonial regalia, Native people use items found in their environment, making the pieces unique to each tribe's history and geography. This regalia is used in community rituals the general public rarely sees. "Many tribal members feel the public does not understand the degree to which ceremonies continue in the daily lives of Native communities," Dobkins says.

Fostering understanding between those communities and the public has long been a goal for Dobkins, who grew up around multiple Indian groups in Oklahoma and learned about West Coast tribes while living in the San Francisco Bay Area during graduate school.

"There is an enormous gap between the lives of American Indian people and nearly everyone else. There's a saying that Native Americans are familiar strangers. Their presence is everywhere, but people aren't aware of the Native world all around them. When I ask my students to name the tribe indigenous to where they're from, nine times out of 10 they have no idea."

Since coming to Willamette 12 years ago, Dobkins has successfully nurtured relationships between the University and the region's tribes, partly in acknowledgement of the University's founding in the early 1800s by Methodist missionaries looking to "educate and civilize" the area's Natives. The Art of Ceremony is the 14th Native art exhibition Dobkins has curated for the Hallie Ford Museum. She also organizes the Indian Country Conversations lecture series to address issues facing Native communities, and she started a program for Willamette undergraduates to tutor students at Chemawa Indian School in Salem.

"There has been an open invitation from the Native communities to be partners and to learn more about each other," she says. "I want Willamette to share in that relationship because I think there is so much to be gained for our consciousness as a community. Our motto, 'Not unto ourselves alone are we born,' implies that you are born into a family, a community, a place. It has implications that are very resonant with Native philosophies."

In 2005, Dobkins brought an exhibition of the intricate weavings of New Zealand's Maori people to campus, making the Hallie Ford Museum one of just three venues in the world to display the works. A delegation of Maori came to Willamette to celebrate the exhibition in a procession with members of Oregon's tribes. The event was meaningful for both sides, inspiring the Oregon tribes to share their own finest artwork at the museum.

The Art of Ceremony won a grant from the Oregon Arts Commission, with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, making it Oregon's 2008 American Masterpieces Project. The initiative was created to acquaint Americans with the best of their cultural and artistic legacy. Dobkins sees the grant as recognition that the regalia items are not just artifacts, but examples of the tribal artists' master work.

"Art is a process and a transformation," Dobkins says. "It is the human imagination at work in dialogue with traditions and the past. These pieces are very much part of a living ceremony, but they also stand on their own as beautiful and animated works of art."

The Art of Ceremony is on display at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art through Jan. 18. For more information, visit www.willamette.edu/events/art_of_ceremony.