Lifting the Veil

by Peter Forbes

Featured in Mountain Record 25.1, Fall 2006


Evolution and Domestication

All through the morning, we had carefully observed each exhibit, slowly making our way through dark halls of lost people and creatures. Karma Tashi seemed transfixed by each diorama, quietly commenting on the beauty and artistry of the painted backdrops and the realistic eyes of the people and animals. To him this was art, not the story of a diminished natural world. But the exhibits came unrelentingly, one after the other, and the real story of what this museum was telling us became evident. He quietly concluded, “but all the animals are dead."

It was a simple and obvious truth that I had not been able to accept myself with equal frankness. I knew then that I especially didn’t want Karma Tashi to see what was somewhere ahead, an exhibit of proud and richly adorned Tibetan people set against some exquisite backdrop of mountains and monasteries. The man and woman would be standing next to one another, each wearing colorful wool jackets, yak leather boots, and necklaces of ancient turquoise. I had been with people just like this, with Karma Tashi’s people, except that they were alive and very much in their own living world. They laughed and cried, got married and bore children, worked through the seasons, and slept under the moon. They lived and breathed to tell their stories. I didn’t want Karma Tashi to see his own people behind glass. I didn’t want to hear him conclude, “but all the people are gone too,” and begin to understand the nature of his own extinction. But here we were and my friend walked to the very edge of the display glass and stared for a long moment at the wax figures representing his own people.

As a child, thirty years earlier, Karma Tashi had fled in the middle of winter on foot across the mountains of Tibet. He was following an exodus of the Dalai Lama to live exiled in the Kingdom of Nepal. Now he had flown 12,000 miles to spend the summer in America. He had never before been inside a plane or ridden on a train or seen a skyscraper or touched the waters of an ocean. He didn’t know electric lights or television or movies or computers. We walked beside him through this new world, down the streets of New York City, and into the American Museum of Natural History.

 

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Wandering through the exhibits of the world’s different peoples with Karma Tashi often felt more like walking through a hardware store than a museum. What seemed like interesting artifacts to me were alive and real to him. He explained how things worked. If it weren’t for the glass, he would certainly have picked up the tools, lifted the bowls to his nose to tell him what these different people ate. The beadwork of the Dogon people of West Africa reminded him of things his grandmother had made. The body painting of the Xavante of Brazil reminded Karma of how his people prepared themselves for some Buddhist ceremonies. He stood transfixed by the handprints of both the Aborigines and the ancient Puebloans. The dramatic facemasks of the Wodabe of West Africa reminded him of a Tibetan shaman. He loved the feathered headdresses of the Huichol and told us how they reminded him of his own people’s sky burials. We spoke in the present tense about ways of life that were previously rare or long gone.