Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Neither Empty Nor Unknown

The Montana Historical Society’s current exhibit, Neither Empty Nor Unknown, explains some of the errors Lewis and Clark made. Their primary mistake was thinking that the land was unknown and largely unpopulated, as maps of the time indicated. But in reality, communities lived, worked, and thrived on the land. Places that the expedition named in English already had names known to generations of inhabitants. How could Lewis and Clark have been so wrong? We don’t usually think of the Corps of Discovery’s journey as a seafaring expedition, but that is what it was, modeled on the travels of explorers like the Verendrye brothers and Alexander Mackenzie before them. These voyagers traveled by water searching for the mythical Northwest Passage. Thomas Jefferson charged the Corps with settling this question once and for all. In so doing, the men stayed to the waterways. Lewis and Clark had relatively little contact with Indian people because Montana’s inhabitants infrequently traveled by water. The water served as a barrier, isolating the Corps from the people who lived on the land.

Native American artist John Potter works on a backdrop painting for Neither Empty Nor Unknown.
Lewis and Clark concluded that all Indians were hunters. They were, of course, but they were also family men with wives and children and rich material cultures. They had sharply honed survival skills and a wealth of generational knowledge. Further, each Indian group was uniquely distinct from all the others. There was so much that Lewis and Clark did not see. And what they did not see is what Neither Empty Nor Unknown teaches.

Artifacts like this buffalo robe were researched and created by Native American artisans.
A Native American advisory panel assisted in telling the story from the Indian perspective. There are no tribally specific Montana Indian collections that date as far back as 1805, so Indian artisans searched their oral histories and researched their ancestral traditions to replicate the most authentic items possible. The result is stunning, with many beautiful period pieces, made the way they should be made, by contemporary Native Americans. The visitor moves through the different parts of the one-way exhibit as if on a journey. Neither Empty Nor Unknown is a modern exhibit that offers an entire world of information. Visit Helena, stop by the Society, and see for yourself.

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