May 24, 2010

Curator's Travel Journal: A Trip to Japan

This post is a part of a series about a year-long cultural exchange the Burke Museum is leading between the Ainu Association of Hokkaido and six tribal groups in Washington: The Duwamish Tribe, The Makah Nation, The Suquamish Tribe, The Squaxin Island Tribe, The Tulalip Tribes, and The House of Welcome Long House at Evergreen State College. In 2008 the Ainu were formally recognized by Japan’s government as the nation’s “first peoples.”

In December, the Ainu and Pacific Northwest cultural exchange began when a group of 10 Ainu delegates came to the United States to travel around the Northwest, meeting and learning from tribal representatives here. In March, 11 American travelers flew to the island of Hokkaido, Japan to visit sites of Ainu cultural revitalization. The excerpts below are from the travel journals of Burke staff members and organizers of this cultural exchange, Deana Dartt-Newton and Lisa Oliver. To read the full travel journal, visit the exchange’s Facebook page.

Day 1 - First Day in Hokkaido
Our day was spent in Sapporo City with our first stop at the Historical Museum of Hokkaido (pictured below). The museum opened in 1971 as a series of projects commemorating the centennial of Hokkaido although the Ainu were there thousands of years prior to the Japanese. In 1992, the museum's exhibits were revamped and Ainu artists were asked to commission art for the exhibitions and the museum is now working to create more Ainu exhibits. Our next stop was the Sapporo Ainu Culture Promotion Center. This center is the only museum where everything is made by Ainu people. The museum is hands-on so visitors can learn how to weave cattail mats, feel the embroidery on Ainu robes and hear the sounds from Ainu instruments.

Day 2- Trip to Shirao
Today we toured the Shiraoi Ainu Museum (pictured below). Our tour of the Ainu Museum took us through important Ainu traditions such as the “bear sending” ceremony. Just as the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians believe there are two worlds, the spirit world and the human world, so do the Ainu. In the Ainu hierarchy of Gods, Salmon is important but the Ainu of Shiraoi believe that the highest God is the Orca. Each Ainu family had an altar and believed that if the altar was not properly cared for, the gods would be angered and would not provide food for the village. The Ainu also believed that the gods took on the forms of animals. When the Ainu ate the animal it was sending the god back into the spirit world and the god would then provide the Ainu with a bountiful harvest.

Day 3 - Trip to Biratori and Mukawa
After a day of touring museums in Biratori, we headed to Mukawa's Mupet Hall, where we were greeted by a hall full of women dressed in traditional Ainu robes. We were escorted to our seats and waited for introductions. The Mukawa Ainu Cultural Preservation Society perform traditional Ainu dances and songs and teach these cultural traditions to the youth so that they can pass them down to future generations. They treated us with several dances and songs. When it came to the final dance all of us were invited to join. Each of us were given an Ainu robe to wear for the dance. It was truly an unforgettable experience!

Day 4 – Trip to Akan
It was a long journey from Mukawa to Lake Akan (pictured below). Our 4.5 hour drive took us through beautiful snow covered terrain where we saw red fox in the forest and hawks in the sky. When we arrived to Lake Akan we had lunch in a small restaurant in the Ainu kotan area. The Ainu kotan area is a section of land that the Ainu lease. On this land the Ainu can run restaurants, shops and promote Ainu culture without taxes. There are only 3 restrictions on who can lease the land. 1) you must be Ainu, 2) you must promote Ainu culture, 3) you must not allow Japanese people to lease in that area. Here in Akan we saw the swaying willow tree dance. The women, all with long black hair, bend and sway as they sing, flipping and swirling their hair in circles. It’s a striking display, and one we did not see in any other region.

Day 5- Trip to Shibetsu
Our first stop in Shibetsu was to the Shibetsu Municipal History Museum. Here we had a brief tour of the museum and artifacts that tell the history of the area. After our tour we went to the Shibetsu Fisheries Office where we were met by our friend Mr. Ogawa who was part of the delegation who visited Seattle in December. With tea and sweet treats the Fisheries Director talked at length about the salmon industry. Every year they release 100 million salmon from their hatcheries. Most of the salmon caught each year are sent to China where the salmon is processed and then shipped around the world. Only 200 people have fishing rights and (we were very surprised to hear) 60% are of Ainu descent. In order to fish you have to have inherited the fishing rights and be a member of the Fisheries Association.

Goodbye Hokkaido
Our trip to Hokkaido was an amazing experience, one that we will not soon forget. We met many warm and friendly people and learned more about the Ainu culture not only through song and dance but through the various museums we visited. Again, the similarities between the Ainu culture and the cultures of our group (Makah, Quinault, Chumash, Suquamish, Tulalip, Aleut and Chehalis) were numerous.

This exchange is supported by a grant from Museums & Communities Collaboration Abroad (MCCA), a program of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State in partnership with the American Association of Museums (AAM).