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Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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Increasing Native Representation in Museum Programs and Exhibits

Written by Joan Lester

Having begun to establish credibility with the Wampanoag community, we were able to continue working together, effecting changes that grew from and were often inspired by this collaboration. In the 1970s and early 1980s, there were three critical changes: a shift to increased Native presence on staff; increased exhibit presence in the form of a new Native American exhibit, We're Still Here: Indians in Southern New England, Long Ago and Today; and the creation and installation of Northeast Native American Study Storage.

Native American Internship: Augmenting Native Voices and Native Presence

In spite of their relationship with The Children's Museum, the Wampanoag advisors were still outsiders. The Harvard graduate students, as well as the museum's Advisory Board, explained that if museums were really going to change, Native people needed training so they could join museum staffs or start their own museums, and have an internal impact on the museum profession. To facilitate this process, The Children's Museum requested and received a two-year grant from the Office of Education to select and train seven Native American interns.

Although I had no management experience, I was selected, together with Judy Battat, to co-lead the internship program because from a museum perspective we had been so successful with Indians Who Met the Pilgrims. Pulled in different directions by museum versus Native needs, I was not entirely successful as a project administrator, but I was able to share my collections, program development, and exhibition expertise with the interns. Over the two-year period, the interns (Linda Coombs, Paulla Jennings, Ramona Peters, Dawn Dove, Paulla Gonsales, Edith Andrew and Joyce Ellis) were able, diffidently at first and more effectively as the year progressed, to educate us. They expressed dismay over their lack of access to collections, the existence of sacred and human remains in the collection, and the wigwam exhibit that persisted in presenting past New England culture even though Native cultures had continued.

As part of their museum training, the interns developed their own exhibit in the Visitor Center. Judy and I guided the exhibit development process, but they chose their messages and means of presentation. Their first-year exhibit, which focused on Native contributions, ongoing artistic traditions, the sacredness of Mother Earth, and anxiety about her destruction provided the seeds for exhibit ideas and understandings that are still part of the museum's ethos today.

Although this initial foray into museum training was difficult for both myself and the interns, the overall results were, in retrospect, significant. Five of the seven interns are now working in or are closely associated with tribal museums. Equally important, a first-year intern, Paulla Jennings, became the head of the Internship Program in its second year, and the museum's first Native staff member. Since 1979, there has always been at least one Native staff member involved in the interpretation of Native cultures at the museum, including Helen Attaquin, Diosa Summers, Linda Coombs, Nancy Eldredge, Cinnamon Nolley, Carol Mills, Russell Peters, Tobias Van der Hoop and in 2006, Annawon Weeden, Tall Oak's son.

In 1980, shortly after the internship was completed, Judy Battat left the museum to teach in public school and I was given the title of Native American Program Developer and Native American curator. Although those designations worked for the administration, I knew, in my heart, that I was, at best, a colleague and collaborator with the Native staff. When Paulla Jennings and Linda Coombs were working at the museum, we formed a strong team, jokingly referring to ourselves as the Three Sisters. I believe that we were, to use a term introduced used by Michael Ames in 1991, functioning in a complementary, bicultural relationship that honored and recognized our respective skills and backgrounds. I relied on these two strong women to critique the content of my work for mistakes and inbred Western assumptions and to collaborate with me on the direction of the Native American program. They relied on me to provide exhibit and program development expertise, interpret museum issues and run interference for our program with the administration.

A New Exhibit: We're Still Here

In 1980, when the museum moved to the downtown Boston location, it was time to reassess the current Wigwam exhibit and its clearly outdated message of extinction. Supported again by Mike, we found the funds to create a new exhibit that would connect the Native past to the Native present. Although I had assumed that it was time to take down the wigwam and develop an entirely different exhibit that would more sensitively and effectively interpret the continuity of Native culture in this area, the Native American Advisory Board saw the wigwam as an important cultural symbol. Their statement "you don't have to live in a wigwam in 1980 to be Native" led to the creation of We're Still Here: Native People in New England Long Ago and Today, an exhibit that compared a full-size wigwam with a replica of a contemporary Native home.

The key message, as proposed by the board, and developed by the museum, was that Native people in southern New England were still here and still participating in their own Native culture, as well as that of the dominant culture. The Advisors brainstormed, made suggestions, critiqued my proposals for content and format, offered photographs and personal belongings, wrote and signed their own labels and exercised a museum-supported veto when we didn't agree. Their presence in this home (kitchen, bedroom, living room, TV) was indicated by objects relating to contemporary Native culture (a closet with regalia, dresser drawers with beaded jewelry, bookshelves with Native titles, herbs drying, posters and family photographs and a suitcase packed for a Pow Wow).

Thanking the Community: American Indian Day

Once the new exhibit opened in the Visitor Center, we wanted to find a way to thank and honor the Native American Advisory Board and all those Native people who had so generously trusted us and provided guidance for us. Since theme days for visitors were already a part of the museum's program offerings, the idea of holding an American Indian Day fit easily into this format. The Board proposed a Pow Wow-like event with vendors, dancers and demonstrators. Vendors would not be charged for tables and all Native Americans would be admitted without charge. The day was an enormous success and more than twenty years later, it is still an anticipated event. But American Indian Day has become a community-run event rather than a museum-run event, organized always by a Native staff member with the museum simply providing a venue and funding for publicity, hospitality, a master of ceremonies, and demonstrators.

In 2000, on the 20th anniversary of American Indian Day, I was able to offer a Native style Give-Away as a personal thank you to all the Native people who had worked with me and taught me so much. As we circled in an honor dance, led by Tobias Vanderhoop, each recipient holding their gift as they danced, I realized, again, how much I owed to their trust and their guidance and how special this moment truly was.

Study-Storage: New Approaches to Native Collections

As early as 1974, the interns as well as the advisors complained about their limited opportunities to see collections in storage, participate in their care, or easily select objects for exhibitions. Here again was the frustration I had first been exposed to at Harvard. In non-Native institutions the curator, rather than the community, has full control and the power to decide what will be collected, how objects will be stored, which objects will be exhibited, how they will be interpreted, who will be allowed to enter the storage areas, and which objects, if any, may be touched, handled, or loaned.

What would happen, I asked Mike, if I packaged all the objects the Northeast Native American collection so that the packages could be handled but the objects still protected. He smiled and suggested that I try it out with a limited number of objects. I did, placing each object in a protective package that allowed close examination and then providing supervised access to the storage area for interns and advisors. It worked well on a small scale and in 1980, shortly after the move to the Wharf, Mike proposed that the entire Northeast Native American collection be installed behind a window wall at the rear of the We're Still Here exhibit. When it opened, visitors could look through the window wall and see the entire collection; when Study Storage was staffed, primarily by Native Study-Storage curators, interested visitors could enter and have access to the objects.

Long before NAGPRA, the installation of the Northeast collection in a Study-Storage system led to questions about sacred objects and human remains in the Northeast Native American collections. Having learned about these issues at Harvard, I knew that there were, in The Children's Museum collection, entities that needed to go home and possibly human remains that needed to be reburied. Phyl O'Connell, head of the Collections department, and Mike were willing to listen and learn about these concerns, and then fully supported efforts to remedy the situation.

Respecting Sacred Objects: Covering the Medicine Masks

In 1970, the Grand Council of the Iroquois published a manifesto asking museums to cease their display and interpretation of Haudonasaunee Gagosah (medicine masks). In 1975, Dawn Dove, Narragansett intern, expressed reservations about The Children's Museum's collection of more than thirty of these masks, currently in the Study Storage collection. For her internship project, she traveled to the Iroquois reservation at Onondaga to discuss the issue with Longhouse people. They requested that these living entities (masks) no longer be accessible to the general public, but, instead, be covered with calico and hung face to the wall, as they are in Iroquois homes.

When Study-Storage opened in 1980, the medicine masks were covered, hung in their own separate area and curtained from view. A sign, "Sacred objects. Please do not view. Please respect native culture" still hangs on the curtain. Only Longhouse people may have access to them or their documentation. Over the years, the covered masks have provoked curiosity and thus provided a wonderful opportunity to teach about the need to respect Native belief systems. I trust that the museum will, eventually, receive a repatriation request for their return.

Reburying Human Remains

The interns had also indicated that they were uncomfortable in the museum's collections because of the presence of an ancient Native American from Nahant Massachusetts. With the permission of Phyl O'Connell, and belatedly Mike, the ancestor was reburied. A return to the earth seemed both respectful and essential. It would be fifteen more years before there would be NAGPRA guidelines to officially direct such efforts.

Ongoing Traditions

Although our public programs and curriculum units now recognized the continuity of Native culture, our collections did not. In 1980, the Study Storage collection consisted of ancient stone tools and cultural objects collected between the 1880s and 1930s. Through visitor comments it became clear that the objects were, inappropriately, sending out the wrong message. Because there were no contemporary objects, it appeared that Native people had either vanished or been assimilated into mainstream America and were no longer involved in their own culture. During the internship, Paulla Jennings had created a small exhibit that compared older collections objects with newer, similar examples from her own home. Titled Old and New, it presented the continuity of Native art in New England. Inspired by her work and by conversations with other Native people who told me that artists were continuing to create objects similar to those made over a century ago, I requested a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Folk Arts grant to collect and document contemporary work. NEA replied that they would be pleased to fund this proposal if I was really sure that there were Native artists still working in New England. In 1976, with the help of the Native community, the list was quickly created and the grant funded.

Collecting Contemporary Work

Over the period of one very special year, Sing Hanson and I traveled throughout New England meeting and interviewing Native artists (basket makers, carvers, bead workers), taping and photographing their process (when allowed to do so), and collecting selected work for the museum collection. As we were passed from one artist to the next, they taught us through their work that artistic traditions may evolve and change and still be viable. New materials or new forms may be introduced and old materials and forms used in a new way without negating the strong and ongoing connection between past and present creations. For example, contemporary war clubs carved with modern tools, ash splints woven into napkin rings or sewing boxes, and quahog shells transformed into modern jewelry are all part of and connected to ongoing traditions.

Tourist Art is Native Art

Although I was able to add contemporary work and thus contemporary Native presence to the collection, my own learned preconceptions had traveled with me during the Folk Arts grant. I only collected new work that still looked like or was connected, in some way, to historic, nineteenth century examples, and most often rejected art that was clearly made only for sale, such as birchbark bird feeders or "garishly" carved and painted root clubs.

In the early 1980s, I was also able to reconsider my own prejudices about "tourist art" and begin to participate in a new paradigm that valued, rather than rejected, Native work made for sale. Instead of a single moment of recognition, this Western bias was slowly modified by interviews with contemporary artists and by conversations with Native staff members. For example, while examining basketry molds and gauges with Penobscot basket makers on Indian Island, I began to realize that for Native people basket making (was) is always part of who they are and what they do. Even when it incorporated new forms and new materials and was offered for sale, it was still theirs and still part of their ongoing story.

More important, as I listened to the basket makers, I began to understand that what outsiders named and categorized as "tourist art" was simply the continuation and further evolution of a cultural tradition. Ash splint wastebaskets and teapots revealed continuity and survival as much as any other facet of Native history. For these women, making baskets was Indian work; it guaranteed economic survival but it also allowed them to create objects that truly expressed who they were and had always been. In addition to providing a steady income in a time of cultural and economic oppression, weaving with splints allowed women to confirm and even proclaim their continuing identity as Native people.

Penobscot Root Clubs: A Distinct and Continuing Tradition

I had consistently rejected a box filled with examples of late nineteenth century New England "war clubs," with their alien faces and strangely carved roots. As I continued to ignore the box and its contents, Paulla Jennings chided me for failing to see the beauty and history imbedded in these carvings. When I finally stopped and truly looked at them, I understood that I had again been conditioned by my Western assumptions. They were so different from the highly valued elegant ball-headed clubs carved by the Iroquois people that they seemed to be an aberration, rather than a modification or completely different form of war club.

In fact, during the Folk Arts grant, as I collected examples of contemporary Penobscot and Passamaquoddy clubs similar to these older ones, I finally understood that they represent an entirely different tradition that has always been distinct from the ball-headed form. With new eyes, I now saw that they too expressed Native survival and were part of an ongoing and evolving tradition. The function of the clubs had changed (from weapon to art made for sale) but they were undeniably still representative of the culture and history of Penobscot and Passamquoddy people. I hung the clubs in the Study-Storage window, added the contemporary examples and used them to discuss and demonstrate the message that Native cultures continue.

Ironically, in 2006, my understanding of and respect for these clubs as an expression of cultural continuity is still changing. Since April 1995, Stan Neptune, a Penobscot carver and I have been working on their history and iconography. Rarely collected by museums due to the assumption that they were, after all, "impure tourist work," we have found 600 examples so far, mostly in private collections. With some embarrassment, I must now admit that the Penobscot clubs that I once lumped together as "late 19th century tourist art" represent centuries of work. Stan and I are now able to trace their history, describe the range of images that appear, over time, on these carvings (animal beings, spirit faces and human faces) and identify the hand and the work of specific late nineteenth century artists.

Stan and I are working as partners on this research. Each of us brings our own special skills and expertise, and shares with the other. As we do, our work moves forward. There is one caveat. From my perspective this partnership is not equal. I know that the root clubs belong to the Penobscot people. If, after discussion, Stan and I still disagree on a particular interpretation, I simply accept his conclusions. He has the final word. It is his culture that is being represented.

In all of this collecting, I had, until the early 1980s, also shied away from completely new forms, such as beaded baseball caps, denim jackets edged with beads or T-shirts imprinted with Native slogans that seemed to have no Native precedent. They, too, are now part of the collection. Although, at one time, I rejected these as "breaks" with traditions, I now understand that there is no "break." This new work, like all the work that preceded it, expresses economic survival and proclaims an ongoing Native identity.

The We're Still Here Catalog

The Advisory Board and other Native people who were closely associated with the museum were truly pleased with Study Storage and the messages it presented, but they argued that the Folk Arts project, with all of its words and work by New England artists, needed to be formally documented. As curator, I had participated in all the interviews and decided which objects to collect for the museum. It was, they pointed out, now my responsibility to synthesize what I had learned and share it with a wider audience. NEA funded our request to create a catalog that would demonstrate the continuity of traditions in New England, and in 1987 We're Still Here, Art of Indian New England, The Children's Museum Collection was published. Rather than a book about art, this was a book about people and their ongoing connections to their culture. Filled with photographs of the artists, their stories and examples of their work, it expressed both the antiquity and the contemporary vitality of Native art in New England.

A Pueblo Exhibit: We Will Not Display Sacred Objects

Motivated by the changed access to the Medicine Masks in Study-Storage, we first publicly stated that we would not display sacred objects in a 1986 exhibit about Katsinas. In consultation with four Pueblo advisors, and inspired by a newly donated collection of katsina tihu, I developed an exhibit in which twenty katsina tihu were hung above a large diorama of a pueblo to suggest that the Katsinas were watching over and protecting the people. One of the advisors, Hartman Lomaiwaima, called just before the exhibit was to be installed and explained that he finally understood what had been bothering him about our project: the tihu associated with the sky, the chiefs of all the Katsinas and those Katsinas who represented the birds needed to be hung higher up than the tihu associated with the earth. After a brief confrontation with the exhibit designer, his request was honored.

To encourage visitors to interact with the diorama, I also exhibited examples of collections objects that appeared, in miniature, in the diorama. But the Katsina regalia and Katsina kwatsi worn by the tihi were not exhibited, even though they also were part of our collections. I wrote and signed a label explaining that as curator, I could not do so and still respect Pueblo beliefs.

Next: Supporting Repatriation Beyond the Confines of the Museum