I wanted to share this article by Joe Horse Capture from Indian Country Today, "Horse Capture: 'Native People Have a Story to Tell - Their Own'," because it talks about the relationship between mainstream museums and indigenous nations when it comes to exhibiting tribal cultural materials and art.
Whenever I'm looking at Native artifacts or art in a non-tribally-owned museum, I try to think about how the objects are displayed and described. Is there evidence that the tribe is partnering with the museum or that other Native representatives have been consulted about the collection? Does the museum publicize their efforts to return sacred items to tribes under NAGPRA (the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)? Does the museum describe Native people as figures of a distant, almost mythological, past or dehumanize them as part of the physical landscape which you might see in some natural history museums? Do they acknowledge that some "art" is actually sacred or that some pieces have a problematic history of having been "collected" without permission?
As this article illustrates, the educational resources for children often reduce Native cultures down to damaging stereotypes. In simplifying exhibits for children, uninformed program designers working without tribal partners can teach kids misleading ideas about Native people.
The article states:
"These “educational” tools do nothing to promote accurate and respectful information about plains Indian art and culture. I believe they do more harm than good by enforcing negative stereotypes and creating an environment where non-Native children are encouraged to play Native American."
The importance of creating actual partnerships when designing exhibits and curating collections can't be overstated. Awareness of these sensitive issues is important for museum visitors as well as museum staff.
"I believe that, if the exhibition organizers had developed a real and meaningful partnership with a Native individual or community, many of these issues with the exhibition and its associated educational resources would have been avoided."
I was proud to note that two given examples of collaborative work with tribal communities came from the University of Oklahoma, my alma mater. I was also interested to see the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, mentioned for its training program for Native American museum curators. We will have to visit their collections soon.
I've also been looking around online for news articles and information about the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University, which is near me and has extensive Native American collections. However, I must admit that when I looked up their website this morning, the first picture at the top was of a child dressed up in a Mayan costume as part of their school programs.
"...non-Native children are encouraged to play Native American," indeed.
Their website does discuss their efforts under NAGPRA, their partnership with the Wampanoag under the Harvard Yard Archaeology Project, and their return of the Kaats' and Brown Bear Totem Pole (Kaats' Xóots Kooteeya) to the Cape Fox Corporation on behalf of the Saanya Kwaan Teikweidi Clan of the Tlingit tribe. They then commissioned a Tlingit artist to carve a new piece for the museum out of the cedar tree given by the tribe in thanks.
These efforts are strong steps in the right direction, but it sounds like they, like most mainstream museums in America, still have a long way to go.