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Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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Sidebar: Study Storage/Paulla Jennings, Narragansett-Niantic

Written by Joan Lester

When I started as an intern with Ramona Peters and Linda [Jeffers], all three of us were quite shy. We would spend time talking to Judy Battat and Joan Lester. Everything I would say, Joan would say, "Well, how do you know that?" And I would say, "Oh, my grandmother told me." "Well, how did she know?" "Well, her grandmother told her." Then we went on to primary sources, and I said, what better primary source than my grandmothers or my parents to tell me anything. Most of what I was saying—Joan was checking out in primary sources. But we had to teach Joan how to read the same reads from a Native perspective. How to understand where we were coming from. Not to look at it with the values that she had grown up with, but to think how a Native person would see the same thing.

Museum staff began to see us more as a people who were still here. We don't live in teepees or pueblos and didn't ride on the plains on horses. Part of it was seeing the evolution, rediscovering our own past and culture that has been passed down in our families. Just because we now live in apartments or homes and do all the things mainstream society does, we're still Native people, and there's still something unique about us as a culture. Joan, Judy, Phyl O'Connor, Mike Spock, Elaine—the whole crew—earned our respect and we respected them for what they gave us.

Study Storage was emulated by a lot of other museums. The Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian has drawers with different things inside. I visited while Native people were there. One of the nicest things was watching a Native couple pull a drawer out and the woman said, "Oh, that was done by Aunt So-and-So." I just smiled and, "Yeah, that's the way it's supposed to be." Other people were gasping and saying, "Oh, isn't that wonderful! Isn't that marvelous!" And I'm saying, "We did that at The Children's Museum 20 years ago, 30 years ago. No big deal."

Study Storage had a lot of so-called "primary sources," which were available for people to study and research. But even more important, it often had a Native person in there. That's what made it so rich and unique. Because when an exhibit or a piece in the collection is shown, I could say, for example, "Well, this was done by Princess Red Wing and her brother." And I could tell a little about her. I could talk about my tribe.

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