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Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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A New Way to Be

Written by Joan Lester

So, if we, as non-Natives, no longer hold absolute power of representation, do we still have a role to play in museums? What do we do with our content knowledge, our technical expertise and for some, the desire to continue to do research?

Teach About the Issues

For me, there are several answers. The first is to continue to share and discuss with other non-Native people some of the issues presented here. Many years ago, when I first realized that "everything we were doing was wrong," I announced to a Native friend that I was quitting. He was visibly upset and explained that since Native people had opened their hearts to me and I had been exposed to some new understandings, I had no right to quit. Instead, I had a responsibility to pass these learnings and insights on to other non-Natives who were unaware of Native concerns. So I stayed "in," discussing issues such as representation, holistic history, sovereignty, homeland, gaming, and stereotypes with staff, teachers, and visitors at The Children's Museum, museum professionals at AAM, and later college students at Tufts University.

Working in Collegial Relationships

I still work on developing exhibits, curricula, and programs that represent Native Americans, but never without Native American colleagues. I am now a support person, sharing technical expertise (the how tos) and, when asked, content ideas. It is not always easy to serve in this secondary role, but it feels right.

A similar situation exists when I serve as a consultant or a board member for tribal museums. I offer ideas and support, when asked, but I always defer to Native speakers and understand that power and all decision-making resides in the hands of Native people.

I am also learning to pass requests for speaking engagements, articles and book critiques on to Native people, rather than accepting them for myself. Although I know that I could do a good job and might even enjoy the experience, offering the names of Native people instead of my own returns power and representation to the people themselves.

Asking for Permission

I am still happily engaged in research about Native art. But my working methods have changed. I go to the community for permission to study a particular art form. If permission is granted and it serves the community as well as my own interests, then I ultimately share my notes and photos with the community. If I prepare a text for publication or an exhibit for presentation, the work is reviewed and approved (or sometimes rejected) by a Native Advisory Board as well as any individuals that have been mentioned. Although this again means returning power to the community and may mean that research that I have painstakingly done may not be acceptable, I can no longer do this in any other way.

Next: Sidebar: Tall Oak, Wampanoag-Piquot/Native American Advisory Board