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'Sensing Sasquatch' art exhibition offers new way of thinking about the mythical creature


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: The legend of Bigfoot has captured the public's imagination for decades since news of purported sightings began spreading around the country.

But a recently opened art exhibit in Oregon is offering visitors a new way of thinking about the mythical creature also known as Sasquatch.

Special correspondent Cat Wise reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Cat Wise: It is said they dwell in the mountains and forests throughout North America, large, hairy creatures who walk upright. While Bigfoot has proven elusive in the wild, you can find him just about everywhere in urban environments, on T-shirts, business logos, toy shelves, and, of course, the big screen.

From the 1980s "Harry and the Hendersons"...

John Lithgow, Actor: It's a major discovery.

Cat Wise: ... to this year's "Sasquatch Sunset."

Sometimes funny, often feared. Now a different way of knowing Sasquatch is on display at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon.

Phil Cash Cash, Artist and Scholar: The Sasquatch lives in many different landscapes, not just the mountains and forests, but all across the plateau.

Cat Wise: Phil Cash Cash, an artist and linguistics anthropology scholar who is Cayuse and Nez Perce, helped curate the exhibition called Sensing Sasquatch. Through art and multisensory experiences, the deep connection between Sasquatch and Native people of the region and beyond is revealed.

Phil Cash Cash: Through our experience, we do now and understand it to be a very revered being who essentially watches over our community as a kind of protector. And that kind of information is not widely known.

Cat Wise: Outside the exhibit, visitors are asked to leave their preconceptions behind. Inside, they learn Sasquatch, which comes from the word Sasq'ets from the Coast Salish First Nation's people, has many names.

Phil Cash Cash: Being a scholar of language, I was able to develop a data set of about 16 names from the various communities throughout the Northwest.

Our language, in Nez Perce, we say 'istiyehé and that is a reference to this particular being we know, Sasquatch.

Cat Wise: On the day we visited, groups of schoolchildren were enjoying the feel of Charlene Moody's art. She's one of five indigenous artists featured in the exhibit.

Tillie Moody, Artist: There's a Sasquatch hidden in a painting too.

Cat Wise: Moody, who goes by Tillie, is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and has lived on the reservation about an hour from the museum most of her life.

Tillie Moody: I wanted people to get, like, an understanding of standing next to it, of like oh, wow, look how tall and big this creature is.

Cat Wise: Her mixed-media installation includes a life-size Sasquatch wrapped in buffalo hides she prepared and brightly painted panels depicting basket designs.

Tillie Moody: I wanted to include and try to honor our basket weaving, because it just seems like, a lot of times, when we do have these encounters with Sasquatch and Bigfoot, it's when we're huckleberry-picking in the mountains in very remote areas.

Cat Wise: Moody says many people she knows have had an experience with Sasquatch, and she has too. She has passed those stories on to her children, just as her relatives did when she was young.

Tillie Moody: Growing up in Warm Springs, my Ulla would tell me stories of, like, when you go out there, be respectful because there are things out here that aren't people.

And then, down in California, my Tugo, he would tell all legends of Bigfoot, about how he became and everything like that. And when we'd go into Yosemite area, we were never allowed to stray. We always had to stay close to a parent.

Cat Wise: Mystery and reverence converge in the artists' depictions of Sasquatch, a carved mask, a striding sculpture, futuristic work next to art that is ancient.

Cash Cash created art for the exhibit as well.

So, Phil, tell me about your piece.

Phil Cash Cash: We harvested a large cottonwood branch, and it had to be a fork. And I suspended between the fork these naturally shed deer horns. And the idea is that Sasquatch being would hold it and rattle, make the noise, with the horns being the sound.

Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director, High Desert Museum: We're not asking for people to believe.

Cat Wise: Dana Whitelaw is the museum's executive director. She and her colleagues changed their original vision for the exhibition after conversations with indigenous advisers, including Cash Cash.

Dana Whitelaw: He started sharing some Sasquatch stories after hearing that we were doing a Sasquatch exhibit, and we were transfixed.

When we start hearing something that made us say, "I never thought of it that way," that's our catalyst for knowing that we have hit on something that needs to be part of the exhibit.

Cat Wise: She says art can play an important role in expanding public understanding.

Dana Whitelaw: If we can push people a little bit farther to think outside their realm of knowing that, what a gift when that happens, when you can just escape our parameters of our perspectives for a moment to see something. And art does that. There's beauty, there's wonder and awe that evokes curiosity, and that's when we know that we have created a path for people to think differently.

Cat Wise: Cash Cash is now working with the museum to bring tribal youth to the exhibit later this year.

Phil Cash Cash: The world is bigger than we know. And there are an abundant set of mysteries that we all may come to know someday.

Cat Wise: Sensing Sasquatch will be on display until January 12, 2025.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Bend, Oregon.

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