Oklahoma Native Women Artists Discussion in 2019 at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Back row, left to right: Tahnee Ahtoneharjo-Growingthunder (Kiowa/Mvskoki/Seminole), Margaret Roach Wheeler (Chickasaw/Choctaw), Sharron Ahtone Harjo (Kiowa), Benjamin Harjo Jr. (Absentee Shawnee/Seminole), America Meredith (Cherokee Nation), Ruthe Blalock Jones (Shawnee/Delaware/Peoria), Anita Fields (Osage/Muscogee). Front row, left to right: Mary Jo Watson (Seminole), Enoch Kelly Haney (Seminole/Muscogee). (photo by Monkcunksi Growingthunder and used with permission)

Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2021/22 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, and the first of three posts by the author, the third of which will be an email-only exhibition sent to all Hyperallergic subscribers.

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To be a Native American art curator today comes with expectations from a tribal community and requires an ability to be engaged with tribal governments, know methods and art practices, and then be academically credentialed in the museum field. In 1996, I started as a museum educator, dancing as a Native American fancy shawl performer for the local science museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The museum housed nonprofit groups, the Center of the American Indian, and the Red Earth Arts Organization as reciprocal partnerships for space. Every year, the Kirkpatrick Center hosted the “Very Special Arts” program that provided specialized museum programming for students of various degrees of disadvantage. Over time, my role changed from being a performer to an instructor teaching “how to sew” courses, resulting in guiding tours of the planet’s natural history for educational groups. My curatorial introduction in 1999 was a chance to design an exhibition from material cultural items that compared the Star Wars movie that had just been released, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and correlate it with the constellation and orbit exhibits on display — the work of a curator is often very complicated and goes in many directions.

Fast-forwarding to 2012, I still worked in museums and school districts through Johnson O’Malley federal programming under the Bureau of Indian Education for public schools, teaching, curating, and speaking on various art practices and cultural history. Yet, I lacked an advanced degree, which limited my opportunities in the museum field. Coming from a low-income urban community, I saw how my lack of educational opportunities limited my inclusion as a change-maker; I understood the needs of my community but never felt empowered to make the contributions I thought were needed for the evolution of museums, particularly larger ones. I knew I wanted to be a museum director. 

I realized that the real change for diversification would have to come from the top executive and administrative levels. As a seasoned museum professional who approached an undergrad and graduates degree after 16 years of experience working in museums, and as an individual well connected with donors, sponsors, and community members, I quickly found my curatorial practice to be one with metrics and evaluation of audiences like myself. My unique approach to curation always includes community voices and is a collaborative practice that makes everything about museums as accessible as possible. As an American Indian, my cultural upbringing and heritage taught me that everyone has a purpose and everyone should be treated with respect — every patron’s opinion matters in response to the experience of the museum, programming, and service.

In my opinion, it wasn’t until recently that curation in Native American art had some setbacks after decades of positive change. The reaction to diversity and inclusion initiatives uncovered gatekeeping and efforts to maintain non-Native practitioners of the art as experts. The exploitation of representation by those posing as Indigenous, and those applying for funding to include Indigenous peoples without relation to Indigeneity, revealed a curriculum that reinforces inaccuracies and perpetuates ideologies that place limitations on tribal nations and citizens from tribes rather than advancing relations with tribal governments through ethical museum protocols. 

Sharron Ahtone Harjo, Kiowa Elder Artist, “Kiowa Ledger Tipi Documentation about Cultural Preservation” (2014) at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Balzer Contemporary Edge Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico (photo by the author and used with permission)

Since 2017, I have worked alongside tribal nations to promote their sovereignty. There is a lack of understanding that American Indian status comes with individuals’ federal or state authentication requirements. The tribal nations decide who can have a membership and who cannot and, contrary to popular belief, racial categorization is not criteria for enrollment. There are 574 tribal nations and state-recognized tribes in the United States with authority on cultural relations as government-to-government sovereigns, including tribal languages, education, and knowledge protocols. This mistaken perception that racialization authorizes individuals to speak for a sovereign community gives preference to individuals over community initiatives. Art institutions, like many US cultural gatekeepers and institutions, often hold up artists who have no history of working with their affiliated community as representatives of Native American perspectives. This preference by many institutions reinforces settler colonial thinking on the first nations of the US, rather than engaging with established systems of tribal sovereignty and decision-making, not to mention activism, cultural education, and other forms of knowledge that US and other arts institutions consciously discount as inconvenient or unimportant.

In 2019 the acronym “BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) started being utilized without relation to individual inclusion of tribal nations, instead assuming the term “Indigenous” could include all of the cultural Indigeneity of the first peoples of this continent. The trend quickly became the standard framework used to include peoples of color who identify as Indigenous, but instead failed by creating an issue for tribal nations, as we are now seen as a large set of ethnic groups rather than governments. Causing further confusion, the arts community, wanting to do the right thing in 2020, adapted DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), and accessibility to include BIPOC without engaging with or including input from tribal nations. Although the gesture for inclusion is appreciated on many levels, the issue ultimately is one of taking advantage of the philanthropic opportunity in grant and donor funding. It’s important to note that the ethnicization of Native American nations was a conscious process of colonization, so this is part of a large and complicated history of dispossession.

As a curator, this embrace of “BIPOC” has created hurdles for working with museums, on exhibitions, creating narratives, and supporting grant opportunities. When I share my background as an urban Native American person, culturally confident, attuned to the expectation of my tribal community and the arts community at large, my role feels erased when my tribe and other tribes are framed as ethnic groups. The input of tribal scholars, Indigenous knowledge, languages, and arts methodology is often not included from the communal perspective. A common trend is to utilize an academic approach from a non-Native scholar on Native American artists who use networks that support the system to tokenize a few artists, including a couple of curators, and then not engage with tribal nations. Tribes in the United States are fully aware of the challenges in government relations and have established Institutional Review Board committees, drafted resolutions at the federal level, and sought consultation with professional networks like the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Curators, and the International Committee of Museums. 

Today, my work as a curator within a tribal nation is very different from museums with institutional affiliation. I previously worked for the State of Oklahoma History Center, where I worked with the collections as a specialist. At the time, the Kiowa Tribe advertised a curatorial job that paid twice as much as the state position, and I was excited by the opportunities, even if I was apprehensive about leaving a large, well-funded system like the State of Oklahoma’s museum network. Ultimately, the salary at a State museum made it difficult for me to continue to sustain my family and my work. In my interview process with the Kiowa tribe, I became aware that my background in nonprofit museum practice would not work, as the executives of the tribe wished to adapt the museum norm through their sovereignty. The supervisory of the museum, an official term used by the institution I am affiliated with, would serve the Kiowa tribe, the community-at-large, and then patrons of the world. As an enrolled member, I found this exciting, as I wanted to help my tribe’s museum excel. By honoring the sovereignty of the Kiowa tribe instead of a Board of Directors, I would serve the traditional leaders of the Kiowa ceremonial groups and work on strategic planning for preservation, archives, and collection housing. This is a unique type of position among Native American curators.

Installation view of Without A Theme (2017), curated by Tahnee Ahtone, at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut (photo by the author and used with permission)

I have the autonomy to write, speak honestly, and advocate for tribal nations that I did not have while serving more prominent museums. The benefit of shifting to my community museum is that I advocate as a political leader concerning history, art, culture, preservation, and consultation. The experience gained from serving a federally recognized tribal nation has been invaluable, and we have a unique political status in the United States that allows me to access collections nationally, internationally, and throughout private collections, as restrictions have not been imposed on Native Sovereign nations. 

But demystifying curation at the tribal level comes with hurdles. The tribal museum is expected to compete for philanthropic funding and face the same struggles as larger museums. The work is just as straining, in my opinion, partly because we have very few employees to tackle the important work required to handle capital campaigns and related support. 

The takeaway I want to share with other Native American curators and scholars, and those interested in what we do differently than other museum curators, is that our work for our people is different. We have whole communities, families, and expectations placed on us. Our people have suffered from genocide, historical trauma, erasure, social, and economic impact. Our scholars can prosper if they are allowed to genuinely participate, which feels like the biggest challenge facing American Indian curators. There are often termed employment periods that limit opportunities beyond periods of grant funding and other issues in post-hire expectations, not to mention the lack of appointments being made for enrolled and federally recognized curators with experience and cultural knowledge to make effective change in museums that tell not only our stories, but make us feel included in our historical, contemporary, and lived heritage.

Tahnee Ahtone is a museum director, curator, and strategic advisor for relationship-building through racial, gender, and social justice. She is an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe.