When Super Bowl Wagers Go Bad

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Headline from today’s Los Angeles Times:

Museum’s Super Bowl bet shows pitfalls that come with Native art

Wait, what? Museums in Denver and Seattle are betting art on the Super Bowl?

Museums risk consequences if they treat native peoples’ spiritual objects simply as regular artworks, as the Seattle Art Museum learned this week when it briefly wagered a ceremonial tribal mask from British Columbia in a playful bet with the Denver Art Museum on Sunday’s Super Bowl.

The two museums announced early this week that a 135-year-old Nuxalk mask would be sent from Seattle to Denver as a three-month loan if the Denver Broncos won the game, and “The Broncho Buster,” an 1895 bronze statue by Frederic Remington, would head in the opposite direction should the Seattle Seahawks prevail.

But the Nuxalk Nation, based in Bella Coola, Canada, objected, and the Seattle museum quickly removed the raven’s head mask from the bet. It substituted a large 1901 screen drawing of an eagle by Japanese artist Tsuji Kako as its stake in the bet.

Charles Nelson, hereditary leader of one of the Nuxalk Nation’s 18 families, said Seattle Art Museum director Kimerly Rorschach apologized by telephone on Wednesday and has agreed to bring the mask to Bella Coola and make a public apology.

“What happened was upsetting for sure,” he said Wednesday, not just because the tribe considered the mask, which has spiritual significance, inappropriate for a lighthearted bet, but because the museum didn’t consult with the Nuxalk Nation before making it.

Oh, and it gets worse for the Seattle Art Museum:

The two museums’ original news release about their bet described the Seattle wager as “a majestic Native American mask reminiscent of a mighty ‘Seahawk’” whose “open mouth suggests the ferocity of this bird of prey, possibly a supernatural ‘man-eater’” used in “dance-dramas.”

The Seattle Art Museum’s online collection catalog is more circumspect, identifying the mask as an image of Raven, a spirit with “many … manifestations” including “culture hero, trickster or supernatural being associated with family songs and dances.”

Nelson said the painted raven, crafted mainly from alder wood and red cedar bark, is a Sisawq Society mask, worn by hereditary Nuxalk leaders in ceremonies such as weddings and the naming of newborns. 

So, basically, the clowns at the Seattle Art Museum are more insensitive to Native American culture than Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins.

Here’s a picture of the ferocious man-eater used in baby-naming ceremonies: