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Petaluma exhibit lends voice to tribal ancestors

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The images of spirit dancers that greet visitors as they walk through the doors of the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum seem to be moving through time. They appear solid and ethereal, real and imaginary, ancestors and descendants.

And they represent the theme of the museum’s new exhibition, “Tribal Voices,” an exploration of Native American culture that runs through Aug. 28.

“We wanted to do something unique instead of purely historical,” said Joe Noriel, exhibition curator and founder of History Connection, a local organization that brings historical exhibits to venues around the county. “What are typically presented with Native American culture are historical artifacts. We wanted to juxtapose contemporary art with the historical pieces. Brian Granados, the co-curator and a history teacher at Petaluma High School, worked with local tribes to make sure we did it right and that the history of the tribes and the present day are represented correctly.”

Noriel found one of the exhibition’s artists, Christine Cobaugh of Santa Rosa, through the Pomo Project in Sebastopol. Cobaugh’s Spirit Dancer photographs lead the visitor into the show.

She is a co-founder of the project and a creator of Pomo Month, which honors the culture of the tribe through performances and events throughout October. Cobaugh also volunteers with the Pomo Youth Dance Troupe, photographing the young dancers. Her pieces on display come out of her experiences with the troupe.

“I resonate with the meaning of the sacred dances and the music,” Cobaugh said. “I am inspired when I attend the dances. The Spirit Dancers’ images express the energy of the movement and the deeper meaning it has for me.”

Also on display bridging the past and present is the flint knapping work of Gene Buvelot of the Tribal Council of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Knapping is the skill of chipping and flaking stone such as flint or obsidian, or even glass in modern times, into tools.

Arrowheads, spears and hatchets can be made using this traditional technique. Buvelot has passed on flint knapping skills to younger members of the tribe, keeping the cultural legacy alive.

Among the exquisite historical artifacts of pottery, baskets and headdresses on loan from the Graton Rancheria, the Marin Museum of the American Indian, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center and pieces from the personal collection of local historian Dan Brown, another living artist, Becky Olvera Schultz of the Santa Cruz area brings powerful images of native peoples through masks.

These clay, mixed-media masks also convey the presence of not only the culture of the Native American but of the living people themselves.

The exhibit will be supported by live performances and lectures through the summer. The Pomo Youth Dancers and a talk about stone age economics are among the scheduled events.

Petaluma, which translates as Sloping Ridge was, half a millennium ago, a major village of the Coast Miwok, part of the Lekatuit Nation with a population of at least 500.

“The land that we all share here is Pomo Coast Miwok land,” Cobaugh said. “They are our neighbors and colleagues.”

The art and artifacts in “Tribal Voices” throw a line down through time to those who lived here before, and hold up a mirror for those who live here now.