Destination Hoopa Valley, a living tribal museum

HOOPA VALLEY, Calif. – The northwest coast of California has no shortage of
tourist destinations.

One can drive for 40 nearly unbroken miles of
old-growth redwoods in the Avenue of the Giants, camp in dense redwood
groves or along spectacularly rugged coastline, or take in quaint little
towns that dot the entire area.

Also studding the route are such retro-kitsch fare as shops devoted to
Bigfoot sculptures, a crooked house where things seemingly roll uphill and
the chance to talk to a 30-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan.

However, for the more culturally-minded, a great excursion in this
breathtakingly gorgeous land is the Hupa Tribe’s Hoopa Valley Tribal
Museum, about a 50-mile drive east of the college town of Arcata. First
opened in the early 1970s, the museum sits near the main shopping center in
the reservation’s primary town of Hoopa.

The Hupa and a few of their neighboring tribes are fairly unique in
California for having held on to much of what was once their original
territory. Their tribal museum in their valley celebrates their rich and
deep heritage in the region.

Though the museum is a bit small physically, it boasts a surprisingly large
collection of more than 1,000 artifacts, from very large fishing nets used
to catch salmon to smaller handheld items. Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum
Curator Silis-chi-tawn Jackson said most of the pieces originated from the
Hupa as well as the nearby Yurok and Karuk tribes.

Among the artifacts are traditional cooking and basket sets for making
acorn soup, a culinary staple of many California tribes. Since raw acorns
are bitter and full of tannins, a process was employed that used a mortar
and pestle for grinding, baskets woven tight enough to hold water and a
wooden paddle for leaching the tannins and cooking the acorn mush. Examples
of each are found in the museum’s collection.

Also interesting among the artifacts are baby baskets which, according to
the museum’s Web site, are still used by most tribal members. Featured as
well are necklaces made of dentalia shells that were fashioned into beads,
once considered important trade items by the tribe and its neighbors.

Unlike other museums, whose pieces are never taken off the shelves, this
museum is a testament to the tribe’s nearly unbroken time in the valley and
its environs. It’s akin to a storehouse, as many of the artifacts seen on
the shelves are taken out and used for tribal ceremonies.

“They are being used for what they were intended to be used for,” said
Jackson.

The ceremonies are held at four ancient village sites. It is these village
sites that really set this museum apart. Village tours, which Jackson
personally leads, are offered four times a week and must be arranged at
least two days in advance through the museum. Tours cost $10 per person and
$50 for groups of five or more.

Village tours can last anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the
group and its eagerness to keep going. Jackson said he will take them to as
many of the villages as they are willing and or able to see.

The museum’s two aspects compliment each other: people go to the museum to
look at the artifacts, but take the tours to learn about tribal lore such
as creation stories and to see sacred tribal dance sites and ancient
petroglyphs.

In addition to the dance sites, the villages have sweat-houses as well as a
few residence-type buildings, each with its own place among tribal lore and
tradition. For example, the main village goes by the name Tikimildian
(though spellings in English vary), which means “where they are thrown in”
– a reference to the hot rocks which were used to cook acorns. Another
village is known as Medildin, once again only one possible spelling, which
means “place of the canoes.” Each village hosts its own, specific ceremony.

The only time the tours are unavailable to the public is during the tribal
ceremonies, when the villages are in use, as they have always been, for the
ancient Hupa ceremonies. The main museum, however, stays open.

Jackson, who only recently took over as curator, did not know the exact
number of visitors the museum receives each year; he reported that it is
quite busy during the May to October season, when the weather is fairly
consistently warm and dry.

The majority of visitors to the museum come from Europe, with Germany
providing the largest numbers Jackson claimed. Additionally, he said that
in the past year museum patrons have come from such far-flung locales as
Great Britain, Spain, Japan and New Zealand.

For more information or to arrange a village tour, call (530) 625-4110 or
visit the Hoopa Valley Museum Web site at: http://bss.sfsu.edu/cal
studies/hupa/.

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