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The new Burke celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day, challenging the colonial past of museums

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Visitors can see the mastodon and beaked whale skeletons that share their space with a bronze and glass figure in the lower lobby of the new Burke. The figure stands near the entrance and welcomes visitors, similar to those that stood on the Salish Sea shores for years.

The grand opening weekend of the new Burke Museum culminated Oct. 14, where a large white tent in the front yard filled with songs, art, and spoken word marked the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

Seattle has observed Indigenous Peoples’ Day since 2014, when the City Council unanimously approved a resolution for the recognition. A national movement to institute Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been in place since the 1970s, and the celebration at the Burke is the latest in the U-District’s ongoing effort to honor and acknowledge the various Indigenous communities that inhabit the Pacific Northwest and contribute to its history. 

“Today was very personal,” Randizia Crisostomo,  the community outreach coordinator for Oceania and Asia at the Burke, said. “A day to highlight empathy and kindness that you want to share with others, rather than just bringing in people for the sake of education or academics.”

Crisostomo, who is CHamoru (native to the island of Guam), helped develop and redesign the cultural exhibits located on the first floor of the museum. Crisostomo explained an important purpose of the museum: allowing members of Indigenous communities to celebrate resilience and reclaim their identity from decades of colonialism by subsequent inhabitants of their land.

In addition to the museum galleries and open door collections, the all-day celebration included a variety of community engagement activities, such as the dedication of the “Weaver’s Welcome” sculpture in the Grand Atrium and "Forces of Nature" mural by members and artists of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe. 

Visitors also enjoyed traditional fry bread recipes from popular food truck Off the Rez’s first brick-and-mortar location at the Burke. 

Outside, under the tent, visitors witnessed a variety of performances, such as spoken word by La Espiritista, a powerful theatre performance from feminist and Indigenous group Indigenize Productions, and live art from various Indigenous and local artists. Each artist’s performance reaffirmed their existence in the present day.

“A lot of the time we think of Indigenous as something in the past,” Santino “Tino” Camacho, a CHamoru graduate student in the UW health services program who also performed songs at the opening, said. “We always think of [Indigenous] people as in the past, and none of the present. We don't think about how we're innovating and creating spaces right now.”

In the three years since it broke ground, the Burke has taken strides to create a sense of transparency with the public in its new space, acknowledging the people whose cultural artifacts they hold, as well as the darker history of colonialism that museums have previously imposed on them.

A large plaque hangs on a wall on the first floor of the museum, by the Culture is Livinggallery dedicated to the Indigenous people and cultures that influenced Washington state. It reads, “The Burke acknowledges the violent legacies of colonialism” and summarized the impact museums had in separating communities from their cultural artifacts.

“We're not the experts always,” Andrea Godinez, a member of the Burke’s communications team, said. “Especially when it's people whose ancestors or relatives or whose cultures made these objects. We really are caretakers, but they're the experts. By being as open as we can, and by having programming and education and collections work that involves community members, then hopefully we can just continue to learn together and continue to build relationships with people.”

Although the Burke began its new era with a nod to the Indigenous communities that helped form it, the opening is just one step in the ever-present journey towards accurate representation for all.

“I think the university itself has a really big job to do,” Camacho said. “It's really about, ‘How do we support the students that are coming in? How do we build trust with the community around us? And how do we take that into the future?’” 

Reach reporter Nicole Pasia at Twitter: @Nicoleapasia 

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