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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #18 (May 2, 2006), page 14.
The Burke exhibit, the American experiment
Pacific Voices: Keeping our Cultures Alive
By Miriam Kahn and Erin Younger
Published by the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture
and the University of Washington Press, 2005
185 color and black-and-white photos
Oversize paperback, 200 pages, $30.00
Miriam Kahn, University of Washington anthropology professor, and Erin Younger, Associate Director of Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, have done more than put 200 pages between two covers. Their beautiful book is a companion to the Burke Museum’s long-term exhibit "Pacific Voices." That show, like this book, is in the authors’ words "about the vibrant connection between objects, people, and cultural identity." And the vigorous connectedness breathing life into these objects, peoples, and cultures, is the one we walk into every morning. Lucky us.
Seattle’s magnificent Puget Sound, Portland’s grand confluence of Rivers Columbia and Willamette with our deep blue ocean, are rich beneficiaries and contributors to this, to our Pacific community of nations. In Pacific Voices, Professor Kahn and Erin Younger make manifest this concept of community, of connectedness, and continuity. They do it by holding high an object, a single object, one object representing each of seventeen selected cultures spread around the vast circulatory flow of Pacific wind and water. This is hard.
Of course, there will be disagreement. Bitter and deep. As strong and as old as our peoples.
There are a thousand times more than 17 cultures in and around our Pacific Sea. Each individual ethnic and national community attributes great reverence to many more than a single object. Selecting one person or one group of Northwest folk to pick one particular artifact is asking for trouble. As a task it’s tough, but full of meaning.
If you had to choose
Pacific Voices, like America, does its best by asking the questions, the hard ones, and inviting discussion. The book and the place are only a stage. The rest is up to us.
"If you could choose," the authors ask in putting it all together, "one object that represents the richness of your culture and provides you with a sense of cultural identity, what would it be?"
Rose Dang and Mr. Thuy Vu discuss the centrality of the bát nhang (incense burner) to Viet culture on both sides of our sea and for all of human time. Core cultural elements closely related to their incense burner include families worshiping ancestors, believers observing auspicious community events such as weddings and passed-on elders’ anniversaries, Vietnamese everywhere celebrating Lunar New Year.
Seattle Samoan elders Veronica Leasiolagi Barber and Sapina Pele propose the tânoa (hardwood ceremonial kava bowl). Tânoa may be humble or may be high, they are either big or bigger, but they are always legged and forever round.
One legend says that each tânoa leg embodies the living memory of an original Samoan ancestor from when they gathered around their primordial fire circle. Another legend recalls four noble brothers who sailed in four directions founding the four Polynesian island clusters.
Legs hold up a house. Traditional Samoan homes are supported by sturdy wooden posts and they are round. "To me, the tânoa is symbolic of the circular and connected nature of who we are as Samoans," writes Talking Chieftess Veronica (Nofoavaeloloa-o-Lualemagafaigâ). "We conduct daily business and activities facing each other ... this gives us the opportunity to read nonverbal, as well as verbal, communication. It is also very respectful of the other’s humanity."
Pacific Voices’ final section suggests the Iñupiaq umiaq (an oared oceangoing open boat). According to chapter author and Iñupiaq (Alaskan Eskimo) artist Larry Ulaaq Ahvakana, umiaq have always been essential to travelling and hunting. These are the sources of new ideas and new things, and daily subsistence. Central to Mr. Ahvakana’s ancient and continuing culture are their agviq bowhead whale, their agviq hunt, and their umiaq as the vehicle for the necessity and the sacredness of it all.
An invitation, an engagement
The Viet incense burner and the Samoan ‘ava bowl and the Iñupiaq open boat are only three of the seventeen essential objects suggested by Pacific Voices. Of course there are many-many more.
Pacific Voices: Keeping our Cultures Alive is in the end a heroic, if harrowing, attempt by its authors to get their American arms around a big and energetic phenomenon. Big as our blue ocean, vigorous as our persistent peoples.
More important than the inevitable grumbling among us about who represents what, and who not, are the precious opportunities for engagement offered by Erin Younger and Professor Kahn. This is singularly brave. This book is beautiful. This process (living Pacific voices) is ours. Cultural conversation is constant; who steers cultural change can either be us or chaos.