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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 22, 2003 - Issue 83


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Landmark Northwest Coast Exhibit Open at the Burke

by The Burke Museum

Kwakwaka_wakw EagkeSeattle - On October 3, 2002, the landmark exhibition Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles opened at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Based on the extraordinary photographic collection of Adelaide de Menil, Out of the Silence pairs de Menil's haunting images of Northwest Coast Native village sites with rarely seen sculptural treasures from the renowned Burke collection.

Accentuated with historical and contemporary photographs, film and audio sequences, and an engaging narrative, Out of the Silence explores the invincible power and resilience of Northwest Coast monumental carving. A wide range of public programs, including lecture and film series, evening feasts, performances, readings, artist's residencies, and family activities will be offered in conjunction with the exhibit. A specially developed exhibit web site will become a permanent component of, making the de Menil photographic collection, as well as vibrant images of contemporary Northwest Coast sculpture accessible to students and aficionados worldwide.

When photographer Adelaide De Menil and Haida artist Bill Reid first published their important book,
Out of the Silence, in 1971, they illustrated a pivotal moment in Northwest Coast history. As they visited Northwest Coast villages from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska in the late 1960s, de Menil and Reid photographed and wrote about weathered totem poles, burial grounds, and village sites.

The de Menil images, combined with Reid's poetic text, in Out of the Silence documented a monumental sculptural tradition thought to be on the brink of extinction. Indeed, Native culture on the coast had appeared silent for decades. Though poles were still carved privately, and ceremonies carried out in secret, no new totem poles were raised, and few people remembered or practiced the traditions that gave the poles their meaning.

"After the government made potlatching illegal in Canada in the late 19th century, totem poles were no longer raised. Many were sold to museums and collectors, but many were left to decay naturally in their original sites, in the traditional way that these cultures always allowed grave monuments and old poles to decay," said Dr. Robin K. Wright, Burke Museum Curator of Native American Art.

"At nearly a hundred villages and cemeteries on the Northwest Coast," added Dr. George MacDonald, Burke Museum Director, "some of the greatest sculptures in the world were on the verge of disappearing. It is with the recognition of the scale of this loss that the value of De Menil's archive…is fully realized. The importance of the collection lies in its outstanding record of the last vestiges of a monumental sculptural tradition that had, for the most part, died out."

An Enduring Tradition
Tanu Bear photo by Adelaide De MenilFifty years have now passed since the anti-potlatching law was dropped in Canada, and even as De Menil and Reid visited the villages of the Northwest Coast in the 1960s, Reid and a number of other young Native artists were launching a movement to revitalize the pole carving tradition.

Today, the silence that De Menil and Reid encountered has clearly been shattered- Native arts are flourishing; poles are being raised all along the Northwest Coast; and new generations of artists have emerged. De Menil's photographs have become valuable documents of lost poles used as models by contemporary carvers, and are in some cases the last surviving examples of the unique carving style of their ancestors.

Past Meets Present
Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles juxtaposes the intriguing de Menil images with the vibrancy of contemporary Northwest Coast monumental sculpture, tying the two time periods and contexts together by illustrating the remarkable durability of traditional Coastal carving. Viewing de Menil images and contemporary sculpture from six major cultural groups of the Coast- Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwaka'wakw, Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian- visitors gain a sense of Northwest Coast culture before anti-potlatching made the raising of totem poles illegal; the quiet and natural decay that accompanied the anti-potlatching period; and the remarkable revitalization from which has emerged a new generation of Native carvers, for whom pole-raising is a regular facet of life.

Exhibit Info
Opening Oct. 3, 2002, and running through September 1, 2003, Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles is the largest exhibit the Burke has produced since the major remodel of our permanent collections in 1997. Images and artifacts will spill from the Special Exhibits Gallery, into the lobby, the Burke Room, and the outdoor spaces. Programming will occur within the actual exhibit, and in all of the public areas of the museum. Many of the Burke's popular annual events, like Native American Arts Celebration (Nov. 16) and Archaeology Day (Oct. 19) will be themed around the content of the Out of the Silence exhibit. A complete calendar of related events and programs can be found on the Burke website at, or by calling the 24-hour info line at 206-543-5590.

Admission for Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles is $8.00 general, $6.50 senior, $5 students and youth. Admission is FREE to children 5 and under, Burke members, UW students, faculty, and staff. The Burke offers complimentary admission to the public on the first Thursday of each month.

Burke hours are 10 am-5 pm daily, and until 8 pm on Thursdays. The Burke Museum Store and Burke Café are also open during these hours.

Generous support for Out of the Silence: The Enduring Power of Totem Poles has been provided by the Hugh and Jane Ferguson Foundation, Quest for Truth Foundation, The Boeing Company, Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, the Norman Archibald Charitable Foundation, University of Washington Canadian Studies Department, and University Bookstore. Please note that there may be additional fees for special exhibits and programs.

The Burke Museum
The Burke Museum, located on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle Washington, is the State museum of natural and cultural history, and the only major natural history museum in the Northwest. It's a treasure trove of natural and artistic wonders from the Pacific Northwest and the Pacific Rim. Collection highlights include towering totem poles and huge, hand carved cedar canoes; the region's only dinosaur skeleton; beautiful gems and minerals; fascinating fossils; birds, beetles, and butterflies. The four divisions of Anthropology, Geology, and Zoology and Botany contain nationally ranked collections totaling more than 5 million specimens.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.

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