Secret Histories | “California Continued” Showcases the Wisdom of Native American Ecology

Artwork: Artist’s rendering of the Garden section of Human Nature.

“We must protect the forests for our children, grandchildren and children yet to be born. We must protect the forests for those who can’t speak for themselves such as the birds, animals, fish and trees,” declared Qwatsinas, Hereditary Chief of the Nuxalk Nation.

Also: The Great Barrier Reef Teeters on the Brink of Death

Native tribes on both continents of the Western hemisphere have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with the earth for tens of thousands of years. The reverence and respect they have shown all living things has enabled them to learn the secrets of the planet in order to thrive as well as preserve the environment.

Harry Fonseca (Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian, Portuguese, 1946-2000), And Still We Dance, 1995. Acrylic on canvas. Museum purchase, Autry Museum.

Today, we live in a very different world at the dawn of the Anthropocene Era, where human activities have created a significant impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems. NASA reports some of most compelling effects of climate change, including: a 6.7 inch rise in the global sea level over the past century, with the rate first decade of the twenty-first century being nearly double that of the twentieth; a global temperature rise that has resulted in 10 of the warmest years on record occurring since 2003; oceans warming 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969; the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets radically shrinking since 2002; glaciers retreating almost everywhere around the world, including on the top of the highest mountains; and ocean acidification increasing at a rate of 2 billion tons per year.

As California’s drought reaches a radical lows, with state reservoirs at 46.4 percent of their capacity, dwindling considerably since 2001, the situation is becoming dire across the state. In response, The Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, presents California Continued, a major four-part exhibition across 20,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, that draws upon Native American ecological knowledge and cultural practices to address the ongoing and interdependent relationship between people and the environment.

Harry Fonseca (Nisenan Maidu, Hawaiian, Portuguese, 1946–2006). A Gift From California, circa 1979. Acrylic on canvas. Museum purchase, Autry Museum.

California Continued features four installations developed with Native American advisors, providing a wealth of history and wisdom to address the foremost issue of our time. Human Nature, the centerpiece of the show, focuses on four key stories—Salmon, Fire, Desert, and Plants as Food and Medicine—to examine ways in which Californians can understand and care for the environment. Here visitors encounter 50 Native objects and artworks representing more than 25 tribal communities across the state, sharing a vast expanse of natural paths to heal the body and the land.

The exhibition continues with The Life and Work of Mabel McKay, showcasing the legacy of this prominent Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo basketweaver and healer who bridged the space between the modern and traditional worlds. This temporary installation presents the art of Mabel McKay (1907-1993), who was an advocate, healer, and teacher that dedicated her life to sharing Pomo wisdom with the world.

Pomo gift basket, early 20th century. Sedge, willow, glass beads, abalone shell, quail, mallard, canary, and woodpecker feathers. Gift of Mrs. Mary D. Greble. Southwest Museum of the American Indian Collection, Autry Museum.

The exhibition continues outdoors in Griffith Park with the Human Nature Garden, which explores traditional and more contemporary uses of over 60 native California plants, a reminder to visitors that they are standing on Tongva lands. Designed by landscape architect Matthew Kennedy (Ponca), the 7,000-square-foot space features a wetlands cove, pond, waterfall, basalt columns, and a large California Oak tree. The garden also features listening stations, interactive areas such as an acorn grinding stone, and seating areas to study the natural world.

The final installation, California Roadtrip, is a six-hour virtual journey through the state’s most scenic and extreme landscapes. The film presents panoramic and close up scenes of some of the state’s most amazing sights, including the ocean bluffs of Big Sur, the starry skies of Joshua Tree, the majestic California Redwoods, and Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States, which soars 14,505 feet into the clouds.

California Continued is a massive undertaking that reminds us of the importance of the cause: the preservation of all life on the planet, not just ours. But, as protectors of the earth, it falls upon our shoulders to lead the way, to honor the sacred elements of earth, water, air, and fire—for without these, we shall no longer be.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.