Through a certain lens, the history of Indians in this country and the Pikes Peak Region can be seen as a dark and violent one.
The Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance uses a slightly different lens with its new exhibition, “When the Land Was Sacred: Our Living Heritage” at East Library.
“There’s not any point in creating a bad guy-good guy deal,” said Robin Sumners, executive director of the center. “We can’t go back and repair it, but we can certainly move forward and repair it.”
Even as the Denver Art Museum opens its 23,000 square foot gallery devoted to Native Americans, “When the Land Was Sacred” looks back at almost 200 years of Indian life, including Ute and other Indian cultures related to the Pikes Peak Region. It explores the enduring, if often ignored, legacy of these cultures through imagery, historic clothing and poetry.
The center was created by local philanthropists David and Paulette Greenberg in 2004 and has produced 12 programs dedicated to fostering understanding of “outsider” cultures.
Typically, the visual arts displays are augmented by film, performance or other multimedia tools. Many have focused on the personal stories that emerged from the Holocaust.
Sumners wanted to do a program on Indian culture. Last year she discovered a “huge collection of wonderful old local photos” of Native Americans. Some were shot as early as 1830.
The photographs — many taken by Horace Poley, a photographer for the Union Pacific and the Denver-Rio Grande Railways — were transferred from digital files to plastic banners, some reaching 8 feet tall. The medium will make transporting the exhibition to local schools much easier.
Sumners said her favorite part of the show is a banner at the end. There she demonstrates how ubiquitous Indian culture is in the mainstream marketplace.
“There’s a beautiful Native American wedding dress. A Ralph Lauren jacket with a beaded headdress on the back. Beaded Nikes. A Chihuly bowl, because Chihuly says that he was inspired by Native American baskets.”
Still, some first peoples might see America’s propensity to absorb its disparate parts as co-optation, not paying tribute. Sumners tentatively agrees, but offers an additional reading.
“Instead of co-opting, maybe we could use the word ‘inspiring’ instead,” she said.