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Toy Stories 

by Ann M. Colford


Imagine for a moment what a future museum curator will see in today's Gameboys, gangsta wear and Harry Potter. And before you give Tomorrow's Leaders too much of a bad rap, think back on the toys and clothing of your own childhood. Uh-huh. Scary, isn't it?


Still, it's amazing what toys can tell us about a culture. Toys may be used by kids (mostly) but they're created and given to children by adults. Sure, kids play to have fun, but they also play to develop skills and to figure out where they fit in the world of adults. If you want to see the future of any culture, just take a look at the children.


"It's the teaching in the family unit that helps place the children [in the culture] and to identify what their roles are," says Tisa Matheson, curator of American Indian collections, about the MAC's newest show, From Where the Sun Rises: Children of the Plateau Tribes. "These things are made for them by their grandmothers and mothers to re-emphasize their pride and help them feel confident in it."


From Where the Sun Rises features clothing, baby carriers, toys and child-sized tools from Plateau tribes, drawn from the museum's own artifacts. Dolls made from buckskin and horsehair, intricately beaded bags just like mom's, and even a model tepee by Sanpoil artist Clara Moore will be on display, along with cradleboards used by mothers to carry their babies while they worked or traveled. The MAC has one of the nation's most extensive collections of artifacts and photographs from the Plateau cultural area, a region extending from the Fraser River Valley of southern British Columbia to the edge of the Great Basin in Oregon, from the Cascades to the Rockies. The last major exhibition to draw from the riches of the museum's Plateau collection was People of the Rivers, one of the inaugural shows in the MAC's expanded facility, which ran from 2001 to 2003. The American Indian collection remains popular with visitors, and curators wanted to spotlight some of the less seen items.


"For this show, we're emphasizing the collection here at the MAC," says Matheson. "Before, people have seen mostly the adult pieces, so we wanted to showcase the children and their roles in the culture. The whole exhibit is [made up of] pieces from our collection, except for a small contemporary section. We want to show that [the culture] is going into the future, it's still carried on, and these are still the roles we're trying to instill."


The items in the show cover a time span from the late 19th century through the present day and illustrate the role of children in tribal life, both historically and currently. The artifacts will be complemented by photographs of Plateau life from the museum's archives.


Matheson says the museum conducted a survey of tribal elders across the region about the purpose of some of the toys and other artifacts of childhood.


"We went out to sources from different areas, the different reservations," she says. "They helped us tremendously and let us [focus] more on the background and why things are done."


As in any culture, Plateau children used toys for role playing, letting them explore the traditional gender roles of provider and caregiver. In the past, children sharpened their skills by playing games, skills they would count on later while hunting, gathering, cooking or sewing for the family. Today, the traditional games and toys help preserve the culture for future generations.


"A lot of the teaching elements come from the grandmother," Matheson says. "There's a lot of emphasis on learning the traditional crafts like sewing and weaving, the language, and just keeping our culture going."


From growing up in a Nez Perce family, Matheson recalls vividly this kind of subtle sharing of the culture. "I remember going to my grandmother's house, watching her sew and make stuff for me. There's a lot of teaching going on, and most of the time the child doesn't even know. They just know it's comforting -- they remember being at Grandma's house. Then when you're older, you realize, 'Oh, that's what was going on.'"


In addition to the toys, the show also displays a variety of full-size baby carriers, from the teardrop-shaped beaded cradleboards of the Spokane and Nez Perce to the elongated handled woven baskets of the Fraser River people in British Columbia. Some cradleboards are rather plain and functional, simply a lace-up pouch with minimal beadwork, while others came with elaborately beaded bibs and extra bars and straps to add blankets. Whether fancy or utilitarian, the cradleboards were designed to keep the baby secure and comfortable.


"The elders all said [cradleboards] were made for the child to still feel like it was in the womb," Matheson says. "Society now says babies like this and that, but natives have [known] that all along, and it's still being practiced."


The newest acquisition in the show is a doll from the contemporary American Girl line based on stories from American history. Kaya, a Nez Perce girl living in 1764, is the latest character in American Girl's lineup of dolls with a biography. Tapping into the market for collectibles, American Girl dolls are pricey, but each doll comes with a bevy of storybooks as well as accessories. Their stories are exhaustively researched for authenticity, and Matheson says Kaya does a good job reflecting Nez Perce culture. American Girl "did some research here and at the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Lapwai," she says. "It was well researched. I was pleased with how well it came out."


The beaded buckskin dress worn by the Kaya doll looks much like a child's dress from the mid-20th century and like a dress you might see at a local powwow or tribal dance. Matheson points to beadwork and styling that distinguish each dress as coming from the Plateau culture, showing a remarkable consistency. Those grandmas must be doing something right.





Publication date: 1/27/05

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