Arctic Wonders

Arctic Wonders

The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

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Arctic Peoples display at The Field Museum

Imagine walking through a museum exhibition of the Americas’ preEuropean cultures, passing aisles of glass cases with Plains Indians garb and artifacts in well-lit rows, and turning a corner into this moody chamber.  The towering presence of carved cedar house poles from the arctic crowd above you. Power.  They retain a seriousness that fluorescents would dispel.  Shoulder-to-shoulder, closer than they’d stand in real life, they demand to be reckoned with.  They’re not Art, they’re Other.

And yet notably they’re art.  If you’ve ever tried carving a footlong chunk of wood you’ll appreciate the skill that liberated images from tree trunks many times human height.  Early arctic housing used big timbers to hold up roofs.  The formidable carvings above functioned as architectural necessity as well as spiritual presence.

I did an earlier blog post about wood as an artistic medium (here).  In it the estimable artist Ursula von Rydingsvard, who works in New York with Northwest cedar, praises cedar for its softness, “all the gentle marks get registered,” and for its warm rosy tone.  In a synchronicity moment, the MOOC I’m taking about global architecture makes much of the value of red ochre in first societies around the globe.  The professor thinks that redness connected living people to their ancestors and suggests that it possibly explains the use of reddish cedar in these house poles.  (This I’d want more evidence for.)

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There’s no doubting the power of belief that hewed this unflinching face.

The Arctic Peoples exhibit is rich, crammed — shamanistic masks, scrimshawed bones, a life-size model house with an alert dog perched on its snowy roof.  I was moved, enlightened, smitten.  Funny how you can know about a culture for years and store it in a cubbyhole in your brain — and then you’re given a door into its heart.  Which opens yours, and you’re forever richer.


The Field Museum has some marvelous exhibits.  Whenever I go I learn things.

  • •  The famous Tyrannosaurus Sue leans down avidly to gobble you up in the lobby.
  • •  There are window-sided labs where you can observe science being done (DNA, Fossil Prep, conservation laboratory)
  • •  Evolving Planet with enough specimens and information to quash the most fervent Intelligent Design fanatic.
  • •  Ancient Americas — the Latin American and Plains Indian sections haven’t had the funding and TLC that the Arctic Peoples has.


look further

Arctic First Peoples

  • Central Council, Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCHITA) here
  • First Peoples of Canada here
  • Native Tribes and Languages of the Arctic here
  • Arctic Centre here


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