Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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An Assumption of Indian Extinction

Written by Joan Lester

The Indian Room

From the 1930s to the 1960s, The Children's Museum presented the Indians of the past as a single topic in an "Indian room." Objects from five different culture areas were gathered together, each in a separate exhibit case, sorted by culture areas, with objects from many tribes displayed in the same case. Although there was no storyline, the short labels were all written in the past tense, implying that these people no longer existed.

School Talks

The Indian room exhibits were interpreted by non-Native museum staff for visiting school groups. As an anthropology assistant in the late 1960s, I cheerfully taught children about the Native past, describing buffalo hunts, dry farming, the insulating properties of Eskimo igloos and clothing and so forth. Although I had seen Native people on my trips to the Northwest Coast and the Southwest, I did not connect their contemporary reality with the distant, faceless Indians I had studied in school and about whose past lives I was so intently teaching. Instead, I still accepted the myth that the real Native Americans were either gone or had been assimilated into the so-called mainstream. To reconstruct the now-vanished past, I used role-playing as a teaching tool, and objects from the museum's collections such as Kwatsi (then referred to as Kachina masks), Kwatsi clothing (kilts and sashes), Tlingit crest figures, and buffalo skulls and Lakota pipes as hands-on props. With these, I engage the children in my personally edited versions of dances, potlatches and other Native rites gleaned from the descriptions of the nineteenth century anthropologists who had observed such rituals.

How could I have used sacred objects in personally edited re-enactments of religious ceremonies? In retrospect, I simply did not know that my actions were both appropriative and disrespectful. I thought I was presenting Native peoples in a positive light and intended that through my teaching, children would understand and appreciate how Indian people had lived full, comfortable lives, interacting with each other and with their environment. At the time, I still believed in the full validity and authority of the curatorial voice, and the primary importance of focusing on and sharing objects from the museum's collections with our public (this was also before the museum understood its responsibility to conserve and preserve its collections, rather than using them for hands-on teaching). I made the unilateral decision to use objects to present past Native cultures, believing that they were simply artifacts, and not understanding that they were, in fact, the physical manifestations of spiritual beliefs.

Of course, I now understand that I did not recognize contemporary Native existence, or more importantly, the critical need for Native involvement in the representation of their own culture, the essential relationship of Native people to their own objects, and the right of Native people to determine what sacred information or objects may be shared with others.

The Collection: Filling Gaps and Appropriation

In the late 1960s, I did not consider the possibility of collaboration between non-Native museum professionals and Native Americans. Fully absorbed by the salvage paradigm, I instead told myself that it was my responsibility to review the museum's Native collection of approximately 5,000 objects, and to carefully note where the "gaps" were (what objects were missing from a full representation of traditional art), and to fill them in as money and opportunities allowed. I reluctantly admit, again with the deepest embarrassment, to my own continuing participation in inappropriate appropriation (collecting) of sacred objects. During a 1969 summer trip to the Southwest, at a local trading post near First Mesa, Arizona, I was given the opportunity to purchase two Hopi Kwatsi for the museum. I called Museum Director Mike Spock and argued that these two items would fill a significant gap in the collection and that I could also use them to teach about Pueblo religion. He authorized the purchase and, at the salesman's suggestion, I carried them out of the store and home in two brown paper bags.

How could I have been so unaware of Native people's feelings about their sacred beings? I simply didn't get it! Carrying the bags out of the store I saw myself as a participant in an intriguing adventure rather than a co-conspirator in such a disrespectful and appropriative act.

I realize that my comfort at the time with this act derived again from my graduate school education. Masks such as these had been presented as "art," objects of aesthetic and cultural significance that would add intrinsic value to any collection. I bought into that mindset and felt a responsibility, as de facto curator, to acquire these "traditional" Native objects for the collection.

But more importantly, I had never been exposed to current Native belief systems and values. As a result, I was able to treat these receptacles for sacred living entities as things that could be casually handled and manipulated by the non-initiated. I owe my changed and ongoing understanding of Hopi Kwatsi, Gagosah ("False Faces), Ahayuda (War Gods) and other sacred receptacles, in large part, to long and often disquieting conversations with Rick Hill, Tuscarora, and Oren Lyons, Onondaga. By alluding to the life and power of the sacred entities that I had previously perceived only as inanimate objects, they helped me understand the essential need to approach and treat such beings respectfully if I wished to honor the perspectives and values of Native people.

By 1980, the Hopi purchases were stored in our collections, out of sight, with other Kwatsi belongings behind a curtain, with a sign that said: "Sacred objects; do not view; please respect Native culture and beliefs."

In 1999, the Hopi tribe requested the return of the Kwatsi held by the museum. With all questions resolved, in March 2006, I took the Kwatsi home. For me, it was a deeply moving act of personal and professional reconciliation and apology.

Next: An Assumption: Algonquin Peoples Are Extinct