Interviews

On Teaching Native American History Through the Smithsonian’s Presidential Portraits

The Native American performance artist DeLesslin George-Warren is giving walking tours of the National Portrait Gallery’s hall of presidential portraits with a focus on the history of indigenous American populations.

DeLesslin George-Warren leading an "Indigenous Corps of Discovery" tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC
DeLesslin George-Warren leading an “Indigenous Corps of Discovery” tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (all photos by Fatima Nanavati, courtesy the artist)

WASHINGTON, DC — On an unseasonably warm Monday evening in October, I visited the National Portrait Gallery after work for a 45-minute Native American history tour of the presidential portraits gallery. Led by DC-based performance artist DeLesslin George-Warren, a member of the Catawba Indian Nation, the tour fittingly started in front of the giant portrait of Andrew Jackson by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl.

Wearing a few pieces of regalia, George-Warren introduced himself in the Catawba language, before launching into Jackson, the president who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, precipitating what can only be called genocide. From there, we walked to Mather Brown’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson, who articulated the policy of “civilizing” Native Americans and removing tribes to the West, out of sight and out of mind. Next on the tour was George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of John Quincy Adams, who told the governor of Georgia in 1825 to do whatever he deemed necessary in dealing with the Creek, leading to their removal from traditional lands in Georgia.

As the small group (there were only two of us when I went; George-Warren likes to keep his tours under 10 people) wandered through the galleries, we asked questions about the reasoning behind specific policies and how the Catawbas and George-Warren’s family specifically had been affected. We also started noticing patterns. It seemed that presidents would seesaw between forced assimilation and forced removal of Native Americans. The one thing they seldom thought to do was just leave them be.

George-Warren has been doing these tours since Indigenous Peoples’ Day, telling each group about a different set of presidents. Although he only has time to cover a few presidents for each tour, George-Warren knows the histories of all of them. He calls the project “Indigenous Corps of Discovery,” and he’s offering free tours on demand through Inauguration Day. For those who can’t make it to the museum, he’s currently working on an audio tour that covers all the presidents.

When I talked to him, George-Warren had just come back from spending Thanksgiving at Standing Rock, where he stayed in a nice, warm teepee at Two Spirit Camp (the LGBTQIA camp), met an extremely helpful Jane Fonda (who cooked Thanksgiving dinner, bought them a truck, and rented out a suite at the casino for gender non-binary people to safely take showers), and marveled at the refreshingly indigenous-centered demonstration, where people we generally think of as marginalized — women, queer people, the disabled, etc. — are the leaders of the whole movement.

DeLesslin George-Warren at Standing Rock
DeLesslin George-Warren at Standing Rock

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Elena Goukassian: While doing research for your project, what struck you as a particularly fascinating aspect of US history?

DeLesslin George-Warren: How I was starting to understand the story of history was really interesting — the narrative of National Parks, for example. People think of it as this great moment in progressivism or liberalism, precipitated by Teddy Roosevelt (although it started earlier with Benjamin Harrison). But in reality, it was just a way of more quickly acquisitioning Native American lands and delineating them as places to not develop or exploit, lands that should not be controlled by Natives. It wasn’t enough to just continue to let Natives have the land; it had to be placed under the control of the US government.

It’s also this process of destroying indigenous religious traditions, like at Rainbow Bridge National Monument out in Arizona. That arch is a very sacred space for the tribes that live there, and Taft made that into a national park without consulting any of the tribes. This is at the same time that a lot of native people aren’t allowed to leave the reservations or practice their traditional dances, songs, and ceremonies.

EG: So the national parks were more of a power grab than about protecting the wilderness?

DGW: Absolutely. And protecting it from whom, right? That’s the big question. This is something you see with the Dakota Access Pipeline right now, this tension between indigenous peoples and environmentalists. This is something that indigenous people are very used to. Greenpeace had this whole campaign about stopping seal hunting, and in that process decided to target indigenous communities, without ever taking into analysis if indigenous people really are the ones who are causing seals to be hunted toward extinction. Same thing with whaling and deer hunting; it’s not indigenous people involved in hunting to extinction, it’s capitalism and exploitation. Environmentalism that de-centers indigenous people is colonialism, because colonialism seeks to destroy in order to replace. It’s like saying we want to keep the land, just not the people that have a right to the land.

EG: Is there a struggle at Standing Rock too, between the environmental contingency and the Native Americans?

DGW: I can see the frustration on all sides. I see the environmentalists having a very set, firm idea of how to do things and having experience organizing protests and campaigns, and assuming that that’s the way it needs to be done at the camps. I remember LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who first gave some of her private land for this camp to be set up, said she went to the UN to plead their case, and when she came back, a bunch of people showed up and had declared themselves in charge, and it was all of these environmentalists. Of course, indigenous people were really frustrated, because it’s their battle. They started it. It’s based on their treaties that the legal arguments are being made, and it’s their knowledge about how to protect the Earth. Indigenous people have to be the leaders. If we say we’re just protecting the land, who gets access to the land? It probably won’t be indigenous people, unless they are at the center of the fight throughout the whole thing.

EG: In your tours, how do you get through hundreds of years of history in just 45 minutes?

DGW: It’s so difficult, because obviously what builds a case is having specific examples, but it’s also really important to not individualize the history of colonization in the US, because then it puts too much responsibility on individual actors, instead of on all of us. It’s a balance that I was struggling with, which is why I’m excited about the audio tour, because I get to do it for all of the presidents.

DeLesslin George-Warren leading an "Indigenous Corps of Discovery" tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC
DeLesslin George-Warren leading an “Indigenous Corps of Discovery” tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC

EG: You obviously chose the location of your project because of the presidential portraits, but your project isn’t affiliated with the Smithsonian. How does the history of the Smithsonian Institution as a whole tie into it?

DGW: Back in 1846, James Smithson gave the US government all this money and his entire collection, and the US government created a series of national museums, which we now call the Smithsonian. One of the goals was the collection and preservation of natural and cultural artifacts — and of course what they were talking about is not something like a historical New York carriage. They were talking specifically about Native American artifacts.

Flash forward to 1868, which is the same year that the Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed. The Surgeon General of the Army Medical Museum gave an order to all of his agents saying that they need to go out and collect body parts of Native Americans. They even created a manual about how to remove bodies from graves and how to remove heads on battlefields. There were lots of battles being fought at this time throughout the frontier, massacres all the time. (The Sand Creek Massacre was in 1864 and 1862 was the hanging of the Dakota 38.)

Later in the 1800s and the early 1900s, the Army Medical Museum turned over all of its collections to the Smithsonian. The beginning of the 1900s is often called the lowest point in Native America, the nadir of Indian country, because it’s often said that there were more dead Native Americans in the vaults of the Smithsonian than there were live Indians on the continent. Thousands and thousands of these bodies were collected in the ethnological museum in Berlin, all these institutions throughout the West that are collecting Indian bodies … for knowledge, right? But most of them were just sitting in boxes in their basements. From the indigenous side of things, seeing graves continue to get ravaged, and then the bodies just sitting there, it just seems more about inflicting violence and trauma than it does about any sort of knowledge creation.

This became an important part of the self-determination movement. Even from the beginning, in the 1940s, you saw Native American activists and politicians saying, “We need our relatives back. We need all these stolen goods; give them back to us.” This reached a fever pitch in the ’80s, when finally Congress was willing to start having hearings on repatriation and the returning of bodies and artifacts. The Smithsonian, as the largest holder of Native American bodies, was really at the center of this.

As we were reaching 1990, it looked like the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was going to be passed and that any museum that was receiving federal funding had the legal obligation to review all its inventory and reach out to tribes about repatriating objects. In addition, it gave the power to tribes to reach out to any federally funded museum and say, “we know that you have this; you need to give it back.”

In 1989, one year before NAGPRA passed, to sidestep some of the more stringent parts of NAGPRA, the United States passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which has a lot of the same provisions, but it gave them a much more lenient timeline for it. Here we are in 2016, and less than half the inventory has been accounted for through that process.

That context of intervening in the Smithsonian was very much in the front of my mind as I was doing these tours, because it’s not just that museums aren’t inclusive; it’s that they are historically violent institutions toward Native Americans. Intervening in that way and using this language of “discovery” was important to me, because it is such a strange place to be, where lies or half-truths are elevated to the level of fact.

EG: What are some specific lessons we can learn from Standing Rock and the history of Native American policies at large? 

DGW: The first thing that I will say is that colonialism has been a bipartisan issue throughout the United States’ history — sometimes a tri-partisan issue, when we had more than two parties. I remember someone saying, “The Democratic Party is the party of Native America.” Let’s think through that. Andrew Jackson started the Democratic Party. To this day, Democrats still have fundraisers across the country called the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, and when I say that, people say they’re trying to remove Jackson, and as you heard on my tour, Jefferson’s not better. Democrats can’t just claim to be the party of Native Americans, and for the most part continue to stand by while Native Americans are being brutalized, again, out at Standing Rock. It’s not an acceptable thing to say.

Second, right at the beginning of the United States, people were not fantasizing about taking all of the land, from sea to shining sea. But as time progresses, you see that idea becoming more popular. This is just another example of the logic of colonialism, but also the logic of capitalism, which is infinite growth, right? And we see those same sorts of dynamics playing out in the way that we deal with other countries, and still how we deal with Native Americans in the United States. Whose humanity is negotiable in the seeking of profit or expansion?

DeLesslin George-Warren leading an "Indigenous Corps of Discovery" tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC
DeLesslin George-Warren leading an “Indigenous Corps of Discovery” tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC

EG: Why do you think the media insists on calling the people at Standing Rock “protesters,” rather than “water protectors,” which is what they call themselves?

DGW: It’s amazing, because at the same moment that white supremacist Steve Bannon is about to become chief strategist, people are reporting it as “alt-right.” They’re recognizing the right for people to self-describe themselves, but they’ll argue with indigenous people and say, “I know you like to call yourselves ‘protectors,’ but more people would know what it is if we say ‘protesters.’” OK, maybe, but people would also know better if you said “white supremacy” instead of “alt-right.” So why are white supremacists allowed to identify themselves and Native Americans aren’t?

EG: Can you explain the official blood quantum rules determining who is a “real” Native American and who isn’t?

DGW: Under federal blood quantum — it’s no longer enforced by the federal government by law, now tribes should be enforcing themselves, but the United States still supports it through creating documents and explanations on how to calculate that quantum — I’m 100% Catawba. If you look up our tribal rolls from 1993, I’m listed on there. So is my sister, my mom, my grandfather, and my aunts and uncles. But then my brother — who was born two years after that — under that same logic, is only 50% Catawba, because he can only trace his lineage back to one Catawba parent. We have the exact same parents, but because I’m on the roll, I’m considered 100%, and because he’s not, he’s considered 50%.

EG: It’s just another way of categorizing people, then?

DGW: Yeah, it is ridiculous. I’m really passionate about getting tribes to start thinking about this, because it is in the United States’ vested interest to have these strict blood rules. Native Americans have the highest out-marriage rate of any group, so if every time you marry outside of your tribe, you dilute the blood of your descendants, then give it five generations and there won’t be anyone who qualifies to be Native American under strict blood quantum rules. If tribes have no members, what do we do with the land? Give it to the United States.

It’s also such an affront on history, because we’ve always accepted people into tribes; we’ve always let people marry into tribes or adopted children into tribes. Tribes are families; we’re kin groups. But we have to start thinking about how we can bring people into our family or into a relationship with us and have them be recognized as part of our community, because blood quantum is not the answer.

EG: Why are your tours important?

DGW: There’s such purposeful ignorance about US history, not in the sense that anyone wants to be ignorant, but that the people who make up curricula, who decide what gets taught, have through their actions created a lot of ignorance in the populace about what has actually happened in US history.

The importance of history is so that we can understand the present and to figure out what we should be doing. Right now, indigenous people are out there on treaty lands that were taken away, protesting and saying that this is another violation of their rights. You say that to someone who knows the history, and they get it. But then you say it to someone who’s been fed these myths about US history, about creating freedom and expanded liberty, they have no reference points in history, and it just seems like, “oh these complaining Indians.”

EG: How do you feel about the way Obama has been dealing with these issues? You’ve said he’s been “pro-Native.”

DGW: He was the second presidential candidate in US history to visit a reservation during the campaign. He’s made big changes to federal regulation about how tribes get recognized, what sort of benefits tribes can apply for, so he’s done a lot, but now it looks like he wants to throw that all away. People are already feeling betrayed by him. He could have a really beautiful legacy in Indian Country and start to actually make the Democrats the party of Native America if he did something. I don’t know why he’s not. It hurts me.

This is the post-apocalypse for indigenous communities. My tribe’s apocalypse started in 1540 and the Oceti Sakowin probably in the early 1800s, so this is what Native Americans do. This is what indigenous people do in the post-apocalypse. They continue to fight for each other; they continue to make family; they continue to work on survival and continuity. And these are skills we need, particularly as we’re going into this age of climate disaster.

EG: Do you think everyone should pack up and go to Standing Rock to show their support? Send supplies and money? What’s the best way to contribute to the cause?

DGW: For everyone who wants to support the cause, I don’t think that going there is the way to do it unless you’re specifically invited. For people who aren’t indigenous, my preference would be for them to find indigenous youth who want to go and helping donate to their funds. So many people were able to go just because of their economic situation, and just think about all the kids on the res, and how it’s their fight, and they really need to be there. Everyone I’ve talked to has agreed. Instead of going yourself, you should support an indigenous person to go. And if you donate to the Oceti Sakowin Camp, you can sometimes make a note on what to have your donation used for; that’s how a lot of indigenous youth will find their way there.

DeLesslin George-Warren leading an "Indigenous Corps of Discovery" tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC
DeLesslin George-Warren leading an “Indigenous Corps of Discovery” tour at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC

DeLesslin George-Warren’s “Indigenous Corps of Discovery” tours of the National Portrait Gallery can be arranged through his website.

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