Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Salmon Woman by John Hoover

In January 2013, in conjunction with the visiting exhibition "FashionStatement: Native Artists and Pebble Bay" as well as our exhibition "Voices of the River," we are delighted that we'll be displaying John Hoover's marvelous sculpture "Salmon Woman" (1987).

My exhibition label is as follows.

John Hoover
born Cordova, Alaska
American, Aleut/Unangan, Russian
Salmon Woman
Old Growth Western Red Cedar, oil pigment, beads
Loan of the Hoover family

According to the legends and sacred stories of many indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Salmon may present itself in an animal or human form. In some stories, after Salmon leave behind their physical fish bodies in the upper reaches of rivers, to serve as food for human beings and animals, its spirit can swim invisibly back to the Pacific; under the ocean the Salmon people gather in their human forms.  For the Native peoples of Southeastern Alaska, a beautiful woman manifests herself at the heads of salmon-spawning streams so salmon will return year after year to those same waterways to spawn.

This elaborate version of Salmon Woman was created by John Hoover, an artist of Aleut (Unangan) background. Look closely and you can identify the many animals who draw sustenance from the annually returning Salmon: Bear, Sea Lion, and Seagull. Out of the human woman’s body emerges two large salmon, representing her bountiful gifts of food.  Salmon Woman’s womb is decorated with red beads that symbolize her eggs. Notice that the same red beads were also used to create the the eyes of the woman as well as the eyes of the other animals, thus symbolically binding these forms together.

Coastal First Nations people have harvested cedar trees for millennia, honoring the wood’s versatility and its spiritual significance.  Coastal Tlingit and Salish Shamans were protected by cedar guardian figures, and cedar trees have long been understood as imparting long life and health to communities that honor them.  Carved out of old growth Western Red Cedar, sometimes dating back centuries, Hoover’s work highlights the regenerative gifts of the cedar tree, celebrating cycles of growth, loss, and rebirth.

This free-standing sculpture also powerfully evokes the multiple levels of existence that inform the traditional understandings of the Native peoples of the Northwest Coast: the visible realms of water, land and air, as well as the continuous traffic between visible and invisible domains of the universe.

John Hoover was fascinated by spiritual transformations between human and animal manifestations, a prominent motif in tradition-based Native American art of the region. If you would like to see more examples of John Hoover’s work, in the Museum the lobby you will find a permanently installed, John Hoover carving, Man who Married an Eagle” (1971). This carving is structured as a triptych that reveals a hidden mystery, the protective outer doors represent an Eagle in birdlike shape, while the inner surface depicts human beings morphing in and out of bird form. 

Mark Auslander

Friday, December 14, 2012

Correcting Mis-impressions re the Post

I've gotten a number of inquiries around the country from scholars curious about the Washington Post article,

which reports on my research on enslaved labor in the making of the Smithsonian Castle building.

As is perhaps inevitable in a quickly written story, there are some inaccuracies in the Post article, or at least the potential for misunderstanding on a few points. Among them:

  • The assertion that enslaved African Americans did not physically construct the Castle building.  Actually, I think it quite likely, given the Washington labor market from the late 1840s-early 1850s, that some enslaved people did work on the building's physical construction, as they did on hundreds of other buildings in antebellum Washington, including the Capitol and the White House. The point is we don't have direct historical evidence for enslaved labor on physical construction, mainly because so many Smithsonian records were lost in the great Castle fire of January 1865.  We do have stronger evidence for enslaved people working at the Seneca quarry, where the sandstone used in the Castle was quarried. But that doesn't mean we can rule out the use of slave labor in building the Castle.
  • Many readers seem to have been left with the misimpression that people at the Smithsonian were not supportive of this research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Smithsonian Archives staff, especially archivist Pamela Henson, has always been great--sharing ideas and tips and putting in extra time to locate documents and files. It is a wonderful professional archives, a joy to work in.  As I link to in my paper, the Archives has great virtual exhibitions highlighting  the contributions of people like Solomon Brown and Lou Purnell (Air and Space).  And senior Smithsonian administrators have always expressed great interest in and support for this research.  
  • The article mentioned that SI officials hadn't called back back to comment, but that may be simply because the reporters were working on such a tight deadline; as is usual practice, a newspaper likes to publish about a scholarly paper the moment the paper is published.
  • There was line in the Post article about Smthsonian officials "allowing" me access to documents; I don't know where that line came from. The Archives is of course open to any serious researcher-so nobody would ever not be granted access to historical documents.
  • I was quoted as saying that the at the highest level, the Smithsonian hadn't yet begun a 'truth and reconciliation' process about legacies of slavery as such at the institution. When I talked to the reporter, I did emphasize that there are many areas across the institution, especially the Institutional History Division and  the Archives, where people for years have been working hard and bravely to bring the diverse history of the institution to light, especially African American contributions. 
  •  It is true  that so far as I know, there has been anything equivalent at the Smithsonian to the US Congress' resolution on the role of enslaved people in building the US Capitol (which included the labor of enslaved men in quarrying building material); Brown University's Committee on Slavery and Justice;  The College of William and Mary's Lemon Project; or Emory University's Transforming Community Project, which led to the January 2011 official statement of regret, by the university Board of Trustees for the university's "entwinement" with slavery.  Something like that is yet to come at the Smithsonian, as it is yet to come at so many major American civic institutions.   As I noted, I do think there is great openness at the Institution's highest levels to working in that direction.  I recognize that such a process will be more challenging at the SI than at private institutions; having said that,  it would serve as a kind of national model for how such honest and healing public conversations about slavery and historical accountability could be conducted. 
I certainly hadn't expected this much public attention to a short piece in an academic journal. The major thrust of my research is actually on race, labor and science at the Smithsonian in the post-slavery period.  I'm hoping to explore the many remarkable stories of African American staff at the Institution, concentrating on the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The legacy of slavery in DC, Maryland and Virginia is part of that story, but by no means the whole story!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Public History and Smithsonian Slavery

It has been a fascinating day. Late last night, the on line, open access journal Southern Spaces published my paper, "Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian Castle":

Simultaneously, the Washington Post published an article by noted reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia (with help from Megan McDonough) on my paper, "Researcher finds slaves quarried sandstone used to build Smithsonian Castle."

As of this evening, the Post article has elicited something like 869 on line comments, and risen to be the second most popular article in the  day's Style section of the Post website. It has been circulated nationally on AP Wire, and seems be showing up around the country.  I've gotten many emails and calls from interested parties, some with very strong opinions on my paper or the Post article.

Many of the comments on the Post website are, I'm afraid, inane or vituperative, dismissing the whole consideration of the legacies of slavery in American society, often re-visiting long running debates over reparations and affirmative action, sometimes with racially insensitive or inflammatory language. Yet some of the postings are deeply thoughtful and sensitive.

For the record, I reproduce some of the more interesting, insightful postings below, starting with the most recent and going back to about 8:00 a.m. this morning (Eastern Time).

Researcher finds slaves quarried sandstone used to build Smithsonian Castle."  (Washington Post) 
Dec 13, 2012


8:59 PM PST
I've seen the wills and inventories that list at least 538 people enslaved by my family over seven generations. Seeing those documents, as well as letters, led me to start looking for the descendants of those 538 people. We share part of the same story. 


Brilliant work and most provocative. This only makes the Smithsonian a more interesting piece of history! I'd love to hear read more about the work of Mark Auslander.


Why shouldn’t we unearth all of our history? Why examine our past at all, without every peice of the puzzle? 
We need to know who built our monuments, if only to get a broader picture of who built our society. George Washington’s freed his slaves, but the rest of the Washington family – my family – did not. Why? 
I’m examining my family’s history of slaveholding - many other people are looking at their own family's legacy. I want to build a firmer foundation for my own life by tracing the lives of others, enslaved and free. It’s all part of the same story, whether we want to hear it or not.  

Negro Scholar

As a scholar of U.S. history I am quite intrigued by Dr. Auslander's research. The layers of slavery's footprint on this nation, its institutions, and the capital are still being uncovered. Thanks for sharing this important find!

Sylvia Wong

Thank you for this article. It proves a truth about the Smithsonian 'castle' bulding that so many African Americans had only known through oral history. I hope that you will publish more stories about slavery in the hopes that intelligent dialogue will begin to heal the racism and ignorance that plagues this nation.

3:06 PM PST

It is good to increase our knowledge and knowing how we got where we are is helpful. Today, we acknowledge slavery as a dark period in American history but it is also just part of the continuum of slavery in its various guises around the world. Slavery exists still. Since slavery was legal at the time, the builders did nothing illegal if they used slave labor. The builders likely had no moral issues with the use of slaves in building the Castle. That was then.  

If confirmed, Secretary Clough should publicly acknowledge this and then move on with the business of increasing and diffusing knowledge.


Considering the conditions at the time, it is not nor should it be surprising that slave labor was involved. In fact it would have been surprising had it not been utilized. 
But the fact that slave labor was used in no way diminishes the importance of the collections housed there. It only adds to the history of our nation, reflecting a time when social and cultural mores reflected the status quo. Thankfully we now are more enlightened, but still have a ways to go before we are a truly raceless society...from all sides. 


As the white father, of mixed-race kids, I can’t afford to turn a blind-eye to such great/valuable information…as detailed in this article. I have the responsibility – as a responsible parent – to teach my children about the past, the better present, and the hope of the future. There is no reason to take offense to history – whether you’re white, or black. It’s history.

E Ferry

I love this article - the use of this kind of painstaking research to raise thorny issues of the role of slavery in the foundation of a great American institution is not only fascinating from a scholarly perspective, but also a great contribution to public discussion.

1:27 PM PST

Are you kidding? This is a hugely important DC landmark that millions of people visit every year. Its mission is devoted to knowledge and education. Reckoning with its own connections to one of the most tragic aspects of our history (and to our foremost Founding Father, no less) is a fantastic teachable moment. It is interesting, informative, and thought provoking. It is also saddening, in a way that good history often is.


This was a very interesting article having to do with the history of slavery in Washington D.C.. Nowhere did I notice any type of political agenda threaded through it. It simply reported an interesting history.  

How sad that people from BOTH sides of the equation would choose to advance their own agenda of today based on events of over 160 years ago.

11:27 AM PST

This is about giving credit where its due when it came to how, where to and to what extent slaves were used in building government building. Most would prefer to keep their hands clean when it come to "fessing" up.


Some folks seem a bit defensive about the slavery issue. What's that about? If one had slave holding forbears, there is no need for guilt by association. We cannot choose our ancestors.  

Meanwhile, it is a fascinating article. The footprint of slavery shows up in so many different ways.  
Thank you, Washington Post.


So those lazy black slaves helped BUILD the White House and Capital Building and, at the very least, quarried the bricks that became the Smithsonian Castle.  

Everytime a white person stereotypically looks down upon an African American's as being "lazy" they should take a stroll down Pennsylvania and imagine all of the blood, sweat and tears the free labor shed in what has become Americas most famous landmarks.


Was this ever disputed? Slavery was legal in both Maryland and the District of Columbia during this time. It is any surprise that slave labor was used? 

I think it would have been more surprising to learn that slave labor had NOT been used for construction projects during this time.


I'm puzzled why folks are so defensive. This article shines a light where it was needed. Some people were unaware of the extent of the slaves' involvement with the building of various buildings in Washington, DC. I don't see any harm in pointing out the fact. In fact, I welcome it. Truth should always be welcome. I was born and raised in the District so I am well aware of the significance of the slaves' contribution to the architecture of DC (as well as other cultural feats). So I applaud the Post for posting such an article. BTW, the article takes a well balanced look. Any attempt to slant the article or point fingers is brought by the reader him/herself -- not the author of this article.

10:26 AM PST

No one is trying to admonish the Smithsonian because slave labor was used to help build the castle, as you mention, at a time when it was legal. However, the Smithsonian's own mission statement talks about preserving our heritage. Right or wrong, part of that heritage is that one of their most iconic buildings was , in part, built by slave labor. If they are going give credit to the architects for their part, they should give credit the slaves that provided the labor and not be ashamed to do so. It's proper and historically accurate. 
The Korean's destruction of the Japanese built capitol is a different thing all together. This happened shortly after brutal occupation and the destruction of Korea's forests and other natural assets. They did not want the symbol of their country to be something designed, built and occupied by their oppressors. 


As a former African American history minor in college, I find stuff like this so interesting. I wonder about the new museum will highlight this.


As the anthropologist who authored the Southern Spaces paper in question, at 
I do want to emphasize, in case a different impression was left, that the scholars and staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives have always been extraordinarily generous with their time and intellectual energy in assisting me in their research. It is a wonderful archives, and the staff has been deeply committed to helping unearth these important stories. Indeed, as a perusal of their wonderful website (linked to in my article) shows, the Institutional History Division has been at the forefront in documenting and publicizing African American contributions, including the story of Solomon Brown. I believe senior Smithsonian leadership is in the midst of reflecting on how the whole institution can acknowledge histories of slavery & Jim Crow, along the lines of William & Mary College and Emory and Brown universities

10:18 AM PST

I have no trouble believing that. The folks at the Smithsonian are excellent, all around. It's a complex history, and is worth looking straight at.  

Thanks for your work!
Liked by 3 readers


I don't see harm with putting a few placards up on the walls here and there. 

"This tree is a bicucatus polydidiadus, planted by Pres. Grant." 

"These rocks came from a quarry that belonged to Whatsisface, grandson of Martha Washington, who inherited her slaves ansd started a quarrying business."


I've lived in this town for over 20 years now, and am passionate about history, yet I never realized the White House and Capitol were in part built by slaves. It's interesting how we like to sweep some parts of our glorious history under the rug, all in the apparent name of holding up the "founding fathers" to be godlike figures


Very interesting article. I did not realize that upon Martha Washington's death that her dower slaves were inherited by her relatives.


Interesting article. The structures of slavery are still with us. But, if we are ignorant of the physical artifacts, then even less is known about the cultural, economic, and legal legacy.


Most pre-Civil war structures in the South and border states likely had direct or indirect contributions of labor from slaves, in earlier structures indentured service by more than one race. It is important to honor the contributions, even now, so that descendants of all races in this country will know that the hands of labor had many hues and many circumstances.


It's important to note the contributions of African Americans to the building of this nation. Too often black people are made to feel that they did not contribute to the building of this nation, that they should be more grateful than other groups for being in the US, and that they are "less" American than whites.

9:36 AM PST

That's the point-- there have been arguments about whether enslaved persons were used to build the Smithsonian. (It's building has been completely attributed to European settlers and their descendants). 

As stated: "the Smithsonian has been reluctant over the years to address whether slave labor might have played a part in the history of the Castle"


I think this is very important research from any objective standpoint. I can't understand the comments that minimize the importance of it, even from the nutty point of view that slavery was ok back then. It's part of the history of this area. I'm not a historian, but the Washington area is very important to the history of the US and there are still a lot of stories that haven't been told. I never thought of this as the deep south, but mills along Rock Creek used slave labor, which was in the heart of DC.

Felicia Furman

Thanks to Mark Auslander for revealing another hidden example of the use of slave labor in this country. It would be hard to find any building or infrastructure built before the Civil War that didn't use slave labor. Its hardly controversial anymore except for the fact that many whites still deny the privelege their ancestors seized by exploiting people of African descent. The point is that the US was built on the backs of slaves and formed the foundation of our economy, society and culture. Why are we so afraid to accept the reality of our past?


It is important to recognize and evidence the history that has held up our current institutions. Though this is something we may believe has always been the case Dr. Ausslander work helps us reckon with our own complicities.

Rick Wilson

It is SO IMPORTANT to face our national amnesia about the position of slavery as the economic engine that established the United States and continues to sustain it.. Articles like this help us to face ALL our history - not just the filtered 'good parts.' Hope this is the first of many pieces.


it is SO long overdue to give credit where credit is due. This is such a horrible part of our history, but it is our history and should be documented, hopefully so it won't happen again. Stand up and recognize these great men who built our country once and for all! They didn't have a choice, they didn't get paid.. they didn't get health care. They didn't even get respect.  
This must change.  


Articles like this one are important because they shine a light on how enslaved Africans were central to the creation of this country and its economy. If we are to heal the wounds of enslavement and present day racism, we need to begin by knowing the whole story of the U.S. We need more articles and discussions like this one

Hope Amason

Thanks for this article! I can only hope that there will be plans to make visible the history discovered by Prof. Auslander for future visitors to the Smithsonian.

Katrina Browne

efg2: The story suggests it's not clear whether those who worked directly on the building were enslaved, but that it IS clear that those working at the quarry were enslaved.  

The larger point, to me, as a white woman whose family history includes major Northern slave trading, is that it is important to absorb the degree to which enslavement was fundamental to the development of this country. The details of that are everywhere you turn: in the North, the South, the Midwest and West too actually, when you look into it, and yes, the nation's capital. To dig into these details, as Prof. Auslander has, need not be a basis for white Americans to "freak out"--as we often do in a host of ways, but to take it in, empathize with black Americans who feel we never want to talk about this history, and to see where SHARED dismay about the past might take us as we look around today. 

Kudos to the Post for covering this!

Grant Hayter-Menzies

When we as Americans, both north and south, realize that our nation was built by the labor of enslaved persons, we will not only begin to appreciate the work of these many nameless contributors to who we are today but recognize that historical harms still need to be healed. Dr. Auslander is doing what we all should be doing - facing the past and working for that healing, for then and for today. 

Grant Hayter-Menzies (descendant of enslavers from New England and the Deep South)

Carol Maurer

Acknowledgment is key in order to heal historical harms...kudos to Mark for 'following the bread crumbs' and then refusing to sweep them under the rug!

Karen Branan
6:30 AM PST

Congratulations to Mark Auslander for his important research and to Roig-Franzia for giving this valuable story a wider hearing. As a Capital Hill resident, journalist, and ever-hopeful Post reader I look forward to more stories along these lines.


Given the prevalence of slavery in the part of Maryland where the quarry was located, it would be more surprising to learn that slaves were NOT involved in the quarrying and building process. Kudos to Dr. Auslander for "following the bread crumbs" and giving us some "official" evidence. 

What surprises me (though perhaps it shouldn't) is that Smithsonian officials for some reason are reluctant to explore these kinds of issues. History is not and should not be an exercise in celebration and self-congratulation. For history to really matter, we need to grapple with difficult issues. The reality is that Washington was a slave city all the way up to 1862 -- in the 1830s, it was the largest slave-trading city in the nation (thanks in large part to Alexandria, which was then a part of DC). Why are people so reluctant to admit the centrality of slavery to the economy and social life of the city (and the nation)?

 David Pettee

The power of this kind of research underscores once again the fundamental role that African Americans played in truly building up this country. None of us should be surprised any longer about the integral role that slavery played in the construction of much of the hallowed architecture around the District. Why the current tenants of the Smithsonian should have the slightest misgiving about accepting this news is puzzling. What an opportunity for deeper conversation! Doesn't the vision of the Smithsonian involve "shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world?" 

David Pettee 
Boston, MA

This is fascinating information that I will share with the thousands of people who follow my Our Black Ancestry website and FB page. Excellent research!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nunivak Mask

We are pleased that in January 2013 we'll be able display one of the most striking objects in the MCE collection, a mask that we belive comes from the Cup'ig people of Nunivak island in southwestern Alaska.

Winter ceremonial mask, Cup'ig people of Nunivak Island
Permanent Collection: Museum of Culture and Environment
We are not sure of the date of the mask's creation, as it came into the collection of the precursor of the museum many years ago.  We would be very pleased if anyone could provide more insights into this beautiful object.  It appears to be made for the market, and is in good condition.

The mask will be mounted in conjunction with the exhibition "Fashion Statement," curated by artist Anna Hoover, on T-shirts developed by Native Artists protesting Pebble Mine, which threatens the world's largest natural salmon fishery in Alaska's Bristol Bay.  We'll display it adjacent to Salmon Woman, a magnificent large cedar sculpture by Anna's father, the late Aleut/Unangan artist John Hoover, which will be on loan to the Museum for Winter 2013.

As you can see in the attached image, the face mask is circled by two concentric rings, At least thirteen feathers project outwards.At  the ends of the feathers are attached various small wooden elements, including many salmon, a bird, an otter, a human hand, and a human leg. Associated with the mask is a loose fish tail, which may also have been on a feather, or perhaps attached directly to a small hole to the right of the mask's mouth.

My draft signage for the mask is as follows, informed by Ann Fienup-Riordan's excelllent book, "Agayuliyararput Our Way of Making Prayer: The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks (University of Washington Press, 1996) and commentary by Aron Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center-Anchorage. I have also relied on the very helpful essay on Yup'ik and Cu'pig masks by John Oscar:

Draft label:

Making the Invisible, Visible

Created by an indigenous Cup’ig (Yup’ik)  artist of Nunivak island, Alaska, this mask helps illustrate the profound importance of salmon, otter, birds, and the broader web of life for the indigenous peoples of maritime Alaska. 

Yup'ik masks were originally designed by shamans and danced in winter ceremonies as an act of prayer, to ask that the spirits of animals which had been fished or hunted would reincarnate themselves and return in spring to feed the human community.  Each ring encircling the mask is known as ellanguaq (“pretend universe”) and represents different levels or dimensions of the universe, including sea and sky worlds where animal spirit beings dwell.  Blue pigment, as seen on the animal figures, the small carved leg, and the beard of the face mask indicates a being’s spirit status; human beings were usually marked with red pigment. 

Through such masks and winter dance ceremonies the invisible world of the spirits is made visible, and passages are opened between the domain of human beings and the domains of spiritual beings. 

 Traditionally, Yup’ik masks were discarded after use in sacred ceremonies. Some masks were acquired by traders and collectors, and found their way into museum collections. We believe this mask was created for sale to the market. We are still seeking the identity of the artist who created this remarkable work.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

GoogleEarth cultural history tour

Thanks to the tireless work of graduate student Marco Thompson on the technical side, we've finally gotten up a beta version of the prototype GoogleEarth-based tour I've narrated , comparing Woody Guthrie and Sherman Alexie's representations of the Columbia River:

nb for this to work you will need to download the latest version of GoogleEarth to your desktop.  See:

Once you open the tour window, at the far bottom left (you may need to manipulate the window to see this), please click on "Enter Tour" and then click on "Play Tour."

Our hope is that our developing journal  Cascadia Chronicle

will have many such GoogleEarth-based tours on a wide range of topics, throughout Cascadia.

We are still trying to get a feel for the scholarly and aesthetic potentials of this new technology; so please share your thoughts and suggestions.

(note: For my longer essay on the topic of Guthrie and Alexie see:

Friday, October 12, 2012

Campus Archaeology Exhibition

We’re delighted with the new exhibition developed by our Museum Studies interns Karina Harig and Erin Chenvert, “Archaeologists Dig Central: Excavating the CWU Campus.”  We had been talking for some time with Shane Scott, director of the Central Washington Anthropological Survey( CWAS) on campus about partnering on such a show. CWAS has provided great educational opportunities for so many of our students and we’ve been wanting to illustrate that very interesting story. 

We're pleased that Erin and Karina plunged into the project, to make sure it was all installed in time for Homecoming tomorrow morning.  Hope, Lynn and I all have had a great deal of fun working with the students on the project over the past couple of weeks. 

Erin and Karina decided to display a dozen sets of objects, unearthed over the past several years in a few locations on campus. These including a projectile point, old tax tokens, a .22 casing, a 1920s lipstick tube, an unusual wire gold nugget, and so forth. 

The limited space available presented some interesting display challenges, which I think the students ingeniously addressed. They moves one of our three-by-three vitrines out along the museum front windows, so its contents can be viewed easily by passersby as well as those in the gallery. Rather than cluttering up the case’s interior with detailed captions, they numbered each object set and then attached two extended object label panels, protruding from two sides of the case at an angle.

Then, they hung the associated panels for the exhibition on the walls of the adjacent alcove. There’s always a risk when there’s spatial separation of installation components, especially when a show is surrounded by a large exhibition, as is the case right now with the Hanford show.  But I think the students solved this by using a distinctive Courier font (to give a kind of old style typed archaeology report look to the panels; and with Hope’s help on Photoshop, they develop a recognizable logo for their show,  repeated on each label, showing an archaeologist’s trowel breaking through a line of dirt.  

The Introductory panel notes that the campus exists on “ceded land”, which has a very long history of indigenous habitation, including one of our favorite Alexander Ross quotes about the appearance of Kittitas Valley in the early 19th century There’s also a fun panel on “What makes archaeology exciting”, which the students hope will encourage other young people to explore the field. 

Along the way, Erin and Karin pursued a few historical puzzles. We were all intrigued by the 1920s lipstick tube: were young women students at Central in the 1920s actually allowed to wear lipstick on campus?  University archivist Steve Hussman has been digging around in old files for information on the dress code, but results are still inconclusive. Equally puzzling was a fragment of an ID bracelet listing a woman’s name, an old phone number, and the words Ellensburg and “Baptist.” With the help of the County Historical Museum, the students determined when the phone number had been assigned and to whom, which gives them a few leads to pursue.

Finally, there’s an entertaining interactive component to the show. The students’s were especially struck that at one location, the archaeology survey unearthed the following objects: the broken woman’s ID bracelet, the .22 casing, the interwar lipstick tube and a tin button. They’ve invited museum visitors to speculate, in a short story or drawing, what all these objects might have had to do with one another, and append these to the wall. We can’t wait to see what scenarios our visitors come up with! 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Memorialization in Washington D.C.

I'm trying to learn how to create a narrated tour in GoogleEarth. So I've written a script, giving a little "tour" of national memorials sites along the National Mall in Washington DC.  I hope I can record the script for a 'flyover' effect of this geographic sites.

Script Draft.

As has often been noted, the core east-west axis in downtown Washington DC., proceeding west from the Washington Monument is replete with memorial symbolism. The various memorials clustered in this zone are a veritable compendium of the different modalities of public memorialization at play in American society.

The anchors of the axis are the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the John F. Kennedy gravesite overlooking Arlington Cemetery.

The Washington Monument is a resplendent Egyptian-inspired obelisk, celebrating in triumphant nationalist mode the founding national patriarch.  Proceeding due west across the reflecting pool we come to the very different Lincoln Memorial, a deeply moving temple in which the sorrowful martyred figure of Lincoln broods over the nation for whose unity, in effect, he gave his life.  Further west in turn, we encounter the preeminent 20th century martyred president, John F. Kennedy, memorialized through the eternal flame, presiding over the vast necropolis of Arlington National Cemetery.

Arrayed around these core sites are a range of important memorial entities, each carrying a different emotional valency. The Jefferson Memorial, like the Lincoln Memorial, is centered on a statue of the dead president, surrounded by his written words, but the two structures are entirely different in tone.  If the Lincoln Memorial is in minor key, suffused with a perpetual  romantic sense of loss and longing, the Jefferson epitomizes the Enlightenment ethos of rationalist optimism. Lacking the elegiac shadows of the Lincoln, the Jefferson is open on multiple sides, encased within a cupola that recalls both Monticello and the great arc of the Heavens made knowable by Science.

The most complex memorial site on the Mall  lies a bit northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin, flies in the face of the conventional monumental logic of the city’s other memorial edifices. In contrast to the sky-directed alabaster structures,  the Vietnam Memorial sinks into the ground, created out of black granite. If the other monuments hearken back to ancient Greek city-states’ veneration of the Olympian gods of the sky, the Vietnam Memorial seems to summon up a much more ancient cult of the earth, centered on a primeval Earth mother . “The Wall” as it is known, functions as a complex mirror for its visitors, giving reflectiing back visions of themselves and of the lost; one of the most frequently taken photographs, tellingly, is of the soaring Washington Monument reflected in its granite panels, an ironic juxtaposition of the nation’s founding promise and its tragedies.

Between the Lincoln and the Jefferson, arrayed along the lovely Tidal Basin, is the beautiful memorial sculpture garden dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which functions as a memorial both to the New Deal and the nation’s triumph in the Second World War. Nearby is the considerably less successful memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr., centered on a banal large sculpture of another national martyr. 

Just to the east of the Tidal Basin is another complex memorial space, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It seems overdetermined that the grim east facade of the Museum, which is most evocative of the horrors of Auschwitz is not turned towards the nation’s symbolic center, the Washington Monument, but is rather less visible, oriented towards an internal city street.

Mention should be made of two mediocre memorial sites in the Mall’s environs. Between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool stands the hyperbolic, insipid World War II memorial, a complex, many have noted that seems more fitting to Albert Speer’s Berlin than to the capital of the world’s preeminent democracy. Across the Reflecting Pool from the Vietnam Memorial is rather weak Korean War Memorial, featuring figures advancing across a lonely wind blown battlefield. 

Although these are works of variable quality, the overwhelming impression of this memorial zone remains enormously powerful, constituting a poignant national pilgrimage space centered on the epic mytheme of loss and collective regeneration.  At the same time, there are fascinating shadow histories hovering about the Mall, traces of deep historical struggles and contradictions that are still not fully resolved. One thinks of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, from which, in deeply Jim Crow Washington DC, African American were shamefully kept at a distance in segregated enclosures; an in turn of Marian Anderson’s performance on the steps of the same Memorial, and of the 1963 March on Washington in the same location, site of Dr. King’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. 

One thinks as well of the bitter battles over the design and construction of the Vietnam Memorial which so dramatized the unhealed wounds of the Vietrnam War.

Not all historical problems are ‘solved’ by this complex of memorial sites, but they are at least externalized and rendered subject to debate. Here, in short, we glimpse the genius of democracy, the essence of which lies, in E.E. Schattschneider’s telling phrase, not in the suppression of struggle, but in the “Socialization of conflict.”  Taken together, the national Mall’s memorial reflect back to us our own enduring struggles and conflict as  a people, in voices that are both multiple and unitary. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Woody Guthrie and Sherman Alexie Narrate the Columbia

My colleagues and I are developing an online journal "Cascadia Chronicle," in which we hope to integrate works of scholarship and literature into a geospatial matrix, closely tied to GoogleEarth.

I've written the following provisional essay, which I hope we'll be able to present on line in a form that easily moves back and forth between the written text and landscape sites in GoogleEarth, allowing users to explore how successive writers and artists have refashioned the meaning of the Columbian riverscape over tim.

See beta version of this GoogleEarth tour, engineered by REM graduate student Marco Thompson, at:

Narrating the Columbia

 1. Overview: River Narratives

In this emerging space, we collaboratively explore diverse efforts over time to narrate the Columbia river and its tributaries in media that include memoir, poetry, fiction, song, music, photography, film, painting, and public art.  Whenever possible we embed our critical discussions and dialogue in geospatial representations through GoogleEarth, highlighting commonalities and contrasts in narrative strategies engaged with this evolving riverscape.

The flows of river, plot, and narrative have presumably been intertwined from the earliest history of literature and poetics.  In the ancient Egyptian “Book of the Dead,” the current of river models the structure of the narrative and the movement of the soul through the domains of existence:

Ramses tomb: Book of the Dead with river imagery
“What a journey I have made, the things I have seen... In my hand I grasp the sailing mast, while my left hand trails in the water... I have separated myself from myself to sail again on the green Nile waters. I sail to the temple where the gods have gathered to gaze at their faces in deep pools. In my boat the souls of the years sail with me.... Give me air to breathe and a strong sailing wind when I rise from the underworld.”

In innumerable literary texts, the journey along or across the river is an epic process of self-fashioning and self-discovery.  One thinks of Huckleberry Finn and Jim rafting down the Mississippi; of the cyclical dreamer in James Joyce’s Finnegan Wake, beginning and ending at the edge of consciousness with the words, “riverrun, past Adam; of the four city dwellers canoeing down James Dickey’s Cahulawassee river in James Dickey’s Deliverance; of Sethe and Amy’s remarkable encounter on  the banks of the Ohio in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, just before the ferryman Stamp Paid takes Sethe across the river to freedom.

Let us begin by comparing two well-known texts about the Columbia River, Woodie Guthrie’s 1941 “Roll on Columbia, Roll On” (significantly, in several different versions), and Sherman Alexie’s 1996 poem “Powwow at the End of the World.”   Both texts are in important ways organized by the current of the Columbia; Guthrie’s proceeds down river, sequentially highlighting various sites of cultural and historic significance, while Alexie’s moves first downriver then upriver, following the path of a mythic salmon swimming up against the current.  The two text differ dramatically, of course, in their treatment of Native American history.

2. "Roll on Columbia" as a Colonial Narrative

Guthrie wrote “Roll on Columbia, Roll On” as part of a commission from the Bonneville Power Administration, which was seeking widespread popular support for the Federal system of hydroelectric dams.  Although Guthrie saw himself as celebrating the heroism of ordinary workingmen, in retrospect it is clear that the lyrics are embedded in classic colonial discourse, taking hold of the land and subsuming indigenous history under the dominant signs of colonial hegemony.

In the song, the river flow moves not only geographically from the northern and eastern interior towards the western coastline, but also in time, from the deep past towards the present moment.  The mythopoetic structure of the lyrics, in this sense, maps a continuous cyclical progression from nature to culture, from frontier wildness to industrially civilized progress.  This is especially evident if we consider the so-called “lost lyrics” of the song, in which Guthrie recalls the mid-19th century Indian Wars (verses that have been eliminated from the “official” version of the song, which was adopted as the official folk song of the State of Washington in 1987).

In both versions, Guthrie begins in mythic time,  prior to the era of dam construction--from the Canadian stretch of the river down to the Pacific. Significantly, the first two lines of the opening verse are set in the past tense, leading to the final line’s present day imperative (with which each verse concludes): 

"Green Douglas firs where the waters cut through.

Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew.

Canadian Northwest to the ocean so blue,

Roll on, Columbia, roll On!"

The celebrated chorus, repeated between each verse, continually brings us back to the present moment, as the technological harnessing of the river’s power brings electrification and progressive enlightenment to the region:

    CHORUS: Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
    Roll on, Columbia, roll on.
    Your power is turning our darkness to dawn,
    Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

Guthrie next enumerates the river’s tributaries, naming the various confluences in turn:

"Other great rivers add power to you,

Yakima, Snake, and the Klickitat, too,

Sandy, Willamette, and Hood River, too;

Roll on Columbia, roll On!"

Guthrie then turns from geography to history.  A verse, evidently added after Guthrie’s recorded his initial version of the song, alludes to the Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery dispatched by Thomas Jefferson:

"Tom Jefferson's vision would not let him rest,

An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest.

Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On"

The next verse (omitted from the official Washington State version)  is the first to name specific geographic locations, and the first to reference Native Americans:

"Year after year we had tedious trials,

Fighting the rapids at Cascades and Dalles.

The Injuns rest peaceful on Memaloose Isle;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!"

Note that that the “we” in the first line refers to early white EuroAmerican explorers, trappers, and frontiersmen, not to Native Americans. The reference to the traditional Native American burial ground on Memaloose Island,  just downriver from Lyle, Washington would seem to evoke the story of the white settle Victor Trevitt, who had married the daughter of a prominent American Indian leader and requested, “"I have but one desire after I die, to be laid away on Memaloose Island with the Indians. They are more honest than whites and live up to the light they have. In the resurrection I will take my chances with the Indians." --Source: History of Oregon Literature,, by Alfred Powers   (cited in  

[We might parenthetically that Guthrie’s assertion that the indigenous “rest peaceful” was manifestly untrue; the public attention to the island brought about by Trevitt’s burial led to extensive white looting of its gravesites in the years that followed.]

The next verse (retained in the official version) begins Guthrie’s account of the American Indian Wars, as EuroAmericans sought to ethnically cleanse indigenous communities in the Columbia basin and plateau during the mid 19th century.   Guthrie specifically references a skirmish near the Cascades lock on the Washington territory side of the Columbia. Native American military fores, seeking to enter into Oregon and the Willamette valley were repulsed when Lt. Phillip Henry Sheridan sailed with American dragoons from Fort Vancouver:

"It's there on your banks that you fought many a fight,

Sheridan's boys in the block house that night,

They saw us in death, but never in flight;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!"

The next two verses (omitted from the official modern version of the song) continue the account of the Indian wars.  Reference is made to an attack on March 26, 1856,  by Native Americans of the Yakama (also known as Klickitat) and Cascades tribes on American settlers residing along the Cascade Rapids.  Ten settlers and three dragoons were killed, but the attackers failed to destroy the steamer Mary, at the mouth of Mill Creek:

"Our loved ones we lost there at Coe's little store,

By fireball and rifle, a dozen or more,

We won by the Mary and soldiers she bore;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll On!"

The Indian Wars segment of the song concludes with a reference to Lt. Sheridan’s summary execution of Native American prisoners. Once again, the first person plural “we” clearly refers to white EuroAmericans:

"Remember the trial when the battle was won,

The wild Indian warriors to the tall timber run,

We hung every Indian with smoke in his gun;

Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!"
  • [Note: An intriguing oral history at casts light on the episode from a Native American perspective, in which Sheridan hanged a Native American he suspected of disloyalty, solely on the evidence that his gun was still hot.]

The song then proceeds from the frontier past to the technological present, celebrating two technological marvels of modern construction. First, to the Bonneville Dam, as Guthrie carefully reassures his listeners that the dams will not block river traffic  and will, rather, enhance commerce up the river.

"At Bonneville now there are ships in the locks,

The waters have risen and cleared all the rocks,

Ship loads of plenty will steam past the docks,

Postcard, c. 1940: Bonneville Dam
So, Roll On, Columbia, Roll On!"

The song then travels back up river to celebrate the enormous Grand Coulee Dam:

"And on up the river is Grand Coulee Dam,

The mightiest thing ever built by a man,

To run these great factories and water the land,
Grand Coulee Dam

It's roll on, Columbia, roll on."

The final  verse recapitulates the historical and geographic sweep of the entire text, conflating white trappers, soldiers and construction workers across the decades, emphasizing their common victory over nature and over the untamed indigenous:

"These mighty men labored by day and by night,
Matching their strength 'gainst the river's wild flight,

Through rapids and falls they won the hard fight,

Roll on, Columbia, roll on."

3. Sherman Alexie’s Postcolonial Vision: The Powwow at the End of the World (1996)

In writing "The Powwow at the End of the World," Sherman Alexie may or may not have been consciously responding to Roll On, Columbia, but his remarkable poem certainly does have the effect of shattering the colonial framework of the Guthrie song, while inverting many of the earlier song’s structural elements.  While Guthrie sets his song in the mythic frontier past and the industrial present, Alexie enters into visionary prophetic discourse, looking towards a mythic future.  Like Guthrie he names various geographical sites along the Columbia river, but with reversed intention, so as to undo the monumental structures of western industrial civilization in the Northwest.

While Guthrie concludes his song triumphantly with the Grand Coulee Dam’s construction, Alexie at the poem’s onset summons up an Indian woman overturning the dam.  As in Guthrie's text, the river’s current structures the unfolding narrative, but with opposite effect:

Hanford, WA nuclear reactors

Spoken ancestral territory along the Columbia

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive  
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam  downriver from the Grand Coulee.”

Like Guthrie, Alexie early on traces the full course of the river to the Pacific:

“...I am told by many of you  
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find  
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific  
and causes all of it to rise.”

For Guthrie, the force of the rivers waters rushed towards the telos of the great hydroelectric dams; whereas for Alexie, the river’s purified essence is driven towards a single mythic salmon, resonant with the indigenous reverential understanding of Salmon as a life-giving mythic being:

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive  
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon  
waiting in the Pacific.”

Alexie then reverses the river’s flow, following the salmon upriver along the annual route of migration back to the originary spawning grounds.  It passes the “flooded cities” and “the abandoned reactors” of the Hanford nuclear reservation, past the confluence of the Columbia and the Spokane, and to a “secret bay” of a reservation that is presumably the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington where he was born.

Guthrie celebrates the soaring shapes of the dams above the river,  having rendered the Native American presence over and done with ("sleeping peacefully).  In turn, Alexie’s salmon bursts above the river surface in a very different way, to re-awaken the indigenized landscape;

“I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after  
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws  
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and star
ts the fire  
which will lead all of the lost Indians home.”

For Guthrie the Columbia’s energy is captured by the dams’ dynamos and domesticated into electrical powerlines, which are “turning our darkness to dawn”.  In turn, for Alexie the movement of river and salmon are translated into three narratives that are to be told at night, before dawn:

“I am told  
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall  
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon  
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us  
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;  
the third story will give us reason to dance.

Guthrie concludes with white victory, synthesizing Westward expansion with the technological mastery of electrification; for Alexie, in his closing near-shamanic vision, the energies of flowing water and swimming salmon culminate in a great collective dance, that cyclically returns us to the poem's title line:

    “I am told by many  
    of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing  
    with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.”

 For all the differences, Guthrie and Alexie may be conceived of as creative bricoleurs, each contributing to the endless mythical refashioning of the Columbia riverscape. It is hard not to think of Franz Boas’ commentary on Northwest Native American mythology, famously repeated by Claude Levi Strauss: “It would seem that mythological worlds have been built up only to be shattered again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.”


We invite further commentaries and reflections on how successive writers and artists have narrated the Columbian riverscape.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Particles on the Wall at the Museum

For the past three weeks, the Museum staff has been intensely engaged in designing and installing the traveling exhibition, “Particles on the Wall,”  (POTW) a show curated by a group of Seattle-based artists, poets and scientists, which has had several previous installations around the state of Washington, in venues ranging from cafes to libraries. I first saw the exhibition last spring at the UW Undergraduate Library in Seattle, and was enormously excited by it and by meeting its science curator, the neuro-toxicologist Steve Gilbert (I’m very grateful to art historian/activist Susan Platt for bringing the project to our attention).   The exhibition  has been a labor of love for several years by the collective that has nurtured it, which includes visual artist Dianne Dickeman, and poet Nancy Dickeman.  We feel really privileged  at the Museum of Culture and Environment to be working with the "POTW team" on this iteration of the show.

At our Museum, Lynn, Hope and I decided we would work hard to give the exhibition, which features a great deal of visual art and poetry, along with various scientific labels, a highly professional “museum” look and feel.   That meant, among other things, figuring out ways to more closely integrate the narrative “flow” of the installation, more explicitly bringing together the art, poetry, science and social history whenever possible.  I worked with Steve Gilbert  to develop an entry panel for the exhibition, giving a more explicit conceptual frame than had been apparent in previous versions; we also gave the  major sections of the show short, punchy titles, to help orient visitors, such as “In the Beginning”, “Nuclear Nation,”and  “Aftershocks.”  [Our favorite section title, in Miiltonian vein, is  “Dark Materials” --for the section that highlight Lynda Rockwood’s dazzling Vitrification cabinet of curiosities, from her famous Atomic West series. ]

POTW team with Mark Auslander at exhibition entrance
Whenever possible, we tweaked the wording on the science and history “factoid” labels to reference adjacent art and poetry, and to signal, sometimes subtly, a continuous narrative through the gallery space.  It has been a lot of fun working with Steve and the rest of the POTW team to ensure that the scientific content valid of the revised signage is valid and that the tone of the revised installation is consistent with the overarching sensibility of the project, which runs the emotional gamut from shock, to tragic loss, to whimsy and quiet irony.  (Hope came up with the clever idea of inserting signage on the infamous "Green Run" radiation release experiments within a red folder marked "Top Secret" tantalizingly hanging from the wall; she and Lynn also develop a witty 'no touching" sign to help protect the artworks, incorporating the familiar radiation danger logo.)

Early on, we decided that we would in most cases display the poems, which had in previous iterations been on 8 by 11 inch typescripts in small frames, in large format, in black vinyl on the walls. This turned out to be an enormous amount of painstaking work, and I don’t think we quite knew what we were getting ourselves into. Working in vinyl requires carefully “weeding” the machine-generated print outs, then covering the text in masking tape, peeling the letters off and then applying them to the wall. Placing poetry on walls posed particular challenges: we had to think through font and size carefully, ponder aesthetically pleasing alignments, measure and level each stanza, and ensure that each poem was presented with integrity and sufficient framing space. There are some stunning works of poetry in the show, and we’ve worked hard to honor each and every one of them.

Late in the summer, we removed the old Mammoth foam board installation from the atrium’s main wall, and slowly put up four remarkable poems -two by Washington state poet laureate Kathleen Flennikan, one by Debra Greger and one by Bill Witherup. The installation was exhausting, but the results were worth it!

We decided to place the show’s title in blue vinyl along the lower center of the wall, which really pops. Finally, Lynn figured out a way to print out a large logo of an atom in blue vinyl in three sections, for the precise center of the well. Within that, she and Ellen placed a great paper crane in silver vinyl as the atomic ‘nucleus’; it is a striking image which recalls the story of Sadako, the famous Hiroshima young victim of radiation-induced Leukemia and the origami crane that continue to be made around the world in her memory. Ellen and Hope also placed a series of silver cranes on the side door within the gallery, flying in a beautiful, wistfhul flock, starting just above the door and the continuing beyond it. This area will be occupied by a worktable where children and others can learn how to make origami paper cranes in memory of Sadako and other victims of nuclear weapons. 

We had long puzzled over how to give objective correlative to the exhibition’s rather enigmatic title, “Particles on the Wall.”  We moved one of our mobile walls to the front of the gallery, and placed the new framing text in its center, and then decorated the wall with a set of variously sized atoms; the effect is rather one of falling snowflakes or flower petals, giving tangible visual expression, we hope, to the exhibition title.

In some instances, we found ourselves consolidating items that had been scattered through previous versions of POTW. For instance we decided to devote one mobile wall to a range of pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear images and posters, brought together under the rubric sub-title of “Nuclear Nation.”  (Our intern Erin gracefully designed and hung the various artifacts on the wall to play off of one another in striking ways.)

Rather late in the exhibition development process, we got the exciting news that the co-curators had secured permission to exhibit’s Sherman Alexie’s dazzling poem, The Powwow at the End of the World, which may be read at:

How, we wondered, could we do justice to this substantial literary work, which among other things, chronicles in prophetic language the journey of a life-giving salmon from the ocean to the river's headwaters? We decided to place it within an alcove space formed by three of our mobile walls.  After consultation with our Wanapum community partners (who had been forcibly relocated from their ancestral homeland by the construction of the Hanford Engineering Works in 1943) we placed a striking large photograph of a Wanapum canoe at what appears to be the White Bluffs section of Hanford Reach, along with a new label on the history of Native American removal from the Hanford site.

We also developed a small new segment on racism and Jim Crow at Hanford and the Tri-Cities, adapted from the scholarly work of historian Bob Bauman, who kindly shared some of his striking archival photographs, including a tri-cities sign forbidding African Americans from entering a local business.

It has for our staff been a fascinating collaborative process working with the Seattle-based POTW team, as we have together discovered new aspects of the art and poetry, and pondered the challenges of telling this momentous story in an accessible and engaging fashion.

Tonight will mark the exhibition’s official opening and we can’t wait to see how our visitors respond. We’ll debut a short musical composition inspired by the exhibtion, by our Museum Studies student Justin, and hear from the co curators and artists and poets involved in the project, as well as from a Wanapum elder. We’ll be doing public programming with our POTW colleagues and others through the quarer, and are eager to find out what new conversations , arguments, and projects will emerge!