April 14, 2009
In a cultural and artistic sense, taking in the "Splendid Heritage: Perspectives on American Indian Art" exhibit down at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) prior to viewing the five-part PBS "American Experience" series, "We Shall Remain," proved to be a rather insightful exercise in foreplay.
If anything, the exhibit heightened expectations for the upcoming 90-minute segments that purport to depict the native viewpoint of Anglo expansion into their physical and spiritual landscapes beginning with the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and continuing to the current time.
The cool thing for KUED viewers is the five-part companion series produced locally depicting the Paiute, Ute, Navajo, Goshute, and Northwestern Shoshone tribes of Utah. These half-hour segments air following each "American Experience" episode Monday evenings through May 11.
And, as mentioned, a pilgrimage down to the University of Utah and the UMFA could well be a good prep for the 10-hour immersion into the storylines of the Wampanoag who greeted the Pilgrims, Tecumseh and his born-again "prophet" brother Tenskwatawa, the Cherokee "trail of tears," Geronimo and the Chiracahua Apaches, the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee, and the Utah tribes.
Upon entering the display, one is engulfed by the sheer artistry employed by the various tribal cultures to manufacture items for their daily life. Ingeniously-crafted shirts, leggings, moccasins, knives, sheaths, clubs, cradles, necklaces and tomahawk pipes are just a few of 144 objects laid out for the discerning eye to examine.
The presentation, as overpowering as the collection itself, hovers over the galleries in a manner similar in technique to that of the work. There is an almost holy utilization of space by the curators to honor both the indigenous cultures and the visitors to the display alike.
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Time is taken to draw attention to the convergence of culture and art among the native peoples with "whys and wherefores" being laid out along the way. It’s a demanding culture, one with needs for warmth, comfort, and food to fuel its path. It’s just that the subtle, and not-so-subtle, uses of color and material take on a life of their own, one that is separate from the sheer utilitarian aspect of the item’s construction.
Glass beads, buffalo hide, and porcupine quills seldom have been assembled in such exalted fashion. Those who fashioned such high art into their everyday lives were people of vision, indeed! There was a grace by which they lived their often-hardscrabble existence, and it was, literally, woven into the fabric of their days.
These would be the same days that the producers and filmmakers of "We Shall Remain" attempted to put under a cross-cultural microscope as they wove their historical narrative through the five mileposts previously mentioned. Rather than shape their stories within strict chronological progressions, their decision was to jump from one profound scenario to another.
Among the various directors who assembled the piece is Chris Eyre, one with more than a few Park City connections through the Sundance Institute and Film Festival, who found himself involved with three of the five episodes.
Eyre first came to prominence among the mainstream when he directed Sherman Alexie’s script for "Smoke Signals," a film which took Sundance by storm back in the late 1990s. Among his later films were two of the made-for-TV PBS adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn & Chee Navajo mysteries: "Skinwalkers" and "A Thief of Time."
Eyre directed the first three episodes of "We Shall Remain" while, in the "Tecumseh" piece, he collaborated with Ric Burns, brother of PBS filmmaking icon Ken Burns. He also, along with Sundance Institute’s Bird Runningwater, actor Benjamin Bratt, and others, served on an advisory board of the production.
Another player in the "six-degrees of Chris Eyre" movie game is the actor Wes Studi who portrayed Lt. Joe Leaphorn in both of the Navajo Tribal Police films and, here for the first time in three dozen screen appearances, plays the part of a Cherokee, his native tribe.
In a couple of past films, Studi has taken on the role of an Apache when he played the title role in "Geronimo," and, as the fierce Huron spy Mangua in "The Last of the Mohicans." When called upon, Studi can give great "grim."
On a personal note, the closest the "Splendid Heritage" exhibit comes to the tribal landscape of my geographic youth are artifacts from the Nez Perce and Blackfoot. Little space is given to the Cour d’ Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai, and Spokane affiliations. Good though!
So, once again, it’s the UMFA and PBS to the rescue of the hungry mind and heart. This time the culture and art and historical context are of an indigenous nature, one too long hidden from view. "Splendid Heritage" lasts until January 10, 2010. "We Shall Remain" runs every Monday night until May 11.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.