Anthropology and perpetuating colonialism: Re-thinking museum collections

Everything we make, whether it’s basketry or regalia, comes from our heart, from our feeling of                          goodness, from our creator making our dances carry on forever. When the regalia don’t dance, they cry. We believe that very strongly.              -David Hostler, director, Hoopa Valley Tribal Museum (northern CA)*

I used to think American Indian collections in museums were cool. Many times I’ve walked through a Native museum in sort of a stupor of reverence and a strange sense of nostalgia. I would speak in a hushed voice because I was in a sacred place. I could just feel it.

Ok, maybe I was a little overzealous. Still, I regarded these artifacts as part of the American Indian story, and they held a fascination for me. I had a good feeling toward them. What better way to preserve and learn about this culture up close and personal? What could be wrong with that?

Plenty, as it turns out. Recently I read a book that makes total sense.

Many of these museum artifacts have been stolen from tribes. Tribes believe they are living things, and they need to be returned.

It’s interesting that we get the urge to preserve things as soon as we’ve nearly destroyed them. In this case, an entire culture.

In Kennewick, a town on the plains of central Washington state, bones of a man were discovered in the Columbia River in 2006. The accidental discovery was made during the the town’s annual hydroplane races, where the river is traditionally lowered to accommodate the boaters (does that sound strange to anyone else? Anyway, I digress.) The remains were deemed to be Native, belonging to an ancient ancestor of the Columbia River tribes. Anthropologists fought fiercely against the tribes repatriating these remains, arguing that he was a “national treasure” and the “common heritage of all Americans that should be studied for the benefit of all.” Everything from academic freedom to the need for scientific knowledge was cited. The case went to the courts, which eventually sided with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, since the bones were found on property under its control. Despite repeated requests from the tribes for return so that he may have a proper burial, the Corps retains custody of Kennewick Man today.*

Similar examples abound, all throughout history. Native American graves have been looted, burial mounds have been disturbed, and remains and artifacts have been stolen in the name of “collection.” Some of these cases have seen the courts, resulting in the creation of such legislation as NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which has resulted in some success in getting regalia and other artifacts returned to tribes. A few museums, such as the ones at University of Michigan and San Francisco State University, have, after years of repeated requests from tribes, returned some artifacts.* The majority have not, which is why this awareness has become important to me.

Let’s back up further. Anthropology is the scientific study of humans, past and present. This kind of science means collecting things to study them. Collections result in museums. Over time this whole realm becomes profitable for some. Devon Mihesuah, a Choctaw historian and writer, points out “The fact that Indians exist allows these people [anthropologists, archaeologists and historians] to secure job tenure, promotion, merit increases, fellowships, notoriety, and scholarly identity – all without giving anything back to Indian communities.” While it’s true there are regulations in place for researchers such as ethical guidelines, and peer and donor reviews, Mihesuah argues for more stringent guidelines, such as: “how will your research benefit the people you study?”*

There exists something called the Wiesbaden Manifesto, a declaration that was passed after the Nazi Holocaust. In short, it required all works of art (some quite valuable) stolen from Jewish emigrants and death camp prisoners by the Nazis to be returned, if not to the owner’s descendants, at least to Germany. President Truman agreed and signed the order in 1948.*

Why can’t the same be applied here?

In the rare cases artifacts are returned to tribes, they have been so heavily poisoned that often they are considered hazardous material. For about a century museum collectors have been using chemicals to preserve findings: mercury, arsenic, thymol, DDT, naphthalene. Often when an object or human remain is repatriated, tribal members are warned to wear gloves and a breathing apparatus when handling it, and not to bury it (for risk of contaminating their groundwater), or burn it (for risk of contaminating their air). Institutions claim the money for decontamination is simply not there. Often tribes lack the funds themselves.*

So….after an arduous (and often expensive) battle to get their stolen ancestors and ancestors’ stuff back, it is too poisoned to use or to bury.

In general we love our museums, and there are some great ones out there. Look, I’m not saying stop going altogether, because some do provide valuable education in history, science, and art, but know there is another side when it comes to Indian collections. What you’re looking at….headresses, woven baskets, even human bones…..were more likely stolen in some way, and they belong to someone else. Find out how that piece of art was obtained. Sometimes items were expressly permitted to be there by the tribe (especially in smaller museums, and especially in tribal ones), but most often not. Ask a staff member, and watch them either: 1. give you a wishy-washy politic-y answer, or 2. turn beet red. After all, instead of visiting your loved one in a cemetery, imagine having to visit him through plated glass.

*Much of this information has been obtained in the book Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming by Winona LaDuke. LaDuke is Ojibwe. This book, as well as others, is listed in the Book and Film Recommendations section of this blog.)

What makes it real

I distinctly remember one day a handful of years ago. The museum in town was hosting a multicultural festival, a day where different cultural groups came together, displayed artifacts from their culture, shared their traditional foods and dances, and talked about their roots and languages with the public.

There was an Indian man hosting a table with this wife. He was dressed in a long, multicolored beaded robe and matching yellow feathered headdress, both of which his wife had handmade. Quietly I stood in this crowded room and watched him interact with the public, the visitors to his table. With intelligence and pride he would tell them about traditional foods and games, his particular tribe, and his traditional powwow outfit.

I waited for a low-key moment and approached. We struck up conversation, and soon were talking about everything from politics to his retirement from a large local company to the biggest challenges facing Indian youth today. It was fascinating, what this man had to say. But that’s not the stuff I mostly remember. I mostly remember his story, and what happened after that.

This man was from Alberta, Canada originally. He told me that as a child he was forced to go to a boarding school by the government, where he endured physical abuse by the staff for pretty much anything, even speaking his native language. With tears in his eyes he told me about those days of missing his parents and everything familiar, of being so scared but not having any options. That’s the moment when the headlines became real for me. These weren’t just stories that Indians tell to propagate white guilt, like some people prefer to believe. These things are a real part of history. With discerning eyes I took in this man and measured him, and his pain was real. Even though it was long ago, it was still close to the surface, and he held it.

In the middle of his story something happened that loudly knocked me back to this world. An older gentleman, White, confidently strode up to the Indian man, called him a witch doctor, laughed, and walked away. In an instant I was deflated, taken aback, shocked. I looked to the Indian man for a reaction. With an embarrassed smile he waved it off. “We are used to it,” I clearly remember his saying. He is used to it. Must happen quite a bit.

Shortly after that, after thanking this man for sharing a part of himself with me, I departed to sort out my emotions, the passion in me stronger than ever. I was sad about what this man had experienced at the hands of the boarding school staff. I was even sadder about what he continues to experience as a result of others’ ignorance and insensitivity.

That’s what makes this cause real for me. That’s why it’s important to realize that these attitudes, these stereotypes, this genocide isn’t something that happened a long time ago, and they need to get over it. These things continue today. Maybe in more subtle ways (such as dumping nuclear waste on or near Indian reservations), but they are there. That’s why the Washington Redskins and other teams need to change their names, as one example. We can do something. We can change attitudes. We can dismantle stereotypes. We can see them as real people.

Why Culture is Important to Health


Beautifully captures the very idea of culture, with all its benefits and modern challenges.

Originally posted on Wozani Was'te:

This is the original, unedited, version of a newsletter article I wrote that was just released today. I wanted to share this on my blog after it came out in print.

One dictionary definition of “culture” is “the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.” Indigenous people are rich with culture. Not only because each sovereign nation has its own definitive and unique sum total of ways of living, but because cultural knowledge is seen as valuable…priceless. And cultural knowledge is deemed necessary to our way of life as Indigenous people.

Dakota/Lakota/Nakoda people have a term for “healthy lifestyle” or a “good way of life”. Wicozani is not simply a state of physical health, but a world-view, a philosophy practically applied, that attends to a person’s physical, mental, social and spiritual wellness. Wicozani encompasses all that…

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Indian giving

My husband and I had a wonderful Christmas. My little boy is almost two, and is starting to get into the magic of the holiday. He loves the lights on our Christmas tree and his little stuffed Santa bear. It’s really cute. And he must have been a good boy this year; many of the gifts that arrived at our home were for him.

As far as my love for the holiday, it’s been all over the board. When I was younger I, of course, loved the magic of it. My grandmother would have me and my brothers pick out what we wanted from the Sears catalog. Toys, toys, and more toys! Then as a young adult living away from home it stood as an obligation to visit home. Then the older I got, I could feel myself start to loathe Christmas. The commercialism of it all. The gluttonous consumption, the blinking lights. Crowded stores, unlimited amounts of jewelry commercials on television. The meaning of the holiday got lost in all the wrapping paper and wish lists.

Now that we have our son, the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. I’m into it again because he’s into it. I want the fascination of the holiday to stick with him as long as it can.

But I don’t want it to be about commercialism and want, want, want. I don’t want it to be about showy gifts and shiny glitter. I want it to be about giving and being grateful.

Traditional Indian way of gifting is not showy nor shiny. In fact, it’s the opposite. When you want to give someone a gift, you do it quietly and without fanfare. You slip it into her pocket. You sneak it into his room. You don’t make giving a public act. There’s no ego involved, no glory. Instead of a loud “thank you,” your thank you is a quiet gift in return, or an act that says thank you. There is less focus on words in this culture, and more focus on action. Perhaps because words don’t mean as much.

I hope to teach my son this through the years. This is the right stuff of life. This is how things should be.

Things close to home

When they get to know me and discover my interest in American Indians, some people arrive at the conclusion that I have something called White guilt. I say no. Here’s why: Guilt implies something you should do, but don’t. Since when are we taught we should do anything where American Indians are concerned? I know I sure wasn’t. Disclosure: I am not Indian. I don’t hold romantic fantasies about having a long-lost Cherokee grandmother who wears feathers and talks to animals. I’m not a proud advocate. I’m a humbled one. Humbled because of the genocide this population has survived. And continues to survive. I’m not equal, and will never fully understand their collective pain. Because I didn’t experience it. I can’t undo it. I can reach forward. I can listen. And draw awareness. Educate. Advocate for a better life. Serious things are missing from history texts. Let’s start from the beginning and educate ourselves. After all, this is our own history. These are things that happened in our own backyard. Do you want to know? Are you a backyarder?