Stolen Valor: Museums and the Reclamation of North American Indigenous History

[Will Turnip Woman, Kevin Red Star (Iisashpítxalusshe/ Running Rabbit)]

I did my quarterly museum walk over at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History yesterday, with a somewhat unusual for me emphasis on the latter. CMOA is currently in major flux as the International is in the process of being taken down and boxed off to destinations unknown, so huge swathes of it are stripped and cordoned off while everything gets reorganized.

[I know that the museum probably hates that I’m constantly posting pictures of their deshabille here, but I’m not doing it to embarrass them. Museums—particularly art museums—often carry a stuffy impression of stagnation, and I think showing them as places of movement and change helps people see museums as places that are contemporary and “alive.”]
[Lol, they finally put up partitions in the Hall of Architecture to try to keep me from snooping…]
[…Unfortunately for the staff, I have absolutely no shame…]
[…Some people know this better than others 😉]

But speaking of stagnation and change, CMNH has its own challenges in that regard. As we’ve spoken about on several occasions, natural history museums established during the Victorian and Edwardian eras have some problematic elements baked into their institutional DNA that have only recently begun to be addressed at foundational level by the powers that be. As we have discussed, cultural imperialism and colonialism are why Egyptology has been traditionally lumped in with natural history (as opposed to art or antiquities)—with all the baggage that entails. The Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt is slowly trying to rectify the worst elements of this while working within the existing flawed framework, but there are a lot of weird stopgaps happening in the process, like this small display of literal Amarna detritus they had rolling around in the back somewhere.

[To be clear, I appreciate the attempt to promote inclusivity (by working with Arabic-speaking Carnegie Mellon students and professors for the translation texts) and discuss the very thorny issue of artifact provenance and acquisition, but this little pop-up stall (thrown out in the third floor gallery) is pretty lame from an engagement standpoint. Most of the artifacts are so fragmentary that I think there might be more educational value in letting the public touch the real pieces than plastic replicas. The anthro department can’t be gleaning that much information from these shards.]

But at least it could be argued (though one should be careful about doing so) that the Egypt these institutions are dealing with—the pharaoh-ruled, pyramid-building, cat-worshipping empire—is a deceased civilization and is not the same as the modern, largely culturally Arab, state. Because it would be even more embarrassing and racist if natural history museums were lumping modern groups of people and their stuff into institutions primarily designed for animals and dead cultures.

[Oh no…]
[(Hopi katsintithu doll of SakwaWakaKatsina (Katsina-Blue-Cow))]

I’m sure European colonial powers have their version of this in their own museums, but in North America, the worst cultural impulses of white anthropology manifest in the tradition of putting items and information about Native Americans and First People into natural history museums rather than literally any other kind of museum. Even if you want to ignore the seriously racist connotations of placing any specific human culture in museums dedicated to animals and the natural world, even the “benign” reason for doing so is steeped in the genocidal history and cultural erasure of indigenous people in the western hemisphere. The 19th century thinking was that Native people were disappearing (the “Vanishing Indian” myth), and soon they would be as much a past-tense culture as that of ancient Egypt, so it made sense to catalog them similarly. Never mind the fact that white people were the root cause of the “disappearing.”

Dominant American culture assumed that those tribes capable of adapting to Anglo-European ways would be fully assimilated (or at least as culturally assimilated as Black Americans generally were by the late 19th century), and those who could not, or would not, would be eliminated in the last of the so-called Indian Wars. Either way, they would have no use for the various “artifacts” of their tribal past, so it would be up to white archeologists and anthropologists to preserve these “lost civilizations.” Even when these fields reached the mid-20th century and those people were found to be taking a lot longer to go away than was initially anticipated, the prevailing institutional wisdom shifted toward invoking racist stereotypes about Native people to justify removing sacred objects from them ( the old “we will care for them better than their real owners” canard).

Museum acquisition of indigenous objects for much of American (and Canadian) history followed similar veins as those of Egyptology in the east, as usually a combination of sale and outright theft. Much like the history of Egyptian antiquities, the provenance of even items acquired by sale is morally dubious. As Egyptians sold priceless artifacts for virtually nothing to (largely) British and French museums to combat the poverty that those countries inflicted on Egypt through their political occupation, so too were many tribal objects in North America sold by their owners out of desperation, rather than a true desire to part with those objects. The surviving Native tribes in the United States were principally confined to reservations, where their people and activities could be monitored and controlled by the federal government.

One of the most serious repercussions of this surveillance was the goal of stamping out Native cultural practices in the pursuit of, as I said earlier, fully integrating the indigenous tribes into white culture—as summed up in the truly odious slogan of “killing the Indian to save the man.” While theoretically implemented with the “good” intention of making Native people “real Americans,” that intention was predicated on supremacist beliefs in the value of Anglo-European culture over that of Native culture, and usually not even bothering to acknowledge that “Native culture” covered hundreds of distinct cultures in the process. The most horrific aspect of this systemic suppression, as some Americans just started finding out about in the last five years or so, was the sequestering of indigenous children away from their families in a network of religious and secular vocational boarding schools. The children were sent to these schools essentially to be taught how to be good Americans (that is, how to live and work in white culture), but what this entailed was a thorough, and often violent, reeducation program that viciously punished these children if they were caught speaking their own languages; dressing, or wearing their hair in traditional ways; or in possession of traditional objects.

[Native children at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, one of the largest (and most notorious) of the Indian boarding schools. While Carlisle would be closed in 1918, the boarding school system in the US isn’t ancient history. Many were still operational in the 1950s and 60s, which means the generational trauma they inflicted is alive and well in many Native communities. The “traditional” boarding school system was largely abandoned due to the passing of Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which formally returned indigenous educational power to the tribes and gave them at least nominal legal control over the education of their children. Residential schools still operate in some parts of the US, but they are reservation-adjacent and run by tribal governments.]

Even when the Indian boarding school system wasn’t inflicting physical harm on these children, it was forcibly taking them from their families and communities without their consent. Additionally, this was often done without telling those communities where their children were being taken to avoid said communities coming to take the children back, and indifferent records meant that if a child died at school (be it of abuse or natural causes), those families and communities could not get those children back even in death. Hence the terrible mass graves of indigenous children found on the grounds of so many of these schools. Even if it were miraculously the case that every single child found buried at these institutions died of natural causes, their presence there alone was a crime that the US and Canada have hardly begun to atone for. As if such an atonement could be possible.

Compared to the literal abduction of their children, it might seem like it would be small potatoes to indigenous people to have Native objects held by museums, but the disregard for Native ownership is at the very least a symptom of the larger problem of systematic suppression and appropriation by the dominant white culture of their culture as a whole. Many of the indigenous objects in museums have not only historical, but religious significance, and their loss has huge implications for the ability of contemporary Native communities to preserve knowledge of their way of life for future generations. Because, thankfully, like many genocidal programs, the US failed to eradicate Native peoples or their culture. And just as importantly, cultural institutions like museums have started to recognize their place in the system that oppressed indigenous communities for so long (and unfortunately often continues to). This has led to a, again, very slow but growing acknowledgment of these issues and increasing attention toward working with tribes to find a variety of mutually beneficial solutions—be it as little as appropriate indigenous involvement in the curation and display of museum inventories to full on repatriation in certain instances.

CMNH as an institution is sort of straddling the line between the past and the present in this regard. Its indigenous anthropology wing, the Wyckoff Hall of Arctic Life and the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians were probably cutting-edge…in 1993, and the museum has been increasingly forced to publicly acknowledge how many of the current exhibits are in dire need of retooling. It’s not heart-stoppingly bad—but while their taxidermied bison was humanely euthanized with indigenous guidance, you can still find the word “Eskimo” in Wyckoff signage and most of the discussions of European/indigenous relations are at best evasive (there’s a lot of talk, particularly in European/Inuit parts, that frame the Europeans as “visitors” which is very disingenuous). But, while not to excuse any of this, I suspect this branch of the museum is probably the most critically underfunded, and as it feels like CMNH is barely scraping any money together to try and fix the Hall of Egypt across the floor, I’m guessing that renovations here are probably a solid 5-10 years away yet.

But it’s not all doom and gloom on this front. What prompted this whole shallow dive into these issues is the temporary exhibition the museum is currently hosting in conjunction with The Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago showcasing the past and present art of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe. Called Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, both museums worked with tribal consultants to develop the exhibition and its framing to best meet the goals of everyone. For the museums, it’s a chance to educate the public and demonstrate a commitment to reframing discussions of Native culture that are more in line with social justice (in its most non-pejorative sense). For the Apsáalooke, it’s an opportunity to display not only their history, but illustrate to that same public that their culture isn’t one from thousands of years ago that a bunch of archaeologists dug out of the sand. It’s alive, its people are alive, and both are thriving.

And for me, it was a hopeful peek at what the future of museum culture could be if we’re willing to do the hard work and confront the hard questions. The rest of this post will just be pictures of just some of the things that caught my eye as I moved through the exhibition, but I wish I could adequately convey how joyful this space felt. There was contemporary indigenous music playing in a variety of musical styles; there was art, and fashion, and history. It was purposeful and educational, but contrary to what some people seem to envision when people start talking about “confronting history” and “being inclusive,” it wasn’t solemn or preachy. I’m sure the Apsáalooke were hoping to teach white people like me certain things about their culture, but it felt more like a celebration for themselves first and a lesson for the rest of us second. Which is how it should be, frankly. Spaces like this should be for their people and it was a wonderful privilege to be permitted to observe alongside them.

[Future In Our Eyes, Ben Pease (Ashduuptaako Istaxxiialuutchiish/ Steals the Guns from Two Enemy Camps). Pease describes this sculpture, which serves as a kind central exhibition theme as follows: “After I saw a sculpture in Chicago of a generalized Indian with stereotyped and inaccurate regalia on, I came up with the idea to do a sculpture of my own. Having male and female bodies back to back, with all genders in between, is powerful to me. Men,
women, and those in-between genders should all be represented, considered, and loved.
[A traditional Apsáalooke woman’s elk-tooth dress. The teeth are elk canine teeth, which each animal only possesses two of, so resource-intensive regalia like this is a symbol of prestige.]
[ A contemporary satin wrap dress with an elk-tooth pattern designed by Bethany Yellowtail based on her grandmother’s traditional regalia.]
[Still of the video showing of Yellowtail’s spring 2020 clothing collection. The model at the center right in the above wrap dress.]
[Baté Pride, Del Curfman (Baaatchiialish/ His Life Will Be Fortunate). Curfman’s painting is based on a photograph of Finds Them and Kills Them (L) and Other Magpie (R), two transgendered individuals, whom the Apsáalooke call baté. Like most Two-Spirited people in Native culture, both of them were highly regarded in the tribe as culture keepers and warriors.]
[A beaded martingale from an Apsáalooke horse regalia. Like many of the Great Plains tribes, horses became a pivotal part of Apsáalooke culture when they were introduced in the early 18th century. Apsáalooke folklore tells of Old Man Coyote coming to them riding a horse before this, promising them that they would one day have the marvelous creature for themselves in the future.]
[A sacred war shield. There was a whole area dedicated to war shields in the exhibition, watched over by photographs of Apsáalooke women (the traditional guardians of the men’s shields and war regalia). This particular shield was fascinating to me because of all the different animal parts used to decorate this shield: in addition to the bison hide of the base, there are kingfisher feathers, goshawk feathers, great horned owl feathers, a bison tail, a bobcat tail with fur, and deer hooves.]
[Chief Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow’s Bronze Star. Joseph Medicine Crow is remembered as the last war chief of the Apsáalooke people, the title being retired in his honor after his passing in 2016. He famously earned this as a soldier in World War II by successfully completing the four traditional Apsáalooke requirements of a war chief: touching an enemy without killing them (a coup), taking an enemy’s weapons, leading a successful war party, and—best of all—stealing an enemy’s horse. The last he met by stealing fifty officer horses from a German SS camp.]
[Wherein Lies the Beauty of Life, Ben Pease (Ashduuptaako Ishtaxxilaluutchilsh/ Steals the Guns from Two Enemy Camps).]
[Evening Lodges, Kevin Red Star (Iisashpitxalusshe / Running Rabbit). Wikipedia claims that the Apsáalooke traditionally have built some of the largest tipis among the Great Plains tribes.]
[A much smaller tipi built for the exhibition. The painted canvas door was designed by Mona Medicine Crow (Walks to the Mountains). She describes the door as “honor[ing] my blood ancestors and my LGBTQ community. There are warriors in both groups who gave their lives for me to be standing here today, to live as my authentic self in pride and without apology.”]
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