April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.
 

  

For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

 

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

 

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April 13, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

This Friday, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video takes a look at three archaeological sites—El Silenció, Finca Seis, and Batambal—all of which contain stone spheres made by peoples of what is now Costa Rica before AD 1500.

The video features Francisco Corrales, a member of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Costa Rica. The three sites he invites us to experience are within the Greater Chiriquí region of Central America, an area that is further explored within Cerámica de los Ancestros.

The sites are unique from one another in terrain. El Silenció houses the largest stone sphere recorded thus far, but years of pasture burns in the grasslands area have taken a toll on the stone's outer layers. In the low-lying river plain of Finca Seis, flooding buried the spheres under many layers of sediment, preserving the only original alignment found to date. Batambal rests high in the mountains, a strategic position for views of surrounding hills and the valleys below.

The reasons for the stones’ creation remain a mystery. Corrales explains that while spheres apparently marked locations with special significance where important events would have taken place, some may have had astronomical purposes as well. Anthropologists and archaeologists continue to survey the areas, and junior members of their fields do much of the cataloguing work, providing a unique learning environment in which to build the expertise of a new generation of scholars.

 


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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April 06, 2015

The Skábmagovat Film Festival: Indigenous Film above the Arctic Circle

Yoik singer, opening night
A yoik singer opens the Skábmagovat Film Festival. January 2015, Inari, Finland.


As a film programmer you become a seasoned festival-goer, immersed in the cultural landscape of film, new media, and the relationships you build with other filmmakers and film institutions around the world. The Film and Video Center of the National Museum of American Indian thrives on building those relationships, and my experiences with the Skábmagovat Film Festival are some of those unique cultural exchanges.

The village of Inari
The village of Inari, Finland, 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.


The Skábmagovat Film Festival is presented in Inari, Finland, a small village in Finnish Lapland just north of the Arctic Circle. The region is known for its sub-zero temperatures during the winter, spectacular Northern Lights, reindeer herding, and community of Sámi, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. The Sámi reside in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia and are the only indigenous people officially recognized in the European Union. They continue to preserve their language and culture in order to better provide for the livelihood of future generations.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival, which celebrated its 16th anniversary in January, is one of the premiere international Indigenous film festivals in the world. Each year the festival spotlights films from all indigenous regions, including First Nations, American Indians, Aboriginal Australia, Maori, and many others. This year the festival’s focus was on Latin America, and featured films came from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. I was honored to be asked by Skábmagovat executive director Jorma Lehtola (Sámi) to help curate the Latin American indigenous section and serve as an invited speaker at this year’s film festival seminar.

Inari lake troutAs an invited delegate I had the pleasure of eating some traditional dishes, like reindeer and trout with a side of lingonberries, even eating a meal in a Sámi lavvu, a traditional tent or tipi. With other delegates, I had an opportunity to explore the wilderness by visiting a Sámi reindeer farm. Our reindeer adventure included a snowmobile journey over a frozen lake, sitting and observing wild reindeer, drinking coffee brewed over an open fire, and learning about the Sámi people’s nomadic traditions.

In the lavvu

The reindeer farm 

Coffee over an open fire
From top right to bottom: Inari lake trout with lignonberries and herbs, on china decorated with an antler motif. In the lavvu. The reindeer farm. Coffee brewed on an open fire.


I also explored the Sámi Museum Siida, the national museum of the Finnish Sámi people, which offers beautiful exhibitions and displays on Sámi history and culture and serves as an official venue for the film festival.

The most eye-opening experience was being in the Northern Lights Theatre, an open-air theater made completely of snow. Festival hosts lent me a snowsuit and boots, and I sat outside alongside other visitors to listen to festival introductions in Finnish, Sámi, and English and watch films under the moon and stars.

Sámi Museum Siida

Serious film lovers in the Northern Lights Theatre

%22My Legacy%22 on the ice screen at the Northern Lights Theatre
Top: An exhibition gallery at the Sámi Museum Siida, the Finnish national museum of the Sámi people. Photo courtesy of Siida. Middle: The audience seated on snow risers in the Northern Lights Theatre. Photo by Jeanette Paillán. Bottom: The film My Legacy on the big screen at the Northern Lights. 

Director Jeanette Paillan (left) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farmThe film festival seminar was held in Solju, the Parliament Hall in the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. During my presentation, I discussed museum initiatives for film and video, ongoing film programs like Native Cinema Showcase, and a step-by-step tutorial on navigating the Film and Media Catalog on the museum’s website. I also listened to some inspiring stories from invited delegates, including Mapuche director Jeanette Paillán, the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación), Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, and Yakutian director Michail Lukachevskyi, on film techniques and resources available in indigenous communities

Other highlights? Watching a new shorts film collective made by young Sámi filmmakers and funded by the International Sámi Film Institute’s Sámi Film Lab, as well as attending the festival’s concerts, which featured performers from various musical genres, including rap, bluegrass and yoik, a traditional Sámi form of song. 

Sámi Film Collective in Sajos

Upper: Jeanette Paillán (Mapuche), the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farm. Lower: Young filmmakers supported by the Sámi Film Lab discuss their work.

 

The Skábmagovat Film Festival was an unbelievable experience for me both as a visitor and as a film enthusiast. The Sámi people were so gracious and kind as hosts that I felt like I was with family. By bringing people from all different backgrounds together in one small village in Finland, the festival gives voice to the power of how film to strengthen dialogue across on all indigenous communities. To say my journey was surreal is an understatement. It’s an experience that will remain with me forever.

—Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

Cynthia Benitez is the Film and Video programmer for the National Museum of American Indian in New York. Before joining the museum staff, she worked as a publicist for international film festivals and Native media organizations, including the American Indian Film Institute, Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum and World Competition, and the Native American Film and Video Festival. She is currently seeking her M.S. in Media Studies at Brooklyn College. 

Photographs not credited above are by Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

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April 03, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—El Panteoncito

In just a few weeks, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This second video looks at El Panteoncito, an archaeological site located in El Salvador. 

El Panteoncito is one of several sites in the Cordillera del Bálsamo Project surveyed by Marlon Escamilla, an archaeologist with the School of Anthropology at the Technological University of El Salvador. In this video, National Geographic Society archaeologist and anthropologist Fabio Amador explains the geographic and social significance of El Panteoncito, uncovered in part by Escamilla’s research.

El Panteoncito sits high in the mountains. Living there would have been very difficult, but the site would also have provided its inhabitants with a strong defensive posture. From El Panteoncito, views are practically unimpeded in all directions, offering advance warning when the community needed to protect itself.

One unique aspect of the site is that it affords scholars the opportunity to learn what foodstuffs the inhabitants grew and consumed. Researchers have determined that many of these food practices have been carried forward to people who live in the area today. The site also serves as a place to study the history of the last migration of peoples in the region before contact with the Spaniards. 

  

 

To learn much more about the first peoples of what is now El Salvador and the sites where they lived, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed
 is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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March 30, 2015

Humanity and Complexity: "The Navajo Times" previews "Diné Spotlight"

The Navajo Times published an excellent review by Alysa Landry of "Dine Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film," a public program at the museum in New York April 9 and 11. Subscribers can read the original article online. For nonsubscribers, the Navajo Times has generously given the museum permission to reprint Ms. Landry's review.

 

Humanity and Complexity: ‘Diné Spotlight’ to show accurate picture of what it really means to be Native

By Alysa Landry

NEW YORK CITY – When it comes to movies, much can be said about aspect ratios and picture quality, but regardless of a movie screen’s height and width, the picture itself is still flat.

That’s especially true when it comes to most mainstream films about American Indians, according to Angelo Baca, a Navajo filmmaker and graduate student at New York University.

The National Museum of the American Indian is trying to change that with a two-day fi lm screening featuring two full-length films and 17 shorts.

The free event, “Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film,” runs April 9 and 11 at the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York. A total of 14 Navajo filmmakers will have their work shown, with topics ranging from love stories to science fiction to the gritty, hard-hitting stories of modern life on the reservation.

The combination, Baca said, should leave spectators with a more accurate picture of what it means to be Native.

“These films bring complexity and dimension to an otherwise one-dimensional and conflated representation of Native Americans,” Baca said. “They cover a wide range of things that people don’t necessarily associate with Native Americans. They show how much humanity and complexity we have as people.”

Baca, who is pursuing a doctorate degree in anthropology, will moderate a discussion held after the screenings. He believes the event will help bust stereotypes – especially for an audience at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

“A lot of museum-goers are expecting a certain kind of film,” he said. “Navajo filmmakers are doing great work and breaking expectations, breaking a lot of rules. They are going beyond the stereotype that Indians belong in documentaries or behind glass.”

DrunktownsFinestFinal-1200x520
In this scene from Sydney Freeland's feature-length film "Drunktown's Finest," a rebellious Navajo man clashes with his Army recruiter. (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution) 

Diné Spotlight opens April 9 with a screening of Sydney Freeland’s acclaimed film, “Drunktown’s Finest.” It continues April 11 with a series of short films, followed by the New York premiere of “Chasing the Light,” by Blackhorse Lowe. Both feature-length filmmakers will participate in discussions after their movies play.

Organizers are expecting a crowd of 250 or more, said Cynthia Benitez, film and video center programmer for the museum. The screening coincides with the ongoing “Glittering World” exhibit, which showcases the jewelry of the Yazzie family of Gallup, N.M.

The two events together allow the museum to shine a spotlight on the Navajo Nation and encourage conversation about its modern culture, Benitez said. The museum is also bringing some of the filmmakers to the exhibit, offering visitors the unique opportunity to “meet the people behind the objects.”

“You can’t tell these stories through artifacts,” she said. “When you have contemporary films, it gives us another educational aspect to offer visitors who don’t realize that the Navajo are not just turquoise jewelry or ancient people. With films and filmmakers here, people can ask them questions directly.”

The films selected explore themes that resonate with the Navajo people – and with humanity as a whole, Benitez said. That includes the struggles of a transgender woman in Freeland’s film, Drunktown’s Finest,” and suicide and drug addiction in Lowe’s film, “Chasing the Light.”

The films represent a natural progression from traditional storytelling, said Freeland, who grew up on the reservation and went to film school because she wanted to tell stories.

“You have all the traditional art forms – painting, weaving, pottery, silversmithing – that are all forms of storytelling,” she said. “Filmmaking combines all the other art forms into one. It’s another form of storytelling.”

Although gritty and sometimes controversial, “Drunktown’s Finest” shatters stereotypes and presents three-dimensional characters, Freeland said.

“I wanted to tell a story about the people and places I knew and give them a chance to be represented on screen,” she said. “I wanted to show how a reservation is a diverse and dynamic place. It was about giving people a chance to be heard and seen on screen, as they are, as human beings with flaws.”

When filming “Chasing the Light,” Lowe wanted to capture “everyday life for the 21st century Navajo man.”

“It’s just the usual Navajo type of living,” he said. “It’s just straight-up reality. It’s depression, heartache, drugs, friends. And it’s a comedy because all the funniest things are always the darkest thing ever.”

“Chasing the Light” is Lowe’s second feature-length film. He’s also showing a short film during the screening.

The6thWorld
Nanobah Becker's film "The 6th World," in which Navajo astronauts journey to Mars, is part of "Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film." (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution)

The showcase will include 16 additional short films shown in two sessions. Nanobah Becker will show three of her shorts, including a music video starring Navajo ballet dancer Jock Soto and a science fiction film about Navajo people on Mars. She’s looking forward to showing her films to a New York audience.

“In a city like New York, the exposure of Native films and Navajo culture is very limited,” she said. “It’s like the end of a journey to be able to show something to an audience and to feel like you’ve affected people in a certain way.”

With 14 filmmakers’ work showing in New York and countless others making films on the reservation, Becker believes the Navajo people are establishing a cinematic record that is unique to the tribe.

“We are creating our national cinema, just like any other country,” she said “We have radio and print, but this is the next frontier. We’re contributing to something bigger.”

Other filmmakers use existing footage to explore history. Shonie de la Rosa’s film “Yellow Dust” uses archived film footage of nuclear testing and traditional stories to compare two kinds of yellow powder: uranium and corn pollen.

The film took off in Europe long before it gained popularity in the United States, de la Rosa said. Although it’s more than a decade old, he’s pleased it’s making an appearance in New York.

“It’s a short film, it’s experimental,” he said. “It’s kind of something I just threw together, but it’s taken on a journey of its own.”

Another theme apparent in some of the films is future possibilities, said Teresa Montoya, a moderator for the screening and a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University. Several of the filmmakers use their medium to explore “forward-facing” ideas, including Becker’s film about a Navajo space program.

“It’s powerful to use creation stories to not just think about the past, but also the future,” Montoya said. “I think visual production gives Navajo the opportunity to write and dictate their own histories.” Baca calls this phenomenon “visual sovereignty.”

“We’re pushing all the boundaries in terms of making independent films,” he said. “This emerges as cultural and visual sovereignty. Everyone who does these projects does it all on their own, from beginning to end. Making film is an act of sovereignty.”

The other filmmakers whose work is included in the screening are Klee Benally, Princess Benally, Christi Bertelsen, Christopher Cegielski, Sarah del Seronde, Melissa Henry, Daniel Edward Hyde, Bennie Klain,Velma Kee Craig and Donavan Seschillie.

For more information on Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/film-media or call 212-514-3737.

© 2015 Navajo Times. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Navajo Times

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