Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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New Sustenance for the Native American Program

Written by Joan Lester

Since 1997, financial and intellectual support for the Native American Program at The Children's Museum has resurfaced and the program is now based in the museum's Teacher Center under the direction of Virginia Zanger. Like Mike, Ginnie was willing to learn about Native American issues and is now an advocate for Native American representation at the museum. Within the department, Judy Battat, who returned to work in the Native American program in 2002, now leads the work within the community and with teachers. Seminars are taught, and curriculum with Native content is developed, still guided by an active Native American Advisory Board and consultants. In these endeavors, the board serves as colleagues and primary spokespeople, defining the framework that will hold the ideas, critiquing text and often providing the exact words and images to support the proposed content.

Seminars for Teachers and Museum Professionals

Since the early 1970s, the museum's behind-the-scenes work has always included seminars for teachers. The first seminar I ever taught grew out of a conversation with Frank James, an Advisory Board member. As we picnicked alongside a river bank in Mashpee, he strongly encouraged me to begin teaching about stereotypes. I was not convinced of its urgency until I stopped at a supermarket on the way home and filled my shopping cart with food packages—corn flakes, cornstarch, butter, cupcakes, coffee, popcorn, celery—all covered with stereotyped images of "Indians"! Using these, as well as additional examples on toys, greeting cards, cartoons, advertisements, I created a one-day seminar (that is still being taught), which asks teachers to really consider these images and the messages they convey.

When I began teaching, my approach was preachy. I taught about how not to teach, focusing on single topics such as Stereotypes, Unacceptable Children's Books, and Mistaken Ideas about Columbus and Thanksgiving. When Linda Coombs joined the staff, we began co-teaching the same topics. We told people what not to do, instead of allowing them to discover for themselves, as we had, what options were open to them. On a positive note, teachers were able to observe a Native and non-Native staff person working together, side by side, as colleagues and in this case, as friends.

Our presentations changed dramatically after a 1987 two-day seminar for museum professionals entitled "Through Indian Eyes, Whose Vision Is It Anyway?" The seminar was a disaster. We presented our issues in the same preachy way, not recognizing that the room was filled with thoughtful museum professionals who had a lot to share, and who were already coming up with their own responses to inappropriate exhibitions and requests for repatriation. Wanting to demonstrate how the museum worked effectively with its Advisory Board, I had invited the board to be presenters at several of the sessions. That too was a failure. The board, who trusted The Children's Museum and had worked with us so openly and honestly, become confrontational and downright ornery faced with an audience of unknown museum professionals.

This seminar was, nevertheless, a major turning point. Linda and I continued to team teach but we now taught very differently. Instead of pronouncements about what should not be done, we laid out the issues, providing space for participants to question, to object, to look at their own teaching styles and content. Native American seminars continue to be taught at the museum today based on this model. Native staff and Native consultants provide seminar leadership and multiple native perspectives. Non-Native staff serve as administrators and sometimes as co-teachers. Participants are given many opportunities to discuss the issues and consider, if they wish, ways to become agents of change in their own classrooms.

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