Pine Grove, CA. Once a year, the Miwok tribe holds their Chaw'se Day gathering in their Hun'ge (Long House) in the Sierra foothills. Near the longhouse is the ancient Chaw'se, (grinding rock) with petrogylphs.
This sacred place is also the Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park, with a museum as well as camping facilities. As a visitor, I entered the hushed longhouse accompanied by a docent, after observing the Miwok tradition of turning three times. Visitors are not allowed to enter the central chamber, or take photos. In our invasive and photo crazed society, these rules are a simple and powerful way to cut through visitor materialism, to respect the protocols of a living culture.
There's a problematic link between museums and the threatened existence of the cultures they display. It's universal. But when it comes to cultural survival, there's also an opportunity to change this dynamic, incrementally. Grinding Rock is a cooperative effort between the Park and local Native Americans to create a "cultural and intellectual bridge between the past, present and future of Native Sierra people."
Traditionally history museums take either the aesthetic, or the scientific approach, and then struggle to make a holistic connection to the cultural context. When objects are presented as works of "primitive art" or "artifacts of ethnographic research" it's like two extremes with nothing in between. Worst of all, when objects are presented as cultural "momentos," it implies that the culture is dead. The powerful magic is gone.
If collecting is an act of "taking" possession, physically and symbolically, what happens to the deeper essence? I worry about this, in every kind of exhibition, and suffer from collective guilt when I visit Native American exhibitions in particular. But I noticed that simply knowing that this sacred site is active gives the museum a current and hopeful perspective.
Miwok bathroom signs
I left wishing that this place could change it's name from "museum" to something uniquely Miwok. That it could give it all back and dissolve, as the Miwoks absorb it into their thriving and evolving culture.