By Todd Wels
Triplicate staff writer
Every piece in Marylee Smiths museum of American Indian artifacts has a story and shell tell it to you for free.
It is the story of the first Americans: people who roamed the plains and tilled the fields for thousands of years before Columbus came.
It is the story of those Americans conflicts and interactions with those who came to talk, to trade and ultimately to take most of what they had.
It is the story of those Americans attempt to regain their cultural identity in a world defined by values not their own.
Smiths knowledge of those stories started simply.
I fell in love with the basketry and thats what started me, she said, adding that her appreciation for Yurok womens basket hats spurred her to purchase some of the first pieces for the museum, located in the Trees of Mystery in Klamath. Those few basket hats have since become approximately 800 baskets, from all over the U.S.
Smith herself is one-eighth Cherokee, hailing originally from Georgia.
If youre a gentleman, you wont ask how long ago, she said with a laugh.
In the years following World War II, she and her family purchased Trees of Mystery and relocated to Del Norte County.
The museum opened in the early 1960s in a small corner of the Trees of Mystery gift shop.
I started this before anyone else realized how rare this was, she said.
According to Smith, it is also rare for a museum dedicated to Native Americans to have such a variety of artifacts from outside the local area.
Smiths museum contains artifacts from clear across the U.S. all of which belong to her.
The museum is also rare in that it receives no money from the federal or state government; relying solely on income generated from the Trees of Mystery.
That gives Smith more freedom in deciding what to do with the artifacts she collects.
We are one of the few museums in the U.S. that loans out regalia for ceremonial functions, she said.
This is the epitome of wealth to our local native people, she said.
Smith claims to have spent my childrens inheritance to own and operate the museum with her late husband Earl, who died recently, but would not comment on how much her artifacts were worth. She added that none of them were for sale.
She occasionally allows touring high schoolers to handle silver and bronze peace medallions, crafted by the U.S. government to commemorate treaties with various Indian tribes.
Invariably, one of them will point out how much the medallions would be worth if one melted them down.
I say to them, Honey, you cant melt history, she said with a laugh.
People can get in touch with their history at the museum, though.
Smith shared a letter from a member of the Alaskan Chilkat Tribe, who said that a blanket she purchased in the late 1960s came from the the Chilkat tribe members family.
The Chilkat Tribe member asked Smith what she would charge to sell it. Smith replied by providing photos of the blanket and announcing how proud she is of it and the tribe members devotion to his family.
The item is not for sale but if the Chilkat Tribe member can replace it with one of equal value, he can have his family blanket.
The museum has occasionally had conflicts with Native American tribe members who feel that it is improper for their artifacts to be displayed there.
Smith cited an example in which several members of the Navajo tribe complained that some of the Peyote boxes that were on display were actually tribal property.
Smith contacted the tribe, who assured her that that wasnt the case.
She is open to suggestions, though. For example, a member of the Sioux tribe advised her that Sioux pipes are dismantled when theyre not in use as a sign of respect.
We went through and took apart every pipe in this place, she said.
For Smith, the museum is a way to preserve stories and traditions that are in danger of being lost to time.
To further that mission, she is looking to add a theater to the museum, in which Native American storytellers and craftspeople could share their traditions with a live audience.
She gestured expansively to the cases full of Indian artifacts.
Theres an Indian feeling that these things die if theyre not used and appreciated, she said with a smile. My God, theyre seen by a quarter of a million people theyre still alive.