Jago Cooper’s engaging presence will be familiar to any television viewer who has enjoyed his BBC Four series on the peoples of South and Central America and Easter Island. But his remit as Curator of the Americas at the British Museum also covers the northwest coast of North America and soon visitors to the British Museum will be able to see some of the intriguing objects made by the indigenous peoples of that region. Entitled Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America, the exhibition, which opens on 23 February, is curated by Dr Cooper and his colleague Dr Amber Lincoln.
Apart from the fascination this culturally rich region holds for archaeologists, Jago Cooper has a personal connection to it, too.
‘My parents lived in Canada before I was born, and after they returned to England we used to visit,’ he recalls. ‘I still have vivid memories of that vast landscape and the huge trees there. It made a big impression on me as a child, so I have kept returning to the area. There is nowhere else like it: everything there is on an immense scale.’
It is the nature of the environment that defines the limit of the territory covered by the exhibition and the people who made it their home, as he explains:
‘There’s a particular type of temperate rainforest in the northwest coast of North America, and the region has great forests of red and yellow cedars. Although the borders of the territory changed over time, this landscape now extends from Yakutat Bay in Alaska to Washington State, so that’s thousands of miles. It’s also defined by those people who used single log dug-out canoes and the people who lived further north who used skin kayaks.’
But how have we come to know of the long history of the indigenous peoples of northwest America, some of whom date back to 8000 BC? According to Cooper, a variety of sources have helped him to determine their ancestry:
‘These peoples are still living there. They have inherited the traditions of their ancestors that were passed down orally. Then there are studies of the languages of the region and of local genetics. Westerners arrived in northwest Canada in the late 18th century and related their experiences of the peoples there.
‘And then there’s archaeology. By and large, the archaeological evidence isn’t as extensive as it is for other cultures. Much of the evidence of the material culture of these peoples, such as wood, was biodegradable.
‘However, we do have some places, like Haida Gwaii [formerly Queen Charlotte Islands off the Canadian coast], where there are some archaeological sites, including caves, that contain evidence for early human occupation dating back thousands of years’.
Dozens of communities and groups occupied the northwest coast of North America. They shared, and still share, a deep understanding of the world around them but they also developed their own unique identities and used different languages.
It is the longevity of these groups, their resilience and their ability to survive in testing circumstances that is the focus of the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition.
‘The peoples who inhabited this unique coastal zone developed a particular way of life,’ says Cooper. ‘It’s one of the most ecologically rich places in the world. The amount of food available in nature is such that they didn’t have to take to agriculture in order to develop their complex society. That was unusual but it was a good thing. Agriculture prompts some big changes in society, bringing long working hours and a reliance on specific crops, which places communities at risk if the harvest is poor. They created beautiful long houses made of cedar that were very large and housed generations of families, and they made huge totem poles.’
Many totem poles feature the Thunderbird, a legendary creature of great power and strength, that has lent its name to the exhibition. Family and kinship groups were particularly important, as were clans, which were not related to family ties, but were based on totems linked to different animals – from killer whales to eagles.
‘Animals were considered to have certain characteristics: ravens were clever, for example, and eagles were especially strong,’ he points out. ‘Children were sometimes assigned to clans based on their personal characteristics. The result was that social power was quite widely distributed. These peoples had various networks of power. No one person controlled everything, so if a person was lost not everything collapsed. Chiefs came together, danced and talked. Decisions were made. These habits were pretty much common across all the communities.
‘As well as their attachment to certain social structures, the lives of these peoples were also founded on their approach to their environment. While we see things as a resource and then consume them, these communities have a very different perspective.
‘They consider themselves part of the living landscape. They believe most animals have stories and animals have an anima, a life force and distinct personality. If you believe you are part of a living landscape, it impacts on your environment’s relationship to you, too. When a thing is taken from a tree, the life force of the tree lives on in the thing created and must be respected: objects aren’t inanimate.’
He stresses that our language is of little use when deconstructing their world. ‘For example, “religion” in our language carries a lot of baggage, but their world is not so much religious as perhaps spiritual, and that is embedded in their relationship to the natural world and their sense of place.’ No forms of writing, as in letters or hieroglyphs, were created by these peoples. But their artistic styles were, and still are, a form of communication. These communities created elaborate carvings and used swirling designs known as ‘formline’.
‘Through these formline designs people can read what is on boxes, totem poles and other objects,’ Cooper explains. ‘They communicated lineage and identity. They related origin myths and told them who they were, and they spelt out their relationship with the environment. This is a very elaborate form of communication.’
How far back these formline designs go is not known, although he tells me that evidence has been found in the remains of a village called Ozette in Washington State, which was buried in a mud-slide and dates back at least 500 years.
Objects from this region from the British Museum’s collection, which was housed in the Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens until 1997, is extensive. Many of them will come out of storage and be displayed in the new exhibition.
‘There are some stone objects, which are rare. Others are made of wood, plant and animal bone, shell and sinew. We have objects that are related to warfare, like some beautiful Tlingit armour, wonderful robes and blankets, spindle whorls and knives, fish traps and baskets. Copper was highly prized and objects made from the metal in these societies had a deeply symbolic value. They are remarkable and exquisite,’ enthuses Cooper.
The exhibition will be split into two parts. On one side, objects that are thousands of years old and represent strength and robustness will be displayed. On the other, there will be those made more recently, showing how these people have entered into a global system of communications representing innovation and adaptation.
‘These two sides will speak to each other in the room and will address the themes of environment, kinship, trade and power. They will be the four pillars on which the resilience of these people is discussed,’ says Cooper.
While the rich resources of the region provided a fertile environment for its inhabitants, the 18th to 20th centuries brought them many challenges. Major population declines in the 19th century resulted from diseases like smallpox, introduced through contact with Westerners. Then there was cultural repression.
‘In the 20th century indigenous practices were banned and children were taken from their parents. These affected the ability of these peoples to hold onto their language and traditions,’ he says. ‘Although today these peoples have thriving communities and retain a strong sense of identity, the road back from their cultural repression has been a long and hard one. They want self-rule and the right to manage their own territories. Work continues on the path to the resolution of their issues with governments’.
Cooper believes that we can learn much from these communities:
‘We should review how we look at our environment, our material resources and how we consume things, and also how we view time. These peoples focus on the long term while we focus on the short term. We spare little thought for what lies at the core of our cultural beliefs and our identity: I think ours is rather sketchy.
‘Our jobs today are often far removed from home and we can have little sense of place and of who we are. They believe they are part of a living landscape and responsible to their ancestors for it. They have a very strong sense of place and of their territory.’
Jago Cooper’s work is diverse and continues to take him far afield to explore the worlds of some little-known peoples. His television programmes have provided welcome insight into many communities and groups in South and Central America largely unknown to viewers.
‘South America hasn’t really been on our cultural radar. The Americas have had 15,000 years of cultural development but, in South America, the size of the resources and access provide real challenges and there are few archaeologists working in the region,’ he says.
‘Both in South America and on the northwest coast of North America, there are many vibrant cultures that have a lot to teach us,’ concludes Jago Cooper.
• Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America is on show at the British Museum (www.britishmuseum.org) from 23 February to 27 August 2017.
All images © The Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise marked.