Epcot’s Native American art exhibit includes Hawaiian and Polynesian artifacts

During a recent visit to Epcot at Walt Disney World, we made sure to visit the new exhibition celebrating American Indian art. The American Heritage Gallery always does a great job with its exhibits, featuring multimedia and interactive displays plus plenty of artifacts and poignant narratives in the relatively small space. The previous exhibit on African-American history and culture was a must-see.

The Hawaii and California display spotlights one of seven geographic regions of Native American art, both historical and modern, in the American Heritage Gallery at Epcot. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Hawaii and California display spotlights one of seven geographic regions of Native American art, both historical and modern, in the American Heritage Gallery at Epcot. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The exhibit, “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art,” opened in July at the American Heritage Gallery inside the American Adventure Pavilion in World Showcase. It’s a collaboration between Disney Imagineering; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

All of the artwork comes from the collections of those two museums. Included among the 89 pieces representing 40 different American Indian tribes is a prominent display dedicated to California and the islands of Hawaii. It includes models of a canoe and a sailboat based on those used by Polynesian seafarers who settled the Hawaiian islands more than 1,700 years ago. There’s also a huge piece of Polynesian tapa cloth, circa 1900s. Of interest to more modern tastes is the hand-printed He’e Aloha Shirt crafted by native Hawaiian Craig Neff of The Hawaiian Force. You can find his store in downtown Hilo, Hawaii.

Tapa cloth on display at "Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art," a new exhibit at Epcot in Disney World. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
Tapa cloth on display at “Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art,” a new exhibit at Epcot in Disney World. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Native communities from six other geographic regions across the United States are included. Members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida performed at the exhibit’s opening.

The goal of the exhibition is to showcase authentic, historical artifacts alongside contemporary works of American Indian art. Guests learn how cultural traditions have been handed down through generations via interactive displays with narration and insights by some of the artists with works on display.

Objects from the 1800s are displayed alongside those created within the past year as a way to show the complete arc and look toward the future of American Indian art. Many of the contemporary pieces have never been on display, according to the Smithsonian magazine for the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Hawaii exhibit includes a sailboat model, circa 2000, made of native materials such as balsa wood, coconut fiber and canvas. It's on loan to Disney World from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
The Hawaii exhibit includes a sailboat model, circa 2000, made of native materials such as balsa wood, coconut fiber and canvas. It’s on loan to Disney World from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

The three interactive video exhibits feature displays that resemble a campfire. When guests wave their hands in front of the flames, the displays turn into video presentations. The music heard throughout the gallery was recorded by Native musicians from the regions showcased in the exhibition.

Among the featured artists are fashion designer Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo), doll-maker Glenda McKay (Ingalik-Athabascan) and Juanita Growing Thunder (Assiniboine Sioux).

The exhibit will be updated over the next five years to include new artifacts and refreshed displays featuring pieces from additional American Indian tribes. The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes 573 tribes.

On display in Epcot's American Adventure Pavilion: An aloha shirt created by artist Craig Neff represents a style of modern art distinctive to Hawaii. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
On display in Epcot’s American Adventure Pavilion: An aloha shirt created by artist Craig Neff represents a style of modern art distinctive to Hawaii. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the exhibition “can be read as a sign that America is ready for and has already begun a major shift in the national narrative at large towards more fully recognizing Native histories and life ways as part of a collective American identity alongside and equal to those that have dominated for so long.”

The exhibit reflects a recent widening of the “overarching American narrative,” the Smithsonian article says, applauding Disney films such as Moana and Coco for incorporating indigenous traditions to great success. It notes that a future memorial for Native American veterans is in the works for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., officially honoring American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian members of the armed forces.

The popular Epcot pavilion, which funneled 30,000 people into the exhibit during its first month, is the perfect place to expose more guests to this narrative, according to the Smithsonian. “Those guests are beginning their American Adventure with Native peoples, the way the American story truly began.”

A model in the American Indian art exhibit at Epcot represents a canoe that would have been used by islanders exploring the uncharted seas more than 2,000 years ago. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)
A model in the American Indian art exhibit at Epcot represents a canoe that would have been used by islanders exploring the uncharted seas more than 2,000 years ago. (Photo by Hurricane Hayward)

Press coverage
* First look: Disney’s American Indian art exhibit
* American Indian art exhibit opens at Epcot: ‘We are sharing it with the world’
* Epcot’s new ‘Creating Tradition’ exhibit celebrates Native American culture
* Disney and the Smithsonian collaborate on an exhibition of Native American art

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