Cross-Pacific neighbors touch hands for first time

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

A delegation of Ainu, Japan’s indigenous people, with a local delegation of American Indians at the Burke Museum on March 12 (Photo by Lisa Oliver)

On March 12, a delegation of American Indians and representatives of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture traveled to Hokkaido, Japan, visiting four different regions, in an effort to support the revitalization of cultural heritage of the Ainu, who were formally recognized by Japan’s government in 2008 as Japan’s indigenous people.

This trip is part of a unique cultural exchange project launched by the Burke Museum in partnership with the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. In December 2009, a delegation of the Ainu visited the Seattle area and was hosted by American Indian tribes in the Northwest, including the Makah, Squaxin Island, Suquamish, Duwamish, and Tulalip tribes. In July, the Ainu delegates will return to the Northwest to participate at the annual “Tribal Canoe Journey” in Neah Bay, Wash., hosted by the Makah tribe.

The Ainu people

According to the Ainu Museum’s website, “Ainu” means “human.” In the book, “The Ainu of Japan,” Barbara Aoki Poisson mentions that no one knows when the Ainu came to Japan or where they came from.

Like American Indians, the Ainu were hunters and fishermen. Deer, trout, and salmon were part of their diet. The Ainu believed that gods inhabited every object and phenomenon, from animals to the sun. In a 2008 BBC News article, Philippa Fogarty stated that the Ainu have lived in Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands, and southern Sakhalin Island for hundreds of years.

In the 15th century, Japanese settlers started moving to Hokkaido, pushing the Ainu north, and bringing infectious diseases. As a result, the Ainu population dwindled. Trying to preserve their territory, the Ainu waged wars against the Japanese but lost every time. They remained oppressed by the Japanese.

During the Meiji era, an act was passed in 1899, under which the Ainu were not allowed to practice their traditional customs. Ainu children were put into Japanese schools and the Ainu language was banned. The Ainu faced discrimination in society. This problem remains today, with some Ainu deciding not to reveal their heritage.

Events that happened in 1997 propelled a shift: the Sapporo district court ruled the government had illegally taken Ainu land and failed to consider the unique culture of the Ainu. Soon afterwards, the Japanese government replaced the 1899 act with a law that allotted funds to promote Ainu culture.

In 2008, Japan’s parliament formally recognized the Ainu as indigenous people. Having no alphabet, the Ainu have preserved their history through orally transmitted tales. Today, programs such as Ainu language classes and festivals are organized to revive Ainu culture.

The first international exchange

The Burke Museum has received a grant from the Museums and Communities Collaboration Abroad program to coordinate the aforementioned cultural exchange project.

MaryAnn Barron Wagner, the Burke Museum communications director, states in an e-mail that the museum’s goal is “to encourage sharing stories and information on issues facing indigenous people in both Japan and the U.S.” The grant focuses on “the shared history of sea and canoe traditions between the Ainu and Native Americans.”

Deana Dartt-Newton (Photo by Vivian Miezianko)

Deana Dartt-Newton, the project director who is part of the delegation to visit the Ainu in Hokkaido, mentioned additional objectives that they would like to accomplish, “[We’ll] develop educational materials to educate the non-Ainu population about what the Ainu community is up to. The Ainu also want to gain insight on how to successfully negotiate their rights and resources, and to revive their language and culture. … There are successful programs done by the Northwest [American Indian] communities. … There are also lots of personal exchanges. For example, the weaver artists in Japan want to revive and maintain their art. … We’ll bring a weaver artist to Japan on this trip.”

Speaking of the Ainu delegates’ visit to Seattle last December, Dartt-Newton said, “There were a lot of tears.

It was very emotional. It was as if [the Ainu and the American Indians] were two communities of the same group — there were so many commonalities. It felt like meeting family [one hadn’t] met before. It was emotional [hearing] every story that validated [their experiences]. Their ancestors experienced the same things. The pride of indigenous peoples coming together overshadowed the sense of loss. [It takes] generations of struggle to maintain cultural autonomy. … This is just the beginning. It is an ongoing process.”

Dartt-Newton was excited about the trip to Japan and so were the American Indian delegates. She said, “It was a big honor [for them] to represent the communities.”

Apart from the songs and gifts, the American Indian delegation will have dialogue with the Ainu about treaty and policy, especially fishing right. “There is also a great interest [in the Ainu community] in language revitalization programs and museology,” added Dartt-Newton.

How can the public follow the progress of the cultural exchange?

“There will be photo essays — maybe on our Facebook site, maybe on the Burke site. We will develop an Ainu Burke Box — a box of educational materials for K-12 schools. Two Ainu interns will come in April to help develop the box. Ideally, the Ainu Box will be replicated in Japan,” explained Dartt-Newton. ♦

For more information on the cultural exchange project between the Ainu community and the American Indian communities in Washington, visit

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at

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3 Responses to “Cross-Pacific neighbors touch hands for first time”

  1. Lue Halling says:

    Just a small smiler to spread the good words and thank you for your great site

    Be safety conscious. 80% of people are caused by accidents. :)


  1. […] 29, 2010 Sakhalin recently was mentioned in the NW Asian Weekly with relation to a cultural exchange taking place between the Ainu people (who now mainly inhabit […]

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