Native American Exhibit Opens in Italy

Indicating just how richly layered the history of human culture is, a new exhibit of artifacts and information about Native Americans of the Great Plains has opened up, not in some midwestern U.S. metropolis, but in the small medieval Italian city of Pinerolo, in the northwest, between Turin and the border with France.

The creators of the exhibit also illustrate this diversity. Dario Seglie is a specialist in rock art, and the Director of CeSMAP, the Study Centre and Museum of Prehistoric Art in Pinerolo. Enrico Comba is a cultural anthropologist at Torino University, and vice Director of the Museum of Pinerolo, focusing on Native American religions and mythological traditions.

These two Italian researchers with a passion for Native American history and culture answered a few questions I had for them about the exhibit. In the end, their enthusiasm and ambition are perhaps as inspiring as the exhibit itself.

(Some of their answers have been edited for clarity.)

 

This bison on display in the church of St. Augustine in Pinerolo is a rare historic male sample in the zoological collections of the Torino Natural History Museum (from 1825). "Tatanka" is a sacred animal for the Native American Indians. (Photo Dario Seglie, CeSMAP, Museum of Pinerolo)

 

What first inspired you to take an interest in Native American history and culture?

Enrico has devoted the last twenty-five years to the study of Native American Cultures, especially in the Plains and Midwest areas. He has conducted field trips and researches in Wisconsin, Michigan, South Dakota and Montana.

In 1999, Dario and Enrico participated as chairs at the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO) International Congress, held in Ripon, Wisconsin, where they became acquainted with North American rock art research and its relationships with Native American historical cultures. Here they established many forms of collaboration with American scholars in various fields.

That was at the origin of the idea to make up this exhibit.

 

What are some of the highlights of the exhibit for you?

The main highlights of the “THE NATIVE AMERICAN UNIVERSE” exhibit are the following:

  • the importance of the buffalo as the basis of subsistence for the peoples of the Plains
  • the curious evolutionary history of the horse, which was born in America, migrated in the Old World while it was extinguished in its homeland, and successively was reintroduced by the Spanish conquerors, spread in the grasslands of North America, and was adopted by the natives who quickly became equestrian hunters and warriors
  • the relationship between animals and humans in the cultural universe of the natives, which was characterized by a relationship between human and other-than-human persons, by respect and spiritual reverence
  • the fact that Plains area rock art sites viewed as sacred places are still visited sometimes by the natives for spiritual practices
  • the cosmology of the Plains Indians, which was projected on the landscape, so that prominent parts of it, like the Black Hills, Devils Tower, Bear Butte, were seen as a mirror image of stars and constellations in the night sky (this section of the exhibit is placed in the 17th-century St. Augustin Church in the historic center of Pinerolo)
  • the history of the conflict between Plains warriors and the military cavalry of US Army, often called the “Indian Wars” (this section of the Exhibit is placed in the military National Museum of Cavalry in the city of Pinerolo)
  • an understanding of the “Imaginary Indian”, the image of the Native American as it was created by literature (e. g. the novelist Emilio Salgàri 1862-1911), the comics, the motion pictures, and other productions of popular culture (this part of the exhibit is placed in the central Public Library of the city of Pinerolo)

 

(Photo Dario Seglie, CeSMAP Archive, Museum of Pinerolo)
In this showcase at the Public Library, a rare pamphlet from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in Italy (1906) is displayed. (Photo Dario Seglie, CeSMAP Archive, Museum of Pinerolo)

 

 

What do you hope people will learn by visiting the exhibit?

We expect first of all that people could learn something about cultures which are far away, little-known, and possibly perceived in a distorted way due to the stereotyped images that popular cultures has built over them.

We then hope people can take a deeper look into another culture’s way of  seeing the world, nature, animals, landscape–a way that can be appealing but that can also be an admonishment for our own future.

There will be also didactic activities with local schools, for guided visits, laboratories, teaching lessons, that would stimulate the interest and respect for cultures different from our own. And this message is probably the most important–the central core of the Pinerolo Exhibit “THE NATIVE AMERICAN UNIVERSE”.

 

“THE NATIVE AMERICAN UNIVERSE” opened December 3, 2011 and has been extended to remain open in 2013. For more information visit www.cesmap.it or email cesmap@cesmap.it.

[Updated 1/10/2013]

 

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Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.