Glimpse: Spirits & Headhunters [12 Days of HMNS]

Today is the Seventh Day of HMNS! In the spirit of the classic holiday carol, we’re taking 12 days to feature 12 different videos that preview or go behind-the-scenes of a holiday museum activity, here on the blog (or, you can get a sneak peek at all the videos on 12days.hmns.org – we won’t tell).

Many of the exhibits we host here – like Genghis Khan or the Terra Cotta Warriors – present objects from long-dead cultures, and the wonder comes from the experience of coming face-to-face with artifacts that were created so long ago. And when you walk through our current Spirits & Headhunters exhibition, and contemplate the absolute beauty of the vibrant, intricate feather art and objects on display, it’s easy to forget that the cultures that created these works are very much alive – though also fast disappearing.

Learn more from Adam Mekler, associate curator for Amazonia, who believes, “When a culture disappears, I think an aspect of all humanity disappears.”

Click play to explore the exhibit and discover these vanishing worlds.

Need to catch up?

The First Day of HMNS – Explore: Snow Science
The Second Day of HMNS – Preview: The Chronicles of Narnia Exhibition
The Third Day of HMNS – Preview: Disney’s A Christmas Carol
The Fourth Day of HMNS – Investigate: The Star of Bethlehem
The Fifth Day of HMNS – Shop: The Perfect Gift
The Sixth Day of HMNS – Marvel: Faberge

Get into the holiday spirit! Visit our 12 Days of HMNS web site to see the videos and get more information about each event, exhibit and film: 12days.hmns.org Happy Holidays!

Vanishing Worlds – Still Vanishing

raoni cropped - Steven
Raoni
Photograph by Cristina Mittermeier

One of the tribes featured in our exhibit on Amazonian rainforest people is that of the Kayapó people. We also have on display a series of large photographs taken very recently by Cristina Mittermeier. These photographs show daily life among the Kayapó. The title panel of this section of the exhibit carries the title of “Guardians of the Forest,” and displays a portrait of the tribe’s leader, Raoni, a man famous enough to have an institute named after him.

Recently, Raoni’s image also appeared on the BBC world news website.  He was shown together with Sting, who was there to lend his support to the tribe’s long-standing opposition to the construction of a dam on their lands. Initial reports of the Kayapó’s success in opposing the construction of the dam appear to have been premature, with recent reports surfacing in Western media that the project was slated to go ahead anyway. Even though intense media scrutiny has caused this mega-project to have been put on hold, it remains to be seen if it will be permanently shelved. If implemented, it would impact huge swaths of Kayapó lands, including their burial lands and their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. In other words, their world would literally vanish in a matter of years as the waters rose and covered their land.

As always, there is another side to the story. Brazil, a huge country with a growing population, faces ever increasing demands for energy. Its efforts to become energy independent, by developing its own sources of energy, have received attention from many a country abroad. The potential for hydro-electric power is immense in Brazil, as shown in the case of the Itaipu dam. However, it is also subject to interference by Mother Nature, as a recent power outage in Brazil, leaving 60 million people in the dark, clearly showed.

shrunken
Shrunken Head on display at HMNS

Much further to the West, the story of the Shuar people (formerly known as the Jivaro), continues to generate headlines as well. Living in Ecuador, the Shuar are one of a very small number of Amazon tribes who once practiced the custom of shrinking human heads. The Shuar are also part of our current Amazon exhibit, as are two shrunken heads, possibly their handiwork. A recent National Geographic broadcast, part of what is dubbed Expedition week, focused on what could be the only known documentary film ever made on this process. The procedure is shown as taking place in a village, rather than in the field, which has made some surmise that perhaps we might be dealing with a “re-enactment” of this event.  I found it amazing to realize that the footage was considered rare, and unique, given that it was only made in the 1960s.

These two recent episodes of Amazon cultures making the headlines remind us that their world, just like ours, is always in transition. While we can deplore the disappearance of civilization and our lack of understanding of their past, those of us who work in museums can help document and thus preserve customs which are vanishing in front of our eyes. It may very well be that our treatment of the Kayapó in the exhibit will be overtaken by events and that our next write up or exhibit on these people will have to use the past tense when referring to them. Similarly, when we realize that the label “1960’s – era” may imply rare and gone, it emphasizes the need to document what we see today. Museums need not only collect “really ancient stuff”; they should also do so with much more recent materials, indeed materials that may still be abundant today. Collecting such recent items has the additional benefit of being able to collect data on who made the items, when and where they were used, etc. One can only hope that later generations will appreciate our efforts in preserving a trace of cultures now long gone.

It appears that vanishing worlds continue to vanish in front of our own eyes.

Don’t miss the chance to see our exhibit Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon while it is on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. With over 100 objects of rare artwork and body costumes used in daily life and rituals and ceremonies, these beautiful pieces show the unique lifestyles of disappearing Amazonian tribes.

Book List: The Amazon and Rainforests

Kayapo Mekragnoti headdressThe Museum currently has an exhibition titled Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon, so this month’s books feature the rainforest and the Amazon. For over 40,000 years, people have lived in the rainforests, hunting, gathering food and raising vegetables in addition to using the tropical plants for medicine, without harming their environment.

Today, rainforests cover approximately 7% of the earth’s surface.  However, according to author Richard Platt, the rainforests are disappearing at the rate of an area the size of 16 tennis courts every second.  Platt continues to say that by preserving the rainforests we are safeguarding our health and the health of our planet.

Rainforest living up to its name
Creative Commons License photo credit: pfly

Gail Gibbons has written innumerable nonfiction books for young children.  Her books provide easy to understand information with colorful, appealing illustrations. Although it is fifteen years old, Nature’s Green Umbrella is a wonderful explanation of the importance of rainforests to the people of the world and to the environment.

The book contains a simple map of the world so it is easy to see the location of the rainforests.  In addition, vocabulary words are provided so children can learn the appropriate terms that relate to “nature’s green umbrellas.”  You will learn about transpiration, an ecosystem, chlorophyll, emergents, a canopy, an understory, the forest floor, epiphytes, parasites, nutrients, leaf litter, leaching, selective cutting, extractive reserves, “greenhouse effect” and “slash and burn.”

The illustrations are simple drawings of the plants and animals in the rainforest.  Their interdependence is easy to comprehend as the cycle of life is explained in terms a child can understand.  Gibbons also provides a brief explanation of medicines, fruits and vegetables the rain forests of the world have provided.

When attempting to explain a nonfiction topic to a child, Gail Gibbons’ books are always a great place to start.

A very unique, more mature approach to investigating the rainforest is One Small Square: Tropical Rainforest by Donald Silver.  First, picture a transparent four-foot cube–four feet long, tall and wide.  “Place” this imaginary cube on the rainforest floor and picture the plants and creatures that could be found inside. In this layer of the rainforest you might find sloths, moths, hummingbirds, bats, boas, bloodsuckers, army ants, scorpions, Hercules beetles, roaches, spiders, lizards, worms, centipedes, lizards, wasps and more.

What lays beyond the fog?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Armando Maynez

Next, using the same four-foot transparent cube investigate one small square of the understory, one small square of the canopy and one small square of the emergent layer.  Doing this, you will become familiar with the layers of the rainforest and the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that might be found in each.

After the information is presented you will find a Match Game where children will match the plants, animals, insects, birds, etc. that are found in each layer of the rainforest to the appropriate layer.  You will also find colorful drawings of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, invertebrates, plants, funguses, monera and protists associated with the rainforest.

Gail Gibbons presents a basic introduction to the rain forest, and Donald Silver provides additional information for older children in a colorful, attractive book.  Choose the one that meets your needs.

Lynne Cherry wrote and illustrated The Shaman’s Apprentice based on a true story first written by Mark Plotkin.  When you open the book you see colorful illustrations of some of the useful plants from the rainforest, their uses and their English names if available.  Who knew you can use Tonka Beans or Custard Apples for fevers or Snakeweed for snake bites?

run forest, run!
Creative Commons License photo credit: mugley

The Shaman’s Apprentice is the story of Kamanya, a young boy who is sick, from the Tirio village of Kwamala.  The shaman goes into the forest to gather leaves, roots and bark and uses these to heal Kamanya who never forgets how the shaman saved his life.

Kamanya liked to follow the shaman into the rainforest and learn about the plants used for healing.  One day a man from another village came to tell the people of Kwamala about men who had come to his village carrying a disease that the shaman could not cure.  Some of the Kwamala tribesmen became sick or died.

Several months later, missionaries visit the village of Kwamala and give the tribesmen quinine to cure the “mystery” disease, malaria.  The missionaries changed life, and the shaman was no longer the most important person in the village because his medicine had failed and the missionaries’ medicine had succeeded.  Life continued for four years until the missionaries left.

Soon another stranger, named Gabriela, arrived in the village.  Gabriela came to study the healing properties of rainforest plants.  She told the tribesmen that the quinine had come from the bark of a tree–the shaman had been right after all!

Gabriela followed the shaman through the forest as she learned about the healing plants.  After several months she left, but returned each year to learn more from the shaman.

On one trip, Gabriela brought the tribe a book containing information about all the medicinal plants.  The chief thought the book was very important and decided that the shaman should teach Kamanya all he knew.  Gabriela knew that in her absence the shaman’s work would continue. So, Kamanya became the shaman’s apprentice, and when the shaman passed into the spirit world, Kamanya became the shaman who healed his people.

The Vanishing Rainforest by Richard Platt is the story of Remaema, a child of the Yanomami tribe and how the tribe adjusts to the coming of the nabe (white people) who, with the exception of Jane, want to destroy the forest.  As trees are destroyed the animals leave, and without animals there can be no forest and all will starve.

Rikomi is a member of the Yanomami tribe who works for the government, but has not forgotten the battles against the nabe.  Rikomi devises a plan to save the tribe and satisfy the nabe, too.  With the nabe’s money, the Yanomami could pay for education and better health care, and with the Yanomami’s help, the nabe could learn about the rainforest.  Readers know that the plan will succeed when the animals return to the forest.

Whether you choose a nonfiction book or a fiction book that tells a story, you will gain insight into this important, unique part of our planet.

Photos: People of the Amazon

Cristina Mittermeier travels around the world to document the lives of indigenous cultures, and her exceptional photographs of the Kayapo people in South America will be featured in our upcoming exhibition Spirits and Headhunters: Vanishing Worlds of the Amazon.

The exhibit will include vibrant feather headdresses, full-body costumes, body decorations, furniture and ceramic objects made by people from 8 unique tribes in the Amazon, and Mittermeier’s photographs dramatically illustrate how the people of one of those tribes, the Kayapo, wear and use their featherwork.

Check out the video below to see some of her amazing work, read  her blog for more on her journeys, and see her photos for yourself, along with some truly stunning feather art, when the exhibit opens Oct. 9.