It started with a simple idea, and a very personal one. Sherri Birkheimer Rooker, business consultant for the Chaffee Art Center in Rutland, wanted to put together an art exhibit on Native American culture to honor her father.
“He’s going to be 79, and I wanted (to do this) as he’s getting older,” she said recently by phone.
Glenn Birkheimer’s Native American ancestry became a bigger and more important part of his life as he got older, something his daughter related to, “to get in touch with your roots.”
Her father’s interest triggered her own, and tied into a sense of identity only found by looking at where you came from. That led to the Chaffee’s latest exhibit, “Pieces of the Past.” It explores identity and heritage through the lens of Native American culture and became a statewide collaboration.
“When I was working on it one person led me to another person, (who) led me to another to put the show together,” Birkheimer Rooker said. “I was getting to know all these other people who have Native American roots.”
She talked with Kurt Fetter of College of St. Joseph, which recently hosted a Native American artifacts exhibit gathered by Fetter, professor of “Introduction to Native American Studies.” He collected pottery, tools, animal teeth and bones over a 30-year period, which make up just a third of his exhibit.
“He grew up right off of the reservation,” Birkheimer Rooker said.
She reached out to the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association and the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Ferrisburgh, which currently has a yearlong traveling exhibit called “Alnobak: Wearing Our Heritage.” That emerged from a decade-long collaboration between LCMM and Vermont’s Abenaki artists, community members, and tribal leaders.
“Some of what’s here is parts of that,” Birkheimer Rooker said.
Carol McGranaghan of the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs brought a beaded black handbag over 100 years old, as well as century-old baskets, rattles and a deerskin shirt.
The special connection between Native Americans, spirit and the land seeps through the pieces, which include old leather, smoking pipes, giant ceremonial feathers, baskets made from cedar tree buds, sweet grass and brown ash, along with paintings, drawings and photographs that reflect Mohawk and Abenaki life — items made by early and contemporary generations from the Champlain Valley region.
“It is good to have a balance between ancient and contemporary,” Fetter has said. “Otherwise a particular kind of narrative is propagated about indigenous people.”
“I learned a lot,” Birkheimer Rooker said. “Tobacco was and is a sacred thing. You would tie it in cloth and give it as a gift and a sign of respect and thanks.”
The exhibit also features work from juried member artists inspired by the Native American theme.
“The Native American exhibit came about because my dad is Native American,” Birkheimer Rooker said, noting her father’s Native name is “Dream Chaser.”
“We talked about it here (at the Chaffee) and thought it would be wonderful to collaborate with a lot of people. It’s about our past, our heritage, (how) it relates to art and getting back to our roots,” she said. “It’s part of who we all are.”