I was recently in Washington D.C. and visited the magnificent National Museum of the American Indian. The newest feature was a dazzling piece of beaded Huichol (Wixaritari) art that greeted you immediately as you entered the lobby. A Volkswagen Beetle had been decorated with 200 pounds of beads that were held together by 35 pounds of resin, it took my breath away (see pictures). It was a spectacular design that took 8 Huichol artists, seven months to complete.
The public was invited to examine the Vochol (the Huichol word for Volkswagen Beetle) and find the symbolic elements that were listed on the poster next to the car. Mentioned were deer, corn, snake, eagle, scorpion, among others, but conspicuously absent was any mention of Peyote whose multi-lobed, floral image was an undulating ribbon that held the whole piece together.
Peyote, the awesome mind-altering substance found in a flowering cactus is the center of Huichol life, and guides every aspect of the people’s existence. Why did the curators omit this fact? I don’t know, maybe they thought it would inspire controversy. Museum curators and administrators have enormous discretionary power not only in what they present but also what they withhold, and they withhold a lot.
The basements of the Smithsonian and American Museum of Natural History are filled with Native American artifacts, and skeletal remains. Native people believe these “artifacts” are the living embodiment of the spirit of their people; they are a sacred connection to the Great Spirit, who blesses them with life and sustenance. These items were not freely given; they were taken as souvenirs or spoils of war by their discoverers’ and conquerors. Tribal people want them back but museum administrators have been slow to return them.
For example, the Huichol want the scared altarpiece that the distinguished Norwegian ethnologist Carl Lumholz, stole from them over 100 years ago. That “artifact”, has guarded the fireplace at their holiest site for the last 15,000 years, and the Huichol want it returned. Alas, in spite of countless requests, it’s still hiding in the basement.
At our next Schlagbyte Webinar on June 14.
We’ll talk about the spiritual treasures lying in our own basements,
and how we can use them better.