Friday, October 17, 2014

converging skylights

converging skylights
merge with masked shamans
encased in glass

For two half days I journey through 13,000 years of human ingenuity and achievement in our half of the globe, from Ice-Age mammoth hunters to the empires of the Incas, Maya and Aztecs. All of this in the space of one half of one floor in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. When I enter the three-story Stanley Field Hall, the first thing I notice are the rows of square skylights far overhead, reflected in a tall glass case containing two shamans in full regalia, their elaborate feather headdresses merging with the lights. Add to this melange, a mirror image of the sign for the Field Museum Store and the tops of two 80' totem poles, rising like ancient skyscrapers towards the skylights.

I could spend weeks roaming the galleries of the Chicago Field Museum. But my time is limited, so I gravitate toward the rich legacy of Native Americans. The museum staff have renovated this section since I was last here, with the addition of numerous videos, dioramas and reconstructions of dwellings, depicting the progression of humans from the nomadic hunter-gatherer bands of the Ice Age, through permanent settlement in agricultural villages, to the establishment of vast empires based on the triple power of shared beliefs, military might and money.

When I enter the Ancient Americas exhibition, I am confronted by giant mastodons ambling through a forest, followed by tiny human hunters armed with spears. Bows and arrows are an example of an innovation that followed spears. Next, I walk through a reconstruction of a dwelling in a pueblo village.

The walls are constructed of adobe embedded with stout poles to support the roof.

Inside, several exhibits demonstrate the storage and preparation of domesticated plants, especially the "Three Sisters": maize, beans and squash.

Women and girls spent many hours grinding maize, or naadaa, into flour by pressing oblong grinding stones into hollowed stone receptacles in a series of coarse to fine texture to produce finer and finer flour. Imagine spending hours on your knees pushing stones to get your daily flatbread.

The flour was stored in beautifully decorated clay pots.

And served in equally beautiful bowls.

I also visit a full-size reconstruction of a Pawnee earth lodge. The Pawnee lived on the plains of North America in villages of semi-subterranean structures constructed from large wooden posts which supported a circular roof covered with branches, thatch and sod, coated with waterproof clay. Inside, platform beds covered in furs line the walls, with a fire pit under the smoke hole in the center, and a ritual area with a drum and a medicine bundle hanging from one of the beams on the west side opposite the entrance.

The Pawnee lived in villages of earth lodges during the winter, but camped in tipis during hunting trips. One of the games the young people played to develop their hunting skills was to throw a stick through a hoop thrown in the air. Talk about mind/body coordination!

The Pawnee believe that they come from the stars and they painted beautiful star charts on hides.

As well as star designs on drums.

Stone had many uses, like this pile of flints for making various tools and projectiles.

Coral was carefully carved into beads of many sizes for decoration.

Some indigenous peoples had access to and skill in the use of metals, such as these copper breast plates.

This one still has two pearls attached, making it look like a face.

Beads were brought to Native Americans by the Europeans and were quickly integrated into their costumes, like this leather jacket closed with silver medallions.

Headdresses were made of many different materials and in diverse styles which reflected different tribes. Some were purely ceremonial and some were everyday attire.

This one looks like the original visor cap.

Fur, feathers, porcupine quills and beads, with a beaded visor.

Horses were also introduced by Europeans and quickly adopted by the Plains Indians. Here, horsehair becomes a crown.

South American headdresses used colorful tropical bird feathers.

Plants were used both to weave and to dye baskets and trays.

Another kind of weaving, with strips of leather on a bentwood frame, produced snowshoes.

Hides were used to make ritual shields as well as drums and clothing.

Hopi katchina dolls represent many types of masked dancers associated with seasonal rituals.

Malleable, formless clay when fired and glazed becomes sturdy pots.

All was not work or ritual. There were also pastimes, like these painted sticks used in a women's game. Rivers and mountains?

When I come to the Maya calendar, I am reminded of time. It's past time to go!

I end my excursion with a quick visit to the Northwest Coast tribes. These First Nations people enjoyed an abundance of food from both land and sea, while the forests provided Western cedar, which was used for many purposes. They built their longhouses out of cedar planks, and 50 foot canoes out of split cedar trees. The women wove blankets from strips of softened yellow cedar bark, mountain goat wool and dog fur. The curvilinear designs depict natural forms such as the sun and moon, raven, orca whale, bear, wolf, beaver, eagle, loon, owl, hummingbird, frog, sea otter, salmon, bee, butterfly and human, as well as legendary creatures such as the thunderbird and sisiutl or sea serpent.

Mica was thought to be the scales of the sea serpent, here carved perhaps to look like one of its claws.

The sisuitl symbolizes protection, power and transformation. The central design at the top of this blanket depicts a sisuitl with a man's head in the middle flanked by a sea serpent head on either side. The sight of the supernatural serpent is said to turn the spectator into stone. Fortunately, the image of a sisuitl does not have this effect, so even though I am (and you are) gazing at this one, I am able to complete my journey and leave the Field Museum with nothing worse than a case of tibial stress syndrome that makes my shins feel like stone.

The last artifact I pass by on my way out is a fossil ammonite shell which appears to be giving birth to a baby ammonite. Again I am reminded of time, but this time, the long span of time of our planet Earth and how short a time period humans have been around. It is a reminder that the Earth will continue to give birth to a multitude of
creatures, whether humans are around or not.

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