It was a truly special occasion, so the tribes donned their finest jewelry, clothing and other adornments — items they consider their best handiwork, items that are rarely seen by the public eye. This magnificent regalia is typically worn only during ceremonies in the tribes’ private dance houses.
Inspired by the beautiful work of the Maoris, the tribes also saw an opportunity to share their finest work with the public. The wheels started turning in the mind of Rebecca Dobkins, associate professor of anthropology and curator of the Maori exhibition. Why not create another exhibition featuring historic and contemporary regalia from local tribes?
“Ceremonial regalia is perhaps the most highly regarded art form within American Indian groups and thus truly represents an indigenous definition of master work,” Dobkins says.
This summer, Dobkins’ idea garnered a prestigious $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Oregon Arts Commission selected the project, titled “The Art of Ceremony,’ as Oregon’s 2008 American Masterpieces project.
Dobkins also received a two-year Millicent McIntosh Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to help her assemble the exhibition in collaboration with Native community curators. It is scheduled to open in fall 2008 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.
“‘The Art of Ceremony’ promises to contribute profoundly to the national conversation about what constitutes American art and American masterpieces,” Dobkins says. “We are honored to be working in partnership with Oregon tribes on this project.”
She will work closely with the Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs and other Oregon tribes to develop the exhibit. After it shows at the Hallie Ford, it will travel to the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute and the Museum at Warm Springs. “We are excited to be able to work with Native communities on the exhibition’s development and thrilled to be able to share the exhibition with audiences throughout the state,” says Museum Director John Olbrantz.
Regalia is exceptionally diverse — from the Plateau area’s buckskin and beadwork to the Columbia River region’s use of condor feathers to the coastal area’s feather work and abalone shell decoration. “A lot of people attend intertribal events, such as powwows, and mistake what they see there as our traditional dances and regalia,” says Bud Lane, vice chairman of the Siletz Tribal Council. “Each tribe has its own regalia and dances that go way back. We want people to see that each tribe has its individual traditions and cultures that vary from region to region.”
To choose pieces for inclusion in the exhibition, Dobkins will work with Native curators to determine the complex aesthetic criteria regalia-makers use to judge their work. Regalia reflect environmental and cultural transformations in the tribes and are used to generate spiritual power and social status. “This project offers the public the opportunity to gain unprecedented appreciation for the multiple meanings of beauty, excellence and innovation as expressed in Native community standards,” Dobkins says.
The museum plans a full array of public programming with the exhibition, including artist demonstrations and workshops. An accompanying book about Oregon tribes’ ceremonial regalia will be completed following the exhibition.