Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Paradise Lost

After only eight short weeks enjoying the beauty of Nature’s Mecca, I have been cast from my Yosemite Museum Internship. Although I was only there a short time, I would like to think that my work in the museum has somehow impacted the millions of visitors that journey to the valley each year. By selecting photographs for slideshows, writing descriptions for artifacts to be published in the National Park Service Museum Calendar, and keeping track of the location and condition of artifacts on display, I feel satisfied that I have added to the experience and knowledge of those who took a little time to explore the museum more closely.

My summer experience was similar to most experiences in Yosemite—unforgettable, but between rafting the Merced River, cycling the valley loop, and hiking the Mist Trail I managed to learn a few things about natural history and myself. The current view of museums, which I share, is that their static displays of ancient artifacts and sepia-toned photographs do not convey a deeper connection or understanding of the culture being displayed. However, the Yosemite Museum has been exploring the different possibilities of interactive interfaces for immersive understanding. The Yosemite Museum has a total of four interactive screens, a please touch area and live demonstrators of traditional cultural skills which serve to further submerge visitors into the complete natural and ethno-cultural history of Yosemite.

As a living descendent of the Ahwahneechee, literally “the people of the valley”, it is very exciting to see other cultures excited about Yosemite’s Native history. At first hearing the voice of a child declare, “Look mom! An Indian!”  made me flinch  a little, but then I saw a change while hearing the mother read aloud the descriptions of people and their belongings, and watch the interviews on the screens. The child’s questions turned to challenge her own stereotypes. “Why is she wearing a dress? Indians wear dresses? Why does she have glasses? Do Indians wear glasses? Isn’t that the lady sitting in the other room?” as Julia Parker, a cultural demonstrator, sat playing the black walnut game on a deerskin rug with four other children. I smiled and continued my inventory of the exhibit.

Now that it’s over, I must move on to other things, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t move very far from Ahwahnee. That means I’ll be headed to the nearest and newest University of California, UC Merced. There I will continue to study the effects of interfaces on cultural preservation and learning as a research associate in the Cognitive and Information Sciences Department, and hopefully continue my relationship with the Yosemite Museum for future projects. I will also be coaching Men’s and Women’s varsity cross country, and collaborating with the Outdoor Experience Program on future Yosemite-related trips. Wish me luck, and Go Card—I mean Bobcats!

The Wahoga Village Project Lives!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Yosemite Museum Internship

The Yosemite Museum may have a troubled past with many members of the local tribes, but only as troubled as the National Park Service itself. The museum does much more than safeguard some of our ancestor's historical treasures even from us. 

Currently the museum houses two exhibits, the life-size replica of a 'traditional' Indian Village, and multiple offices for other branches of the National Park Service. Views & Visitors: The Yosemite Experience in the Early 20th Century, is a new exhibit this year, showcasing many of the attractions the Park Service once hosted, and emphasizing how we have learned good conservation practices from our past.

As an intern in the Yosemite Museum, I have personally inventoried every single artifact on exhibit, which ranges from a 9 lb 3 oz brown trout caught in 1924, to a classic Indian Motorcycle that the owner took apart so his mother couldn’t sell it while he was off fighting in World War I. There are also brochures, posters, and pictures of the first transportation services into the valley, and a tribute to the battle for Hetch Hetchy Valley, but the real gems of the Yosemite collection only come off exhibit for periodic cleaning.

The baskets woven of grasses and shoots, so fine they could carry water, yet so big you could put your child in them, are the creation of the first inhabitants of the deep grassy valley; The Ahwahneechee. What is known of their lives before contact with the developed world is very little, but a vast collection of baskets, interviews, photographs, and other regalia is carefully stored, displayed, and protected at the Yosemite Museum. With this many artifacts and families’ stories to go with them, at times there are conflicting histories of the objects. Sometimes assigning an artist/maker to an artifact can be a daunting task, and naming people in photographs doubly difficult.

Records of over 223,000 artifacts are kept dually between the Interior Collections Management System online database and the museum “blue cards”. That’s where I come in. Keeping track of the status of this many items is difficult for a few caretakers with inadequate space. That’s why they rely upon outside help to inventory, catalog, and otherwise identify artifacts in the collection, as well as accession new artifacts that the museum receives constantly.

Apart from record keeping, I have installed new shelving and housing for the wet specimens collection, packed and transported part of the textile collection, identified pests in the Collections Room and set out traps for them, and gone to cross-cultural talks put on by the park employees. It is truly a privilege to view parts of the collection that are rarely available for public viewing or live in a place where you can forget what your doing just by glancing up, and it further builds my conviction that Yosemite Valley is the greatest place on Earth.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gatherings of Diversity, Stanford Powwow and Lu´au

These past two weeks on The Farm strange sounds have been reverberating through the eucalyptus, causing students and residents alike to peer in curious wonder at the eclectically dressed dancers as they speed by on their way to another event of their whooshing modern lives.
Powwow Photos
Although these events are typically seen as a gathering of one culture to celebrate its heritage, this common view is far from the truth. Tribes from across the country, with more variation in language and culture than all of Europe, meet to celebrate their one common bond: to have survived attempted extermination and come out with culture and identity intact. Of course, the cultures and traditions have changed through time to include many modern alterations. There are competitions for money, raffles, costumes designed from modern materials, and t-shirt and baseball cap vendors. While I was there, some friends commented that they were slightly disappointed that the Powwow didn't seem as "authentic" as they would have hoped. This is an interesting paradox in that, although they had never been to a Powwow before they presumed to know what an authentic Powwow entailed. They seem to forget that this culture has been living and changing to encompass new influences and modern traditions. Fry bread is an example of a traditional food that has spread throughout Native culture. It started when the federal government forced tribes into prison camps and gave them rations of flour, lard, salt, sugar and oil as food. They created this bread to try to make these ingredients edible. This is not what the BIA would define as an intact preserved culture because of the white influence, but this expectation that tribes would be able to preserve a pure and uninfluenced culture is just not logical. "Authentic" Powwow is a contradiction, because Powwows have evolved from traditional gatherings into a convention or fair to celebrate the continued existence of some semblance of a Native existence.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Virtual History

The current view of museums in the general public is that their static displays of ancient artifacts and sepia-toned photographs do not convey a deeper connection or understanding of the culture being displayed. However, there are museums that have been exploring the different possibilities of interactive interfaces.

Exploratorium, San Francisco, CA
The Exploratorium in San Francisco is a good example of a musuem employing interactive elements to engage children in science, art, and history. One can study the physics of skateboarding with 3-dimensional life-size diagrams of ramps and trajectories, check a person's weight on other planets, or make a personal petroglyph in stone like the ancient Chacoans. Still, exhibits pertaining to the cultural sphere fall short of transporting people directly into the midst of the time and place being represented.

Gallery of California History, Oakland Museum
  The Oakland Museum's Gallery of California History still contains conventional displays of artifacts from the period and location to represent an entire culture. It is very difficult to gain a sense of continuity or vitality in the lives of the people being represented. It's as if that culture is extinct now. It's dead, the people don't exist anymore, and it won't come back any time soon. That is exactly the kind of sentiment that it is important to avoid when representing one's own culture.

One solution may have unveiled itself in the increasingly sophisticated technological worlds of virtual reality and social networking. Maurizio Forte, professor of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts at the University of California, Merced has been working to create virtual replicas of cities and landscapes that no longer exist.

Forte's virtual cities now exist in museums including the Museo Nazionale delle Terme di Diocleziano in Rome, where he recreated an Italian villa in Flaminia. A more in-depth description of his work and future plans is given here: UC Merced Virtual Archaeologist Saves Past for Future. The basic idea behind the virtual musuem that makes it so much more interactive, is the ability to actually enter the landscape and interact with the people and objects of the time through the use of an avatar. Better yet, through the use of typical VR utilities that fool the senses, (including bulky goggles, audio, and even scents) one can take a walk through a place and see it exactly as it was centuries ago.
 With new software that allows programmers to mold pictures to 3-dimensional wire frames, I could foresee using pictures of actual people as avatar docents in their authentic environment!!!

What does this mean for the Wahoga Village Project?! It doesn't mean anything yet, but the possibilities are always fun to dream about.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Building Foundations

In an attempt to provide a means of open communication specifically for the Wahoga Village Project, this blog should be edited by all members of the group and will serve as the documentation of progress for the project. The first couple of ideas that I had were to have a project mission statement, narrowing down the specifics of the various project goals, and potential future applications of these goals. Second, the members of the group should research and post any relevant data or updates on the physical or virtual village's progress, and check-in every week or so just to update on personal happenings. Third, if everyone could write a brief bio or link to their previously-existing bio that would be really helpful.

Alright, let's see if this is really a good medium for communication!

Entering in the Middle

Since it really isn't fair to start in the middle of a story, we should go back to the beginning. The only problem is that nobody agrees on the beginning. It was too long ago and the oral tradition has been broken and corrupted by the systematic genocide of indigenous people across the United States. After hearing the stories of people from tribes across this country, its islands, and the various countries of South America, it has become apparent that we share one story. There are slight variations, but its melancholy, nostalgic helplessness and bitter frustration bring tears to people from Patagonia to Hawaii to New York. However, for the sake of time, we will focus on one thread of this collective history. For the Ahwahneechee of Yosemite Valley, this story begins in the middle.

A young woman asks her father-in-law why he doesn't talk about the traditions or stories of his people.

"You don't know what it was like!" he snaps uncharacteristically. "It was dirty to be an Indian. We pretended we were Mexican."

Now many years have passed since this exchange and despite wanting to share his knowledge of his culture, stories, and personal history, he can't. He can't because he has forgotten, or was never told by his parents. He tells the stories he knows and repeats the phrases he would have been beaten in school for speaking, but they are faded and jumbled. He teaches his neice how to pound, leech, and toss acorn, even though he would never have done the job of women when there were women to do it. Now whatever he can remember he throws out to whoever will catch it and keep it alive. There are not many.

This man is my grandfather, and my sisters and I are the generation of completely successfully assimilated Indians. The Federal Government of the United States has accomplished its goal to not just exterminate the civilization of Yosemite Valley, but to deny its very existence by denying federal recognition.

However, motions that were started in the last century have caused imminent and impending change to our existence. As of January, 2011, a non-profit organization under the title of Southern Sierra Miwoks has begun to make its case to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a quest for federal recognition that started in 1982. Here, the story's missing pages become a problem.

Many descendants of the Ahwahneechee believe that they are descended from the people of Mono Lake,  the Pauite. They argue that Chief Tenaya, the last free chief of the Yosemite area, was Paiute, and that Chief Bautista, a Miwok, aided the Mariposa Battalion in chasing down and erradicating Tenaya's tribe. My father remembers that his great-grandmother spoke Paiute, Miwok, and Spanish, and does not see the tribe of Yosemite as an entity of either larger group.

I am here today not to take a side in this intratribal conflict, but to say that this division and anger is what the conquerers intended. Now is not the time to argue over our true origin, (which is most likely a mix of both, and if you go back far enough, we are all one people) but to move to reclaim the story with no beginning. It is time to learn and write about the people and legends of the valley, whether they be Miwok, Pauite, or both. It is time for us, their progeny, to learn both languages, and attempt to preserve both cultures as well as our elders can remember them. It is time to teach others of our past so that they may know we are not extinct, merely forgetful of who we are. We are a people with collective amnesia attempting to put our life-story together from what others tell us about ourselves, but we are still a people.

Projects have been initiated to save what we still know, and it is here where we shall place our efforts. Federal Recognition under any name will not be who we are, but it will give us the power and resources to control who we are today, and who we become tomorrow. The main goal of this blog is to document the progress of our latest effort, The Wahoga Village Project. A traditional village is currently being constructed by the Mariposa Indian Council, where my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather once lived. This village is to be the new site of traditional ceremonies and gatherings, and outreach programs for the general public. My youngest sister, with the help of our parents, has constructed our family 'umacha' in the place where my great-grandfather's house once stood.

The first constructed umacha in the new Wahoga Village

There are also plans for a reconstructed virtual replica of the village for use in spreading knowledge of the existence, history, and culture of the People of the Valley.