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Written by Joan Lester
As I look back over these past thirty-five years, I see that the most consistent catalyst for my new perspectives has been my ongoing and often heated discussions and interactions with Native people. My learning evolved from the processing and reprocessing of ideas, feelings, and explanations that Native people presented to me. For their part, they were willing to share their frustrations and even rage about museums with me. For myself, it required a willingness to listen to their issues (as hard as that sometimes was), to re-evaluate my own assumptions and learning, to try to really change the way I worked, and very often, to rethink and revise my process again and again. Naturally, none of this could have happened at The Children's Museum without the support of Mike Spock who was willing to integrate these ideas into his own professional life, to encourage me to keep going and to keep challenging our assumptions, and always being there to lend support or ask probing questions when things got out of hand. Together, we shared the commitment to change the way The Children's Museum interacted with Native American cultures, moving from an institution that taught about and spoke for Native Americans to an institution that taught with them, honoring the essential need for Native representation and first person voices.
But what did I learn that could now be passed along to others who want to work with people from other cultures—and not just Native American cultures?
First, it has been a blessing to get to know and ultimately become friends with people from another culture. I am extremely grateful for the trust and welcome that has been extended to me by so many individuals. In order for these relationships to blossom, however, I now realize that I have had to learn how to be "present" with this community, in ways that both honor and respect their perspectives and ways of doing things. It meant not only changing how I usually interact but it also required that I process and integrate entirely new information, thoughts, and feelings. This transformation did not happen overnight; progress was often slow and bumpy. But here are some things I have learned to do, ways of being I ultimately have adopted, that have facilitated many long and productive relationships.
I had to learn to listen with an open mind and an open heart. To really listen. Usually, I enter fully into a conversation, interrupting, stating and sharing what I know. I have had to learn to truly listen—without interrupting and without showing off or describing what I think I know about the subject. Still today, when I meet a Native person for the first time, I may be asked to listen to what I call Lecture 101, a description of all that has happened to Native people since contact. I have learned to listen quietly without saying "I know" or "yes, I've heard that before," or even "yes, but...". Eventually, as I get to know the person, he or she may ask why I didn't say anything. My answer: I always listen for new insights or something I've heard before presented from still another perspective.
Hearing and Integrating Native Reality
I had to try to really hear new ideas–ideas that were alien to all that I had learned about Native Americans from elementary to graduate school. A few examples (out of many) of the reality I was asked to hear: Native Americans are not prehistoric people; instead they have a history that predates European contact, told and passed on orally, from generation to generation. Their culture did not begin by haphazard travel over the Bering Straits; instead, this is their homeland, where their cultures began. They did not die out or become assimilated as they faced incredible oppression on the part of the U.S. government and other citizens; instead they resisted, survived, and in many cases, are flourishing today.
Constructing a More Complete, Holistic History
It is one thing to hear new ideas and another to be open to and able to accept them. I have worked hard over the years to relinquish my Euro-Centric-based learning about Native Americans, and reconstruct it to include Native history and contemporary lives. This history recognizes colonialism, racism, oppression; an awareness of resistance strategies; and awe at past and current Native strength and survival against all but impossible odds.
Recognizing the Power Assumed by Mainstream Museums
I was asked by Native mentors to see museums through their eyes and their hearts. They taught me that starting in the late nineteenth century, non-Native museum professionals had assumed the right to speak for and make decisions about the representation of Native cultures, essentially silencing Native voices.
I came to understand that sacred beings (what I once referred to as "artifacts"), the bones of the ancestors (what I once referred to as "skeletons") and possessions taken from burials had all been placed on public display without tribal consent. Also, I learned to question labels that presented Native cultures only in the past tense, and to admire the resistance that was embedded in objects that integrated new forms or new materials even though museum expeditions rejected them as "tainted" and impure. Once I understood these issues, I also understood that as a museum professional I could no longer speak for or make decisions about the representation of Native people. Native voices and Native empowerment in the museum were critical for a full, respectful and accurate picture of Native peoples.
Entering into a Reciprocal Relationship
To begin to change representation, the advice and knowledge of Native people was required. They gave it graciously and eventually trust developed between the museum and the community. Native voice became a key and essential component of the museum's Native American program. However, I have come to understand that asking people for help is a two-way street. It creates an ongoing, long-term reciprocal relationship. If I ask Native people to share information about their lives and correct my inevitable errors, then they will expect me to also be there for them on a ongoing basis. This not only means showing up at Native gatherings, whether they be celebrations or funerals, but also lending support on key issues whenever and wherever that is needed. It means becoming an ally and sometimes a true friend.
As the person at the museum who developed Native programs and exhibits, I held the power to create them and the immediate responsibility for their content. As our relationship with the community grew, it became obvious to me that I needed to relinquish both my authority over the content and my control over the forms of presentation. For representation to be both accurate and comfortable, Native voice needed to take precedence. This is a very difficult concept for non-Native people who believe themselves to be both "scholars" and museum professionals to truly accept and integrate into their souls. It means giving up the power that we, as non-Natives, are used to holding and returning it to the people who should have had it in the first place. It is a dramatic and, I believe, essential reversal.