Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park in its World Showcase area is paying homage to America’s Native people with a new exhibition.
Highlighting the role traditional craftsmanship plays in Native life, the exhibition Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art features everything from intricate basketry to painted skateboards, celebrating the diversity of tribal expression throughout the ages and emphasizing how old shapes new.
It also marks a milestone for Epcot: “This is our first Native American-themed exhibit, and we are extremely proud of [both it] and the stories we are sharing with our guests every day,” says Carmen J. Smith, vice-president of creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Creating Tradition is installed at the American Adventure Pavilion, inside its American Heritage Gallery. Some of the display cases are arranged to evoke comparisons between objects, a choice that ultimately underscores their aesthetic timelessness. In one case, a late 19th-century Acoma Pueblo olla pottery jar from New Mexico sits next to a gown designed by Acoma Pueblo fashion designer Loren Aragon. The olla is painted with swirling black-and-white Pueblo symbols; the same sinuous pattern adorns the dress, a look that’s as stylish as the garment’s high-low hem.
Other standout items include a late-19th-century Chilkat blanket from Alaska, juxtaposed with a 2017 sculpture by Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary; Shoshone moccasins and leggings, paired with Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock designer Jamie Okuma’s porcupine-quilled Christian Louboutin boots; and an assortment of modern and antique Pokagon Potawatomi baskets. Some items, like Aragon’s gown, were specially commissioned or acquired by the Walt Disney Co.; others are on loan from living artists and tribal members. Most, however, were culled from the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and Santa Fe’s Museum of Indian Arts & Culture.
Exhibition co-curators Tony Chavarria and Emil Her Many Horses were determined to feature as many culturally distinct works as possible, “to combat the stereotype that there’s only one type of Indian,” says Chavarria, also curator of ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture. “There are different types of creative expressions coming from many different groups. Sometimes they’re similar, but each tribe has their own unique take on it.”
Medicine man and rainmaker Bobby Henry (Seminole) visits the Walt Disney World Resort gallery exhibition Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art in the American Adventure Pavilion at Epcot.
The curators wanted to show visitors “that Native people [are] still here, and that these traditional teachings and art forms are being passed down today,” adds Her Many Horses, an associate curator at the National Museum of the American Indian. “People are still creating, but they have new materials.” To drive that point home, the immersive experience includes interactive storytelling installations that allow further exploration of the art, artifacts, and history, with narration and insights provided by some of the artists.
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While it’s impossible to feature every single Native tribe (562 are federally recognized), the exhibit launched with 89 pieces from 40 different Native groups. It’s slated for a five-year run; to keep things fresh and inclusive, Chavarria and Her Many Horses plan to revamp its geographically grouped displays in 2020, swapping the exhibition’s most fragile items with artworks from other American Indian groups.
One tribe that’s likely to remain a mainstay, however, is the Seminoles of Florida. Creating Tradition celebrates all Native American peoples, regardless of location, but its dedication ceremony in July 2018 paid special tribute to the Native group whose traditional land area surrounds Epcot. Seminole members in attendance performed a traditional stomp dance, and spiritual leader Bobby Henry provided a blessing. When they weren’t dancing or singing, some expressed joy.
“They were saying that it was wonderful to finally see the ‘them,’ as Native Americans, represented at Disney,” Chavarria recalls. “To be able to see themselves.”
Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art is on view through 2023 at Walt Disney World’s Epcot in Orlando, Florida. For more information on the exhibition visit disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/epcot/american-heritage-gallery. Photography: Courtesy Kent Phillips/The Walt Disney Co.