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A Traveling Museum Builds Support for Native Resistance to Resource Extraction

The Natural History Museum is popping up across the country to draw attention to the struggle of the Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest.
The House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation and The Natural History Museum, Whale People Protectors of the Sea, exhibition at Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, Florida, 2018.

A killer whale totem on display at the Whale People: Protectors of the Sea exhibition in Gainesville, Florida.

There's a new attraction involving killer whales in Florida, but it's got nothing to do with SeaWorld.

The exhibition, called Whale People: Protectors of the Sea, opened earlier this month at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. On view there through May, its exhibits include an array of historical indigenous objects such as totems, pipes, and platters adorned with representations of orca whales. Whale People is the latest collaboration between the Lummi Nation, an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, and The Natural History Museum, which produces "pop-up" exhibitions highlighting the impact of humans on the natural world. The Florida Museum is only the most recent home of The Natural History Museum, whose previous exhibitions have been hosted by the Queens Museum in New York City, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.

The focus of Whale People's curators isn't on the past, it's the future—specifically, the future of killer whales off the coast of Washington State and British Columbia, which are threatened by resource extraction. The project is meant to draw attention to the orca population of the Salish Sea, part of the Lummi's ancestral homeland. Already afflicted by industrial pollution and commercial fishing, the Salish Sea is now threatened by construction of the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline, which would transfer crude oil from Alberta to British Columbia for export, bringing hundreds of massive oil tankers to the waterway.

"The Salish Sea orcas are a sort of 'miner's canary' for the health of the sea and the wider ecosystem," says Beka Economopoulos, executive director of The Natural History Museum. "The proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline, which would bring 800 new oil tankers annually to the Salish Sea, would mean game over for the 74 remaining resident orcas."

The Natural History Museum connected with a group of Lummi volunteers who call themselves the House of Tears Carvers to create the centerpiece of Whale People: the "Whale Rider," a 4,000-pound, 16-foot hand-carved and painted totem of a human riding an orca. The "Whale Rider" not only represents the spiritual connection between the Lummi and the orca, which they refer to as qw'e lh'ol mechen ("our people who live under the water"), but other life in the Salish Sea too, like salmon and raven, illustrating the interdependence of the ecosystem. Produced using traditional techniques in the Pacific Northwest, the totem was then transported to Gainesville by tribal members, who stopped for song, ceremony, and public media events along the way.

"We need the people of the Pacific Northwest to learn to love the health of their own environment to the extent that they recognize it as an inherent duty to protect the rights of their own children to inherit a healthy environment," says Jewell James, the head carver with the House of Tears. "Protection of the Salish Sea, the orcas, and the salmon should be the legacy they collectively leave to their own children."

The Natural History Museum has, for its own part, contributed a multi-channel film projected on a 90-foot-wide arc of screens around the totem. The film's indigenous narrators share stories of Lummi life and culture, such as their creation myth of all animals, plants, and even geological formations and celestial bodies descending from human beings. Their words are set against contrasting scenes of underseas animal life, traditional activities like rowing, singing, drumming, and dancing, and environmental degradation in the forms of fossil fuel refineries, tankers, and pipelines. Despite the enormous scale of the challenge depicted, the film ends on an inspiring note, with indigenous canoers and kayakers confronting tankers and pipelines, and tribal members in their ceremonial garb marching against ongoing exploitation.

"Faithful to the Lummi's campaign, we wanted this exhibition to amplify this narrative," says The Natural History Museum's Economopoulos, referring to the the plight of the Salish Sea orca. "It is important for us to keep indigenous voices at the center of this story so that the people leading these struggles can be heard and understood by as many people as possible."

The Natural History Museum was invited to the Florida Museum of Natural History after a director of the latter caught a previous exhibition by the former at another venue. The idea of bringing the Lummi's "totem journey" to Gainesville was complemented by the Florida Museum's own Anthropology Divisions Collections. Whereas the exhibits created by the House of Tears and The Natural History Museum are contemporary, the Florida Museum was able to supply Whale People with artifacts from its own collection, including totems, pipes, and platters. Those works come mostly from the Haida, another indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest; the pieces are carved from argillite, a dark sedimentary stone, and inlaid with both pearly and iridescent shells.

"We wanted to help share the plight of whales and their ocean home, and inform our visitors what can be done to protect them and their natural habitat," says Kristina Choe, exhibit developer at the Florida Museum.

While it may seem natural for museums to be committed to conservation, and by extension to campaigns like the Lummi's, that may not always be the case—especially when considering the source of much museum funding. In 2015, The Natural History Museum ran a successful campaign pushing for David Koch, executive vice president of the petrochemical company Koch Industries, to be removed from the American Museum of Natural History's board of trustees for his climate change denial. Koch had been on the board for 23 years and had donated millions to the museum, bringing into question whether the institution could appropriately address environmental issues while being under his sway. The Natural History Museum's campaign illustrates how museums are also caught in the conflict between the environment and capital.

"A lot of museum donors are tied to the fossil fuel industries," says James from the House of Tears. He posits another vision for what museums could be—one that The Natural History Museum is helping to bring into fruition: "Museums should be living institutions and not just focused on the ancient past."