New Suquamish Museum is full of living culture

SUQUAMISH — For many, a museum is an arrangement of antiquity, a collection of old tools, relics and objects used by souls long gone.

But in Suquamish, the museum lives and breathes memories.

“I stay away from the word ‘artifact,’ ” said Kate Ahvakana, museum intern. “It’s a connection with very real people. [There are] people who remember picking berries with those baskets.”

Suquamish Museum Board of Trustees member Mary Anne Youngblood pointed out a Tamanowas stick on display, which had been handed down in her family from Jack Davis.

“He gave it to his niece for her keeping when the white men came … and started taking religion away,” Youngblood said. “The only people that had touched it since then were Suquamish women, because we’re good keepers.”

Ahvakana, Youngblood and many other Suquamish Tribe members have their family stories told in the new Suquamish Museum, now open at the corner of Suquamish Way and Division Way. The Tribe first began actively collecting stories and historic objects in the ’80s, when the cultural center became the first museum in 1983.

Chairman Leonard Forsman said it was the Tribe’s plan to link its cultural resources — Old Man House, Chief Seattle’s grave and a museum for education, research and exhibitions.

“The archives and collections there [in the former museum] now … have a beautiful home,” he said Friday, at a special museum preview. “We perceive the new building is going to build upon what we’ve already built.”

The 9,000-square-foot museum includes two galleries, a performance space, museum store and outside learning areas. The Suquamish Museum Board of Trustees and curatorial staff worked with Storyline Studios to design the new permanent exhibit, “Ancient Shores — Changing Tides,” which includes some items from the former museum but many new items as well.

“The exhibit was consciously designed to offer visitors multiple ways of seeing, listening and doing to absorb the history and cultural environment of the Suquamish people,” museum director Janet Smoak said in a press release.

As the film “Come Forth Laughing” plays in the background, visitors walk through Suquamish history chronologically — bone needles and slate blades from Old Man House excavations; drums, eating utensils and, of course, woven cedar baskets in display cases.

Elder Ed Carriere has been weaving baskets for more than 60 years — for collecting huckleberries and clams, and home storage. He said he’s had his baskets on display at other museums, like the Seattle Art Museum and the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, but if they’re not in his home, he said there is nowhere else he’d rather display his baskets than the Suquamish Museum.

“It’s an honor to me they would have them in here,” he said, walking through the museum with his granddaughter and her two children. “I feel real good about it, that the Indian Nation is being ... respected, people coming to see what we’re all about.”

Carriere’s baskets are on display in the permanent exhibit, but also in the temporary exhibit of contemporary art.

The art exhibit, which continues until February, is a celebration of the work from nearly 20 Suquamish members. Display items include bentwood boxes, carved bone jewelry, cedar baskets, wood carvings, wool regalia and weavings, and two-dimensional and three-dimensional fine art pieces, according to the release.

Ahvakana said she’s excited to see what other Suquamish members created, but also to be so close to her mother, Peg Deam. Ahvakana studied art at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, and has a contemporary acrylic painting of a male paddler in the art exhibit, next to a painting of Deam’s created when Ahvakana was 7.

“I know all the people I’m showing with. I’m next to my mom,” Ahvakana said.

“We’re together on the wall. Is that going to happen anywhere else? No.”

Ahvakana, who also worked on the design of the museum, said the museum shows Suquamish “is not a dead culture, it’s living.

“The old baskets mixed with the new … that’s what you’d see in the longhouse. It’s a comfort, it’s how we grew up.”

The permanent exhibit’s center piece are figures holding a Suquamish canoe used in the original Paddle to Seattle and Paddle to Bella Bella. Museum staff worked with California artist Gloria Nusse.

“We spent three days talking. They were telling me stories, I was looking at pictures,” Nusse said of the creative process. “My art supplies were spread out all over the table. Little by little, the figures sort of came into being.”

What developed are six standing sculptures, holding the canoe, simulating the practice of lifting the canoe to bring onshore, demonstrated during the annual Canoe Journey.

“[After] the canoe was carved in the woods, the whole tribe would help carry it down to salt water,” said Carriere, who has paddled in every Canoe Journey. “It reminds me of that idea, of the way they used to do it thousands of years ago.”

The six figures represent the evolution of Suquamish people, Nusse said. Sea otters at the back, ancestors in the middle — Nusse said representing the North Wind and South Wind legends — and modern Suquamish people at the front.

“They really do tell a story … of Suquamish,” she said.

“I feel like I’ve been very privileged. I think this was really magical, inspirational to work with the Tribe.”

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