Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Hidden Treasure - "Museum of the Plains Indian"

In 2002, I had the privilege and great fortune of working in Calgary, Alberta for a project that was being engineered and procured in Canada. Calgary is a beautiful and vibrant city. I thoroughly enjoyed the months that was there during the first engineering phase of the project. Later in 2003, I would spend several just as enjoyable extended business trips there as engineering was completed.

Besides the attractions in Calgary itself, Calgary is a great starting point to access other areas such as Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Waterton Peace Park, and with reentry back into the USA - Glacier National Park.

I took full advantage of the Canadian holidays to take trips to all of the aforementioned attractions. As I was alone most of the time, I first visited them by myself and later once or twice again when my wife, at the time, visited me.

It was during a visit to Glacier National Park that we discovered a hidden treasure - Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana.

It has been written and said that "You can judge a society by ... " "the way it treats its young", "by the way it treats its prisoners", "by the way it treats its less fortunate", and "by the way it treats its elderly" It is my belief and I would like to add "You can judge a society by its art".

Nowhere that I have traveled throughout the world is this more apparent and appropriate than at the "Museum of the Plains Indian". The museum is located at the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 89 on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. Browning Montana is east of Glacier National Park. We had come upon it when we were traveling south from Waterton, Alberta on our way to East Glacier Park Village. We had been traveling for a while and the weather was not all that conducive to photography when I saw a rather nondescript simple two story brick building. The building looked very much like a small High School for the 1940s but had a large sign identifying it as a museum.

It turns out the the museum had been created in 1941. Inside there are permanent displays of native American art and handicrafts. Works from the Blackfeet,Sioux, Cree, Crow, Shoshone, Nez Perce, Northern Cheyenne, and Chippewa peoples are represented in the displays. Displayed items include clothing, toys, weapons, horse gear, and household items. In addition the permanent articles on display there temporary arts and crafts by Native Americans.

The articles are fantastic examples of the art and culture of the Plains Indian societies. The bead work is meticulous and very colorful undoubtedly reflecting the complexity and structure of its associated society. The artwork even in common mundane articles of daily life give testament to the sophistication of the Plains peoples. Upon viewing the exhibits all preconceived notions regarding the Native American culture are quickly and forever dispelled. Any society that is able and willing to invest the time as well as resources into such sophisticated expressions of beauty can not be considered savage. In the 1800's, as it is today, it seems "de rigeur" to characterise your adversaries as sub-human and simplify their culture to be no more than brutal savagery. Quite often the reaality is that the adversary's culture is as sophisticated and valid as the proponent's.

We thoroughly enjoyed the Museum of the Plains Indian for many reasons. Besides the numerous works of art and handicrafts, the museum has not been updated to be politically correct. The works speak for themselves and the open minded visitor is left to draw their own conclusions regarding the work and the artisans that created the works. Browning Montana is off the beaten path so the museum was not crowded whats so ever during our visit. We may have encountered 6 other visitors during our one hour stay at the museum. The museum is also very cheap to visit - current prices are $4.00 per adult and $1.00 per child during June to September. However, admission is free from October to May.

I would enjoy returning to the museum given the opportunity - I have a digital camera now so the photographs of the glass encased articles would be better than these scanned slides. Sounds like a good enough reason to return ...

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