Story 08: Working Together To Get It RightStory | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives
Written by Joan Lester
After seven years of working at the museum, I began to feel uncomfortable in my museum-acknowledged role as "Indian expert." I thought that before I could really accept that designation, I needed more knowledge. In retrospect, I also wonder if my expanding awareness of the vitality of Pueblo culture and Pueblo people as well as the mini-confrontation at the wigwam exhibit was opening me up to new questions and the beginning of a search for new answers. In 1971, I took a leave of absence from the museum to earn a master's degree and possibly a doctorate in anthropology at Harvard.
In her 1990 book, Mixed Blessings, Lucy Lippard asks, "When do people on the cultural margins stop being invisible?" For me that question defines my work at Harvard and all that has happened since. Invisibility ended in 1971 in a series of encounters with Native graduate students. After an uneventful first semester, in which I continued to work within the salvage paradigm, studying "extinct" cultures as diverse as the Maya and the Naskapi, I took the course, Social Sciences 152, The American Indian in the Contemporary United States, taught by Dr. Jerry Sabloff, with fourteen Native American students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education who participated as class members and section leaders!
That course was truly life-changing. I could never again be who I was, believe what I had believed or know what I thought I knew. The cause was my collision and interaction with the Native teaching assistants and finally my ongoing dialogue with Hartman Lomaiwaima, Wayne Newell, Art Zimiga, Peter Soto and Henrietta Blueye. In her 1991 book, Chiefly Feasts, Aldona Jonaitis, anthropology professor and director of the University of Alaska Museum (and a non-Native woman), described this kind of metamorphosis far more eloquently when she wrote, "I have undergone a transformation of both mind and soul. Mine is not a unique story, for every person who has had the opportunity to work with a Native community returns to her own deeply touched by the experience and profoundly changed."
"I am a Native American"
My very first memory, of many critical ones, was the first day of class when Bill Demmert, Tlingit, stood up and introduced himself, first stating his native name, and then his clan, his band, his village, and his tribe. These were followed by "I am an Alaskan and an American." I was shocked. Here was a Harvard graduate student whose key identity was that of a Native person with kinship and roots to a particular community in a particular place. Following Demmert's lead, the other teaching assistants introduced themselves in similar ways.
Deconstructing the Grand Narrative: Whose History is This?
The class continued to produce surprises that forced me to reassess what I thought I knew. As Sabloff presented descriptions of what had happened in American history, one or more of the Native participants would counter with a different story that often totally contradicted Sabloff's perhaps deliberately planned Eurocentric presentation. The responses that I can still hear in my head involved a full description of Pope's rebellion, during which this Pueblo leader effected a secret alliance of nearly all the Pueblo peoples and succeeded in routing the Spanish; the destruction to tribes and buffalo caused by the railroad moving West; and the Homestead Act (what I would now refer to the Dawes Act) that took away native lands and offered them to enterprising would-be settlers. The work of anthropologists who participated in the "salvage paradigm," unable to see the continuity of Native cultures, was also subjected to Native condemnation.
In each class, as I was confronted by new stories that contradicted what I had learned in schools from kindergarten to college, I began to question all the history I'd been taught, slowly recognizing that the American history, which involved the conquest, oppression and betrayals of Native people, had been permanently silenced in my head. I promised myself that from then on I would attempt to also find the Native history, rather than blindly accepting the well established American myths of "the empty west," Manifest Destiny, and Indians as savages.
Deconstructing Museum Collecting
The questioning of history was intellectually challenging, but it didn't (yet) affect me directly nor did it force me to personally confront the profession I had chosen. But within that year, my own commitment to and belief in museums as educational institutions that interpret the things of the past and preserve them for the future was also turned upside down. I had brought The Children's Museum's Hopi curriculum kit to show the Native teaching assistants at Harvard and proudly spread out its contents on a table. One by one the Native attendees turned their backs to me, refusing to discuss it. Eventually, they simply walked out. As he was leaving, Hartman Lomawaima picked up a coiled Hopi basket and angrily commented, "That's my grandfather's. You have no right to own it." I was devastated, hurt by their apparent rudeness and deeply troubled by their anger. How could something as well intentioned and educational as a curriculum unit evoke such a violent reaction?
I described this disastrous meeting to Mike who agreed that we should simply deaccession and return the basket to Hartman, which we did. It was 1971 and for the museum this was the first of several pre-NAGPRA returns. It was also my first exposure to the loss and anger felt by Native people when they encounter their own cultural patrimony in Western museum collections.
What else had I or museums done to Native people to elicit such responses? If I was going to continue as a museum professional, I had to understand their rage. I dropped all my other Harvard classes in order to attend every section led by the Native teaching assistants. For my term paper topic, I chose the question with which I was now obsessed: what role, if any, had museums played in the stereotyping and misrepresentation of Native American cultures?
The American Indian: A Museum's Eye View
In addition to reading about and describing the methodology of nineteenth century museum anthropologists as they installed and interpreted Native cultures, I visited and evaluated four anthropology museums that had major exhibitions of Indian objects. I also convinced a few more of the Native graduate students to really talk with me. Thus, I spent long hours listening to and trying to absorb their frustration with the way museums had presented—and continued to present—Native cultures. I walked through Harvard's Peabody Museum with Henrietta Blueye, Seneca, and Wayne Newell, Passamaquoddy, as they critiqued the intent and messages of the exhibits, indicating the past tense labels and the freezing of Native people in "the ethnographic present." Blueye and Newell also pointed out the painful exhibition of grave goods and sacred objects; the use of general culture areas rather than tribal affiliation; the monolithic treatment of individuals in any given group; the absence of Native history; the absence of any information that confirmed contemporary existence; and the lack of any Native involvement in the presentations.
All this interviewing, book research and onsite evaluations for my term paper led to an inevitable but deeply troubling conclusion: yes, museums had and were still directly playing a role in the misrepresentation of Native cultures. In my term paper I concluded "The museum anthropologist, like others who have presented and explained the American Indian to the general public, must accept responsibility for the invisibility of the American Indian today."
I audited the same course for two more years (a chance to solidify my thoughts and listen to new Native graduate students), but in 1972 I severed my official association with Harvard. Several incidents led to this difficult decision. When Dr. Sabloff placed my paper "The American Indian: A Museum's Eye View" in Harvard's Tozzer Library, an anthropology professor told his students not to read it. And, in my next course, Anthropology S-134: Indians and Europeans: 1620-1970, the term paper assignment was to choose a Native society and "argue the case for either assimilation or ethnic separatism for the individual culture in question." When I refused to write the paper, objecting that it was not appropriate for non-Native graduate students to make such a decision or even assume that they should be involved in the process, the anthropology professor replied, "Don't be so silly; just write the paper." Incidents like these made it clear that I would not, at that time, find support for my questioning of anthropology and the museum profession at Harvard.