Culture through Indigenous Eyes

A woman stands next to a water pail, her outstretched hands formed from deer antlers. A narwhal twists and turns in dance, his single horn pointed to the sky. A shaman, head crowned by the moon, looks toward — and maybe beyond — the stars.

The carved stone sculptures in “Listening to the Stone: Original Inuit Art” provide a glimpse into the vibrant contemporary art of the Arctic and the Inuit world view.

Thanks to the C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis, this type of exhibition provides Native American studies students, the campus and larger community with direct interaction with cultures from the indigenous world.

“We’re able to present incredible exhibitions from an indigenous perspective,” says Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, museum director and associate professor of Native American studies. “The exhibitions are frequently utilized by professors for classes. It make a real difference to have the actual object in front of you.”

Wide range of contemporary art

The museum shows a wide range of contemporary art from native people around the globe. During the past year, exhibitions have included social commentary photography by Wendy Red Star, tapestries by Marie Watts and photographs of Maori foodways by Natalie Robertson, and, now, its first exhibition of Inuit artworks.

“The Gorman puts students in touch with internationally renowned artists and allows them to experience indigenous perspectives on art, family, community and place,” says Beth Rose Middleton, associate professor and graduate adviser in Native American studies.

 “The Gorman is central to our ability as a department to reach students who are visual, auditory or sensory learners, and to provide them a fuller spectrum of information on a topic that we may address in text, discussion or lecture," Middleton says. “The artists bring a unique engagement with the UC Davis community.”

Second university to offer Ph.D.

Native American studies started at UC Davis in 1969 as a program and received departmental status in 1993. The museum was founded in 1973. In 1998, UC Davis became only the second university in the nation to offer a doctorate in Native American studies.

The department offers an interdisciplinary and hemispheric approach to the study of indigenous cultures with faculty specialized in art, literature, religion, linguistics, history, anthropology, political science, performance studies, and women and gender studies.

The Gorman exhibitions feature art connected to specific artists, but also puts it in context of issues of importance to indigenous populations and of interest to students and scholars.

Listening to the stone

“Listening to the Stone: Original Inuit Art,” at the museum through June 11, is made up of about 50 sculptures and a dozen works on paper collected by Jürg and Christel Bieri during the past three decades. Most are being shown publicly for the first time.

The artworks, made between the 1960s and today, depict polar bears, walruses and other animals of the far north, while others blend human and animal characteristics reflecting the spiritual beliefs of the Inuit. Most of the artists are from the Nunavut territory, located in north-central Canada.

The exhibition is part of the symposium “Arctic Indigeneities, Media and Social Justice” taking place March 13 and 14. The symposium will bring together scholars, artists and activists, and include performances by Inuit vocalist Tanya Tagaq at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

Bay Area donors are ’60s alums

The Bieris, who live in the Bay Area, attended UC Davis in the 1960s. Christel Bieri received a master’s degree in English and American literature, and Jürg Bieri earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics. They founded the solar-energy manufacturing company Heliodyne.

“The expressiveness and vivid imagination drew us to the artwork.” said Christel Bieri. “For us, a collection is an organic event; it just happens without any prior decision. It is more like a discovery of each piece, which gets added and after a while it becomes a collection.

"We are glad to contribute to the diversity of shows at UC Davis for the enjoyment and education of students and the public.”

An opening reception takes place from 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 14.  The museum, located in Hart Hall, is open noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. The museum may be contacted at 530-752-6567 or

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