The First Nations of the Northwest Coast. The main groups listed here designate speakers of a common language and do not necessarily reflect political units. Village, town, and city states are indicated on the map as relevant to objects in the exhibit.


The late nineteenth century brought dramatic change to the First Nations inhabiting the Northwest Coast of North America. Increasing colonial settlement, commerce, and governance interfered with existing ways of life. In response, Native people revised earlier cultural practices and forms of artistic production to accommodate these new historical and political conditions. Meanwhile, thousands of objects left the coast in this era of rampant museum collecting. Yet exhibitions often dehistoricize these materials in order to reconstruct precolonial cultural patterns or to classify tribal aesthetic styles. While old museum collections are typically seen to provide touchstones of “classic” or “traditional” art, they are rather repositories of objects that were products of—and witness to—significant cultural upheaval.

Objects of Exchange examines the material culture of the period for visual evidence of historical flux and shifting social relations within Native groups as well as between them and the surrounding settler nations of Canada and the United States. It focuses on objects—variously construed as art, artifact, and commodity—that challenge well-established stylistic or cultural categories and that reflect patterns of intercultural exchange and transformation. Drawing on the remarkable collections at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), this exhibition reveals the artistic traces of dynamic indigenous activity whereby objects were altered, repurposed, and adapted to keep up with changing times.

Rather than approach the late nineteenth century as the culmination of some purportedly traditional moment in indigenous life, Objects of Exchange suggests that the particular contexts of colonialism demanded the rapid entry of Native people into modernity. Although some aspects of colonial culture were certainly imposed upon the First Nations, they also demonstrated considerable agency in adapting and trans-forming others. New options for identity drew selectively on multiple material cultures as artists set out to strike a balance between constructions of self and other, between ceremonialism and commerce, and between the various values attached to the past, present, and future—decisions that still reverberate for indigenous peoples today. The voices of contemporary First Nations artists and scholars—available in the exhibition through audio recordings—reflect both the current cultural vitality on the coast and the intercultural histories embodied in these complex objects.

Objects of Exchange was curated by BGC Professor Aaron Glass along with his students, who conducted primary research on the objects and contributed interpretive texts: Emily Deason, Lara Hutcheman, Mei-Ling Israel, Eugenia Kisin, Rebecca Klassen, Cassidy Luitjen, Lauren McDaniel, Catherine Brooke Penaloza, and Eleanor Williams.

Cultural Contexts of Encounter and Collection

Centuries before the arrival of Europeans and Russians on the Northwest Coast in the late 1700s, the First Nations had developed sophisticated visual and material cultures closely tied to their hierarchical social systems and complex cosmologies, which persist today. Personal identity and hereditary wealth are tied to the clan or extended lineage, which marks its physical property with heraldic crests or ancestral beings. A refined stylistic system is used to define highly standardized motifs with a few basic components, especially undulating black “formlines.” However, visual accessibility and public display of conventional motifs is held in check by protocols of private knowledge, whereby social prestige is reinforced through restricted access to meanings. This tension plays out in most contexts for the display of decorated objects, including the presentation of material wealth and hereditary prerogatives at potlatches (ceremonial feasts at which property is demonstrated and distributed as gifts), and the use of regalia by shamans, ritual specialists, and performers to manage relations with ancestors and the supernatural world.

The mid-1800s brought innumerable changes to Native people resulting from the commercial impact of the fur trade and gold rush, the gradual eradication of intertribal warfare, and the modernization of technology that resulted in a florescence of art and material culture. By century’s end, a number of factors increased the pace of social transformation: the arrival of settlers, missionaries, and tourists; devastating depopulation from introduced diseases; Indian administration bureaucracies and land allotments; and assimilation policies such as Canadian prohibition of the potlatch and forced attendance at boarding schools. While indigenous people were under increasing pressure from without, they also drew on cultural principles that guided creative adaptation to colonial structures of power.

This was the world of great flux into which museum collectors ventured in order to “salvage” the apparently vanishing traces of pre-contact aboriginal life. Collectors for the AMNH had various relations to Native people, institutional support, ideological and commercial agendas, and notions of authenticity in the object. Heber R. Bishop was a museum trustee and wealthy New York industrialist who employed Israel W. Powell, the first Superintendent of Indian Affairs for coastal British Columbia. Lieutenant George T. Emmons was an amateur ethnologist and naval captain stationed in Alaska. Museum curator Franz Boas, long considered the father of American anthropology, coordinated the Jesup North Pacific Expedition to assemble vestiges of “authentic” material culture before Native people succumbed to Euro-American assimilation. Boas worked with a number of assistants, including John Swanton, Harlan I. Smith, and Charles Newcombe, as well as coastal Natives such as George Hunt. Wealthy museum patrons and coastal travelers, unencumbered by scholarly motives, provided large numbers of souvenir objects.

Themes of the Exhibition

The thirty-seven featured objects illustrate fifteen overlapping themes of social, cultural, and material transition. These are concepts relevant to the interpretation of the objects rather than rigidly defined categories to which the objects belong. These fifteen terms are included as “tags” on the object labels and are presented on this Website on an interactive tag cloud (which was available on a touch screen monitor in the exhibit). Audio and video interviews with First Nations artists and scholars present discussions about the objects and themes (audio files were available on iPods for visitor use during the exhibition run).

Some themes focus on material and aesthetic attributes: objects with iconographic reference to physical or spiritual transformation; objects that are stylistic hybrids drawing on multiple aesthetic systems; that appear to be multiples, duplicates, or derivations occurring in highly conventionalized forms, or that are non-canonical and do not conform to strict stylistic formulae; that feature English text, legible or not; and that are seemingly influenced by the imagery of Euro-American sailing ships.

Other themes call attention to the social biographies of objects: those that overtly illustrate the diffusion of forms, functions, motifs, materials, and mythological or ritual elements; objects in which novel trade materials or motifs were thoroughly indigenized and adapted for existing quotidian and ceremonial use; that reveal direct material traces of physical or functional repurposing; and that have been misidentified, according to iconography, individual maker, or tribal affiliation.

A related set of themes characterize objects that were directly implicated into colonial social relations: souvenir objects made specifically for sale to foreigners; objects revealing the commercial impact of the Hudson’s Bay Company; those whose form or function may have been altered as a result of the encroachment of Christianity; objects and images relating to changing mortuary practice under missionary influence; and miniature models collected or commissioned by ethnographers to illustrate cultural forms.