Meanings are not fixed

In my final project I used an object biography approach to understand how Chinookan sheep horn bowls can accumulate meanings through their lives. Procurement, production, use, and discard are the major periods in the objects’ ‘life’ (Kopytoff 1986). As horn bowls move through different periods in their lives, they have different uses and meanings to the people who interact with them. I examined ethnographic sources, letters, websites, and transcribed an interview to understand how meanings are not fixed. I particularly enjoyed learning more about how horn bowls are used in contemporary museum contexts (afterlife).

Horn bowls are used for education for the general public and as research tools for Native artists. I found it very interesting how Native material culture in the 21st century is now referred to as ‘art’.  Although ‘art’ is a better word to describe the skill and practice of Chinookan cultural patrimony, than ‘specimen’, a term used from the 19th century, it does not fully encapsulate the traditions and practices that are embedded in the lives of the bowls.

In my paper I argue that learning about the life history of objects like the Chinookan horn bowls and incorporating Native voices into museums, we can acknowledge our present entanglements with the past and provide new meanings and paths toward healing to create a ‘living record’ (Lonetree 2012).

Click here for an interesting article about the Portland Art Museum and the issues that arise when displaying Native American art and culture.


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