Natives at the Museum: Reflecting on colonial spaces through art

by Sabena Allen | 4/18/19 2:00am

Native Americans and museums have historically had a tenuous relationship which is tied to the root of both what museums are meant to do and how much Native “art” over the years has made it into museums. I am by no means an expert, but I will attempt to provide some context on this subject. I am Tlingit, a tribe native to southeastern Alaska. I am Raven moiety from the Ganaxteidi clan. My Tlingit name is Andaxjoon. I am a beginning student of my language, which I have tried to use in this piece, though English grammar has been applied to some of them for the purposes of the article. Some items created by Tlingit people are in possession of the Hood Museum of Art, and thus, I will mostly be using those as examples in this article because they are the items on which I have the most authority to speak. As another disclaimer, in terms of my own community, I am no cultural authority. My thoughts on these subjects are in a constant state of growth and development. Thus, this column will not just be a reflection on the Native American collection at the Hood but also a reflection on my own evolving relationship with that collection. 

In Tlingit, “naaxein” refers to a Chilkat blanket; a robe woven from dyed mountain goat wool that forms intricate patterns both on the scale of the weaving and the formline design of the blanket itself. Naaxeins are meant to be worn and danced in ceremonies and celebrations; they move and live with the dancer. When these robes are in museums, they are often tacked to the wall or held up in a glass case. Indeed, the Hood possesses one of these blankets from the 1850s-80s, and it, too, is tacked to a wall. According to Hood records, it was taken from an unknown community, and later gifted to Dartmouth by Robert L. Ripley ’39, whose relation to said community is unknown. Regardless of how the Chilkat robe got to Dartmouth, this naaxein, as with all naaxeins, is meant to have a place in the cultural activities of a community. 

In contrast, the work of famous Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary — whose work is also on display in the Hood — is primarily known for translating these sorts of traditional designs into glass works. One such example is a glass clan hat Singletary flipped to sit like a bowl decorated with formline designs. When you shine a light down on the hat, the designs are beautifully reflected underneath. As I said, these designs are highly traditional, yet Singletary’s work is meant first and foremost to be art. It was meant to be displayed in a gallery or museum, not unlike a portrait or landscape painting which is meant to be hung on a wall. Currently, the Hood has a blue version of Singletary’s clan hat on display, “Tlingit Crest Hat.” These two Tlingit pieces — the Chilkat robe and Singletary’s hat — illustrate the contours of museum spaces; although the glass clan hat is clearly art, the naaxein is not. Rather, it is “at.óox,” or clan property intended for ceremonial use — not something that belongs in a museum. One might argue, as archaeologist and conservationist Dean Sully does in his piece “Colonising and Conservation,” that museums can adapt their practices to respectfully conserve and protect these so-called “artifacts.” But this idea has its limitations. In Tlingit culture, of course, we care for important at.óox and preserve them for our ceremonies, celebrations and culture. Museums generally negate this important context, transforming items like at.óox into “artifacts.” 

I spoke with curator of Native American Art at the Hood, Jami Powell. We discussed the trouble of reconciling with museums and what they have taken from communities. Powell recognized the contentions surrounding the display of such objects in museums, but also how they allow visitors to think about communities that they otherwise would not know existed. In terms of education — both for outsiders of a community and those trying to learn traditional art — these collections can certainly have some sort of benefit. 

Powell has been working at the Hood since May 2018. She is a member of the Osage Nation and has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One thing she said she is concerned with is conceptions of Native people within non-Native society. Although I have spent the bulk of the column thus far expressing my concerns about Native “artifacts” in museums, it is necessary to note that the Hood intentionally places these “artifacts” in conversation with its contemporary Native art gallery, indicating a continuum. Powell said that the Hood places contemporary Native art front and center rather than in the corner.

Above the stairs leading to the Native American Gallery, there is a canvas consisting of six red panels. In black lettering, they read, “Red Man,” “Full Blood,” “1/2 Breed,” “1/4 Blood,” “1/8 Blood” and “1/16 Blood.” The piece is called “Blood Line or Accepted Federal Government Standard for Blood Quantum” and is by George C. Longfish, a half-Seneca, half Tuscarora artist. “Blood quantum” has historically been used by the federal government to determine whether someone is “Native enough” to be eligible for certain treaty rights and other laws relating to Native people. This practice has also been used by tribes to determine who can be enrolled. Thus, it begs the question from all sides, “Are you Native enough?” Given the tension surrounding this concept and the type of feelings it elicits, this Longfish work is a striking piece to open the gallery with, as it sets the visitor up to engage with contemporary artwork by Native artists. 

The first section of the gallery is spatially centered around a massive sculpture, “WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHEN DO YOU WANT IT?” by Jeffrey Gibson, an artist who is half Cherokee and part of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. The sculpture has an indeterminate form and wears some sort of blanket/skirt. I have a feeling that many visitors will not find it inline with what they think of as “Native art,” which is precisely why it is brilliant to feature it so prominently. As you move out of that room, there are some older pieces such as the Chilkat blanket, woven hats and baskets, carved pieces and other contemporary items. What immediately struck me about the layout of the artwork was how walking into a space of contemporary Native art challenges what Native scholar Thomas King calls the “Dead Indian” paradigm. King theorized in his 2013 work “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America,” that there is a form of imperial nostalgia in which non-Native audiences prefer images of Native Americans that conform to specific fantasies about “noble savages” who have all long since disappeared. The Hood’s infusion of older pieces with contemporary works, such as Singletary’s clan hat, requires visitors, as Powell said, to experience how older traditions of creation inform the new generation and can provide context for when artists choose to innovate and when they maintain and incorporate traditions. 

The relationships between Native communities and museums are infinitely complex, but it is important to talk about them because they remind us that museums are inherently colonial, and thus will never not be problematic. Based on my conversation with Powell, however, I can see now how the Hood is giving Native students and artists a space to illustrates the immediacy of their communities. Powell, for instance, said she plans to invite a variety of Native artists to Dartmouth to make, display and talk about their work on May 3 at the “Art, Artists, and the Museum: A Conversation” event. This even will go beyond just a discussion of the work itself and into how the artists want their work to be displayed, which will be discussed at a symposium in May. Powell also wants to expand the presence of Native art at Dartmouth beyond the boundaries of the museum and acquire pieces that show Native people in a contemporary context, including through Native humor. 

One recent acquisition, “Burt Reynolds,” is a paddle featuring a formline design of a naked Burt Reynolds by Tlingit artist Alison Marks. This piece is hilarious and also facilitates Powell’s initiative to balance out the Native collection and include more work by indigenous women. Despite Dartmouth’s troubling history with these communities, which I intend to explore in later installations of this column, there may still be ways to move forward. I will re-iterate for the people in the cheap seats: Museums will always be inherently colonial. But if there is a way to counter that narrative, it will inevitably be through self-representation.