The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)

The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)

Recent criticism of The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, which closed recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sheds light on the many issues that arise when mainstream museums present Native American art. Weighted down by centuries of misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and false narratives, encyclopedic institutions still struggle to present Native art in a respectful, honest way.

The Plains Indians show was organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and while it drew praise from the likes of reviewers from the New York Times and other mainstream publications, it was soundly blasted by Native American scholar Joe Horse Capture.

In an article published on Indian Country, Horse Capture writes critically of the show, saying he was asked to contribute to the catalogue, but declined when he found out there were no Native partners in putting together the exhibition.

Installation view, ‘The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (photo by Mark McDonald) (click to enlarge)

That a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects. In the United States, where most of the large encyclopedic art museums were formed in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, legacies of putting Native cultures on display are deep-rooted and not so easily given up.

Gaylord Torrence came to the Nelson-Atkins in 2002. While the museum had collected American Indian art since it was founded, there had never been a curator devoted to it; instead, the institution had relied on one curator who also oversaw the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. According to Torrence, the director at the time, Mark Wilson, wanted to bring American Indian art to “real visibility within the institution.”

As the Nelson-Atkins was heading into the construction and opening of the new American Indian galleries, staff members sent communications to the local American Indian Center, to nearby reservations, and to a Native American community college not far away. “We had a number of consultations with individuals, and of course we did the normal press release stuff,” Torrence says. But Native communities were “hard to locate and hard to pin down.” He was told by the directors of the American Indian Center, “there is a community, but it’s not a cohesive, vocal voice,” he says.

Torrence argues the Plains Indians exhibition did employ consultants and include Native participation in the programming and catalogue, but according to Horse Capture, that didn’t go far enough. “This formula, where Native people are consultants to the project and the non-Native organizers reserve the option to reject their input, is problematic,” Horse Capture writes. “Native people have a story to tell — their own. And there are plenty of Native people in the field that would qualify as true partners.”

Not Just Baskets

Deanna Dartt (photo courtesy Deanna Dartt)

As soon as she arrived at the Portland Art Museum in 2011, Deana Dartt, one of the very few Native American curators working in encyclopedic art museums in the US (she’s of Chumash ancestry), saw a need for contemporary Native work at a time when the collection was characterized by historical pieces.

Too often, museum visitors are led to believe that “Indians are a thing of the past. If they don’t still practice the culture, they’re not still Indians,” Dartt says. She hoped that with more contemporary artwork, visitors would take away a greater understanding that American Indian people are not only still living but are “sophisticated and dynamic and changing.”

Part of Dartt’s job was to train docents to “educate in a more meaningful way,” she explains. “We installed work to allow conversations that included boarding schools, objects for sale, and reservation changes,” as well as religious movements in the Northwest plateau (which includes the interior of British Columbia, Canada, and the non-coastal regions of the United States Pacific Northwest). “Things are not static in Indian country,” she says. For example, through a variety of beaded flat bags Dartt demonstrated “all these different religious practices that were sharing identity and belief systems” just in the plateau. And it was important for her to do that through objects, rather than interpretation.

“More interpretive panels keep us in the margins,” Dartt explains. Ideally, Native American galleries are not so different from other galleries in the museum. “We have to find creative ways to provide contexts without inundating visitors with natural history.”

The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)

Breaking out of those simplistic notions sometimes means disrupting the architecture of the institutions themselves. Design and layout choices can aid museums in portraying Indigenous communities as something other than relics of the past. For example, when the Seattle Art Museum expanded in 2007, Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art, decided to get rid of the green walls that had previously characterized the Native American space, painting them white instead. “I wanted to display it more like an art gallery,” she says.

These structures go back to the formation of many of these institutions in the style of the original Wunderkammen — cabinets of curiosity that sprung up in mid 16th-century Europe. Today, many of the US encyclopedic art museums operate on a cabinet of curiosities model, even as they struggle to break away from a colonialist point of view. Departments still often combine Africa, the Americas, and Oceania — or, the “other” — though they are beginning to hire separate curators for these areas. Those curators, however, are mostly still white and often have backgrounds in anthropology rather than art history.

Candice Hopkins, an independent curator and member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, says departments that group Africa, Oceania, and the Americas together persist because those works are still seen under the rubric of primitivism, even if the terminology around it has changed. “It’s still stemming from anthropological discourse,” she explains. “It’s stemming from older museums like the Natural History Museum, with geographic and cultural divisions that carry forward in encyclopedic museums.”

Spurring Change

According to Heather Ahtone, curator of Native American and non-Western art at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (FJJMA) at the University of Oklahoma, one of the most important ways forward is the creation of opportunities for Native people to enter the field and become leaders. When she was growing up in the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations of Oklahoma no one ever talked to her about art history.

Installation view, ‘Enter the Matrix: Indigenous Printmakers’ at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (photo courtesy Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art) (click to enlarge)

Ahtone’s path into museums began when she had to decide between caring for her family or continuing her studies as a pre-med student. She chose the former, but when her family situation became more stable, she ventured in a new direction as a creative writing student at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Her work there caught the attention of Paul Rainbird (San Ildefonso Pueblo), then director of the IAIA museum (now called the Museum of Contemporary Native Art). In 1993, he hired Ahtone to bring a Native perspective to the promotional writing that the museum prepared on exhibiting artists. “It was a great opportunity, and it opened the door for me to see what needs exist with Native American art,” she says. “I had never imagined myself in a museum and found I loved the environment and wanted to do my best to see what could happen.”

Heather Ahtone (photo courtesy Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art)

Through her studies, Ahtone found that most of the resources were ethnological, or only approached contemporary Native art in the context of Euro-American work. “This seemed like such a falsified reality, because Native cultures have been sustained through centuries of cultural oppression in part because of their creative traditions and cultural identity as expressed through art.” She realized there was a void of information. “Western culture has not understood how our cultures function and live, nor understood the role that expressive arts play within the culture.”

Ahtone, who recently curated Enter the Matrix: Indigenous Printmakers at the FJJMA, says that doors have been opened for her because non-Native leaders recognized the value of her work. “Even in the job I have now, I recognize that by many standards I could have been overlooked by others for the position, but then FJJMA Director Ghislain d’Humieres gave me this opportunity,” she says. “It takes vision by non-Native people to open those doors for Native people, because the power still largely rests in the hands of non-Native people.” Ahtone sees many people in the field who remain uncomfortable with a Native-centric perspective or believe they can make do without Native participation.

“I reject that our role isn’t important,” she says, “and that has created challenges that I have either overcome or simply walked around.”

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Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist and critic. She has written for Bomb, Artnet News, The Lily, Broadly, American Theatre, and contributes dance reviews for the Star Tribune.

16 replies on “In Mainstream Museums, Confronting Colonialism While Curating Native American Art”

  1. I was struck by how the Nelson didn’t see the tepees they scattered across their lawn to advertise the Plains Indians show as a form of cultural misappropriation. Thankfully, they nixed the idea to have even more tepees placed throughout the city and offer patrons a chance to “camp” in the them over the course of the exhibit. To me, their approach didn’t seem that much different than how the Chiefs (KC’s professional football team) advocates for Red Fridays as a show of support for the team and the city. In response, and as part of call from Plug Projects for work about Awkward communication, I came up with “Red Friday Powerpoint.”https://youtu.be/aCy49FfvwSI

  2. Thanks for initiating this conversation and bringing a variety of viewpoints to the fore.

  3. I would be curious to see a list of those individuals Horse Capture believes would have made suitable curators. The notice would benefit everyone concerned.

    1. There are tons of Native curators in Canada and the US, one does not have to look far, try the Native centres in Wnnipeg, easily found on the web, try IAIA itself. For Torrence to say that he couldn’t find any Indians to consult with, he must be living on Mars or something.

      1. It seems to me the issue Torrence mentioned was not the inability to find consultants–he had consultants. He discussed the issue of being told there was a community, yet one without a center. It appears he then used his own judgment to make decisions, as Horse Capture complains. It all goes to illustrate my own adage, “He who has the power makes the rules.”

        1. Of course there’s a community, as I said, the guy must be living on Mars and is out of touch with reality. Any old excuse will do to uphold the “power that makes the rules” as you say. Does that simply make it right or stupid?

          1. I am not defending Torrence. Coming at the issue as a complete and utter outsider, I am interested in how one learns the correct approach.

          2. I get your drift. Look, I am a Native American and have been teaching and writing in this area for over three decades and I am using the correct approach now. There is a way out of this quandary for those of you who want to look and find the right answers but if you can’t be bothered then you won’t change. Begin by taking some Native art history and critique courses from a qualified Native American art history instructor who teaches from the Native perspective, not some white guy or gal who pretends to know it all already but from an authentic Native voice, that’s a beginning. So long as Torrence and others like him stay in their little ivory towers, they’ll keep making the same mistakes. As the old saying goes, those who do not remember their history are condemned to repeat it and whites have been repeating their history about Native Americans since Columbus. Anthro’s don’t understand their history vis a vis Native Americans so it is up to Native Americans to write it for them, they cannot do it of their own accord for as Carl Jung once said, “The psyche cannot know itself.” By the way, the directors of the American Indian Center who told Torrence, “there is a community, but it’s not a cohesive, vocal voice,” are actually correct, there isn’t one but why should that surprise anyone since there isn’t a central community to anything out there so really, that’s a lame excuse. I challenge anybody to find a central community to something called Western society and civilization. It doesn’t exist and if there is one, please tell me what it is and how long it’s been operating for? The only thing that holds this generic ideology together are the politics of the day. The guy can make the rules alright but he has a long way to go to learn how to make the right rules.

          3. As I was saying, ignorance is bliss. If people do not seek, they will not find, hence Torrence’s dilemma.

          4. I do appreciate the time you have taken to orient me, Idiotwind. Thank you for allowing me to grow without imputing motives to my lack of awareness.

          5. You are most welcome “Thinker” and I thank you for your serious interest in an important discipline I have studied and written about most of my life, makes it all worthwhile since I’ve learned from you as well.

  4. This sort of thing wouldn’t be so damaging except that the curators who designed this Twilight Zone of a show wouldn’t be half as dangerous as they are if they didn’t actually believe and worship their own discipline of anthropology like Venusian slaves. I mean, these folks actually preach civilized versus the savages to the world using the North American Indian as the template. We haven’t come far since the 1960s when Native artists at IAIA were already critiquing these kinds of practices. The cultural heroes of anthropology and those who teach their ideologies are the worst offenders. It’s simply incredible that these people would rather blacklist Native artists and writers who criticize their work than to try to learn from them. Same old same, like war, will they ever learn? I was writing about this sort of thing in various places since the 1980s and was roundly criticized for having the audacity to criticise anthropology and most recently in my book The Buckskin Ceiling back in 2012 and not surprisingly, the book was banned from the IAIA bookstore. If it hadn’t been for Billy War Soldier demanding that the book be put on display, they may never have put it up for sale, I still don’t think they sell it. We have a long way to go to slay this demon folks.

  5. Thanks for writing this great post, Sheila! This is such an important issue, and I have been thrilled to be able to work with Deana Dartt here at the Portland Art Museum for the past few years to help rethink our institution’s approach to the display and interpretation of Native American collections and Indigenous contemporary art. Deana has done amazing work, and we’ve had a few projects to prototype some approaches to redefining authority and bringing Native voices into the galleries: http://artmuseumteaching.com/2014/03/25/native-voices/

    We are also proud to have recently received a 3-year IMLS grant to support the development of a new Center for Contemporary Native Arts gallery (which opens later this fall) that is allowing us to work directly with Native artists in exploring their perspectives on place, cultural movement, marginalization, and the role of institutions within the contexts of Indigenous living cultures. These projects — along with several major exhibitions that we’re hosting in the next couple of years — are providing an exceptional opportunity to think carefully about these issues, learn from other institutions (including tribal museums and living culture centers), listen to and co-create with Native artists and communities, and experiment with new approaches so that we can learn how to do this work better.

  6. To Idiotwind… It is important to understand which academic disciplines are driving specific museum behaviors – below is a synopsis of this Curator’s training (From the Nelson Atkin’s website):

    Torrence received a master of fine art’s degree in Painting from Michigan State University. Throughout his tenure at Drake, he headed the Studio Drawing area and, beginning in 1975, developed a program of North American Indian art history, one of the first in the country. Torrence joined the staff of the Nelson-Atkins in 2002 as founding curator of the Department of American Indian Art, and led the Museum’s major installation of new American Indian galleries which opened in November, 2009.

    This is not a defense – it is a clarification. Torrence’s training in fine arts is reflected in the philosophical approach he has chosen to take in his exhibitions. With a little bit of investigation I believe you will see that anthropologists are often more likely to partner with indigenous curators, or take supporting roles in the development of exhibitions because the discipline emphasizes engagement with communities and increasingly promotes social justice in the application of anthropology to a variety of fields including artistic cultural expressions. Art historical interpretation tends to focus on aesthetics, iconography – things inherent in the work itself which are revealed through curatorial insight or by allowing the visitor direct and minimally interpreted engagement with the work itself.

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