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Arizona State University
Museums and Native American Knowledges
October 28, 2006

American Indians and Museums: The Love/Hate Relationship at Thirty
Nancy Marie Mithlo, Ph.D., Smith College

When Nancy O. Lurie wrote her lively response to the crisis in Native American – museum relations titled American Indians and Museums: A Love-Hate Relationship in 1976, it was a decidedly different political atmosphere from the one museum professionals face today. Her conversational style of writing and theorizing moves freely from personal antidote to general historical analysis, free of jargon and full of opinions, mostly positive appraisals of anthropological work in Native American communities. A reader gets the sense Lurie is a concerned neighbor, leaning over the backyard fence sharing her thoughtful outlooks with a friend. There is a freedom in the prose that speaks of a small familiar world where well-meaning folk are just doing their job.

It is in this atmosphere of familiarity that Lurie playfully ribs Vine Deloria Jr. for his famed 1969 attack on anthropologists - “Anthropologists and Other Friends.” Deloria’s manifesto challenged the presumption of anthropologists to speak for Indians and the elitism inherent in the assumption that research in Native communities is a rightful exercise in intellectual freedom. Citing the argumentative deficiencies of “the usually perceptive Deloria” (her phrase), Lurie counters Deloria’s attack with historical data. Lurie also reminds the reader that the “Friends” essay first appeared in Playboy a year before publication as a chapter in Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Lurie’s “love/hate” essay leads the reader though a twenty year history (starting with relocation programs of the 1950s) of the unrest and distrust as well as the very productive work that had occurred between Indian communities and museums, including the Ozette site at Makah and the controversy surrounding the repatriation of wampum belts from the state of New York. Her analysis reclaims what she sees as the mainly positive historic relationship between Indian people and museums stating, “In short, Indian people have an old, vested interest in museums and enjoy visiting them.”

What would Lurie’s or Deloria’s perceptions be today, given the collapse of the traditional divide between aboriginal peoples and the museum enterprise? That is, given the increased representation of aboriginal artists, curators and visitors in museums, is it correct to conclude that the objections of Native peoples have been sufficiently addressed? Or, as Deloria has asserted, it is simply wrong-headed to think of Native nations as a comparative category to a professional identity, that of museums? Here state his assertion that Indian people who claim I’m an Indian but I’m also an anthropologist are, in fact, deeply and perhaps irretrievably disoriented. The fact that the title of today’s symposium is Museums and Native American Knowledges instead of Museums and Native Americans is telling of the theoretical distance traveled. Since the establishment and eventual opening in 2004 of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, many of the pro-active strategies identified in the tribal cultural center movement had largely been enacted. Nancy Rosoff’s 1999 essay “The Relationship Between Native American People and Anthropology and Museums” called for clear strategies that appear to have materialized in most major museum settings such as: long-term collaborative projects, increased opportunities for Native professional development, and partnerships where curators relinquish their power in favor of indigenous self-representations.

While the absence of Native Americans in museums has largely been addressed by post 1960s developments, the presence of a Native voice and intellect in museums has yet to be sufficiently accounted for. Is inclusion qualified only by the presence of native bodies or are more salient characteristics required? Can we say that the elitism Deloria decried is still applicable or as Lurie argued, are relationships in the profession mainly productive? I contend that many of the problems identified by Deloria in 1968 and Lurie in 1976 continue to challenge aboriginal rights in museum practice. I wish to specifically identify the phenomenons of institutionalization and consumerism as key threats to a more generative and pro-active relationship within the museum format. In illustration of these practices, I will draw upon my long affiliation with the National Museum of the American Indian, especially their efforts in the contemporary arts curatorial field at the Venice Biennale. My analysis identifies several available theoretical premises upon which future research efforts might productively be staged.

Arab film theorist Fadwa El Guindi categorizes three subsets of what she terms “Filming Selves” or subject-generated films. These are 1) reconstruction, better known as historic preservation or enactment, 2) experimental, or films intended to generate debate or prove a thesis, and 3) political self-representation or advocacy films. I’d like to borrow El Guindi’s classification in order to sketch what might be termed “Exhibiting Selves” or subject-generated exhibits. In doing so, I hope to identify the manner in which Native American exhibits are often perceived by calling attention to typology. It is clear that exhibits based on reconstruction form the most common perception of Native American material culture and arts studies; the “salvage ethnography” of vanishing traditions. The third classification, that of political intent is also an expected format of indigenous representation strategies, although one likely more easily dismissed by a non-native audience as propaganda. The second variable, that of experimentation, however seems to offer the most promise in identifying a strategy for meaningful exhibit planning that avoids the pitfalls of either romanticism or confrontation.

The National Museum of the American Indian’s opening exhibits, thoughtfully examined in Amy Lonetree’s guest edited volume in the recent American Indian Quarterly, appear to illustrate each of these strategies. Notably, “Our Universes” mimicks the historical orientation, “Our Lives” belies the political representation and “Evidence” exemplifies an experimental foray into untested interpretative arenas. Both the popular press and the Native audience, including the AIQ essays, tended to be dissatisfied with the historical sections, but for different reasons. The non-Indian visitors were perplexed by the many “voices” present and the Native audience appeared to be dissatisfied with the lack of serious engagement with the horrors of genocide. Tolerance is demonstrated for the “Our Lives” exhibits, but outright distress is appaarent with the “Evidence” section. Clearly, experimental exhibits are a more challenging route to pursue, in particular when this format engages historical materials literally fraught with the trauma of murder (guns), spiritual warfare (bibles) and greed (gold). Drawing from this brief analysis, how can a more productive analysis be sketched? In other words, if the elitism and insufficiency of the museum method seems inescapable after three decades of re-workings, including heavy Native participation, what direction might result in fruitful developments?

Let me switch now specifically to the examples of contemporary Native American art and the NMAI. I’ll start with the problems and move to the solutions. I have identified institutionalization and commercialism as two major impediments to what I perceive as a more meaningful conversation among Native Americans in the museum world (I reference generally staff, curators, educators who work in museum facilities, artists who produce materials for museums, and visitors and educators). Institutionalization appears to be an inescapable quality of major museum settings such as Smithsonian systems. The history of museums, like so many things in indigenous life, is a history that is tangled in legal constructs, inadequate compensation and a large portion of white guilt that drives policy and programming. It is not a simple coincidence that most Native American museums were built in response to a historic event requiring compensatory actions to remedy a transgression. The NAMI grew from the problem of Smithsonian ownership of human remains, The U’Mista Centre also was formed largely in part due to the return of the potlatching collections that were illegally confiscated. Even the IAIA museum, my school of origin, consists of materials taken from students by administration under the Honors Collection policy. Given this often tortured reasoning of replicating a cultural tradition of ownership and display, can the institution of a museum ever be fully redeemed? As Lonetree et all suggest, in order to do so meaningfully, there must also be a recognition of the trauma, the oppression and the multi-generational pain of impacted peoples and their communities.

Commercialism is surely the most evident inhibiting device in native self-representation, whether in the fine arts, film or museum system. Here I am referencing commercialism in its broadest senses, perhaps economics might be a more generalized term. The economic need to garner support from a largely non-native audience often clearly results in a censoring of purpose or a muting of important narratives. Certainly this was the central concern of the collective Indigenous Arts Action Alliance when we chartered as a non-profit organization in order to be able to exhibit contemporary Native arts at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Our mission statement read that the purpose of the collective was “to give native artists the opportunity to make culturally-meaningful arts outside of market constraints.”

Returning to the NMAI, while a nonprofit organization may have the ability to eschew institutional structures and audience, a national museum may not. That is why the developments I have been engaged in with taking contemporary indigenous art to the Biennale have been so productive. As an experimental format, the Biennale exhibits offer an escape from the confines of what typically challenges innovation in museum practice. Tellingly, unlike the “Evidence” wall, historic material culture was not referenced. These experimental exhibitions were sponsored in 1999 (Ceremonial), 2001 (Umbilicus), 2003 (Pellerossasogna) and in 2005 the National Museum of the American Indian adopted the IA3 nonprofit’s status as the only Native American pavilion in this most cherished of international art exhibitions. This collaboration between what IA3 members like to term themselves, a subversive project with the highly institutionalized and commercialized atmosphere of the majority museum NMAI is a remarkable example of the “experimental” form of exhibit practice, but on a more pedagogical and applied level. It is a new form of indigenous museum practice that can offer unexpected opportunities outside the paradigms the love/hate dichotomy allows for.

The alternative space of a “world’s fair” exhibition format based on divisions of nation (The Biennale, a 100 year old institution, has permanent pavilions sponsored by various global nations) may not appear liberatory, but this hybrid style of exhibiting (non-museum, non-exhibit) has offered the potential to consider alternative curatorial practices such as shared leadership, consensus building, mentorship and active rejection of ego-based initiatives. This format was adopted in 2003 when the NMAI helped host the opening for the exhibit “Pellerossasogna” featuring the work of Shelley Niro and Sherwin Bitsui and then in 2005 by the NAMI as they sponsored James Luna’s “Emendatio” a performance and site-based work. This year, previous participants Shelley Niro, Elisabetta Frasca and myself have planned a return to Venice with the collaborative THE REQUICKENING PROJECT, a collective that includes artist and curator Ryan Rice and performance artist Lori Blondeau. The project has taken the title from the Iroquois condolence ceremony that rectifies states of fragility, bringing balance and clarity to the trauma of loss. This indigenous curatorial methodology will be adopted in order to maintain Native values despite the the burdened institutional legacy of the museum enterprise.
Are we still elitist as Deloria might claim? Yes, it is inescapable. Are we working productively with non-natives, anthropologists and museums, clearly yes. In this way then, our most recent efforts have not altered the love/hate relationship, but have certainly re-defined its parameters.