Native American Museums Pave Way for New Generation of Museum Professionals

By Hailey Suina

At some point in our lives, we have all entered a museum that has failed to capture the voice of Native American people. Through false misguided representations of our lives on display, we have longed for an accurate portrayal. Through the efforts of the School for Advanced Research, the Institute of American Indian Art’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, and Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, Native American voices are properly portrayed through both an anthropological and artistic expression.

Museums of Native anthropology haven’t always had a positive relationship with tribal communities. Stolen cultural items that have been withheld from communities for years have severed the trust of tribal people, something that the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico is trying to change. SAR focuses on the cultivation of Native American anthropology and art through their research collections. Brian Vallo of Acoma Pueblo, Director of the Indian Arts Research Center Department at SAR, stresses the importance of including communities whose artifacts are in the collections.

“Many tribal people think that items in our collection are not accessible to them and we want to change that by engaging them in the use of the collections,” Vallo said.

SAR accommodates tribal wishes regarding the use of their artifacts, such as what will be accessed by non-native people and protecting culturally sensitive items, even going as far as taking items outside for a few hours to interact with the natural world. “It’s about finding that middle ground,” Vallo said. “We hope our process sets an example to other museums on how to involve tribal communities.”

Whereas museums have portrayed Native American perspectives in a homogenous and stereotypical way, IAIA has always been a place that has encouraged the unique, individual expression of Native American voices. IAIA’s Collection began in 1962 to chronicle the school’s history and promote student growth. As the collection grew in popularity, part of it was kept in the Institute’s collection and the rest was housed at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts on the Santa Fe Plaza.

The MoCNA Collection contains contemporary Native American art from all tribal nations. It advances scholarly art by allowing personal expression of individual artists based off the rich traditions of their tribe.

“Contemporary art speaks to another voice or view,” Curator of Collections, Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer, said. “It often breaks that pigeon hole stereotype of Native people.”

The museum’s contents cater to many tribal communities, allowing for a broad representation of many Native American voices. This often leads to different viewpoints on cultural sensitivity. The museum does it’s best to cater to the tribe’s wishes by investigating the source of the sensitivity and acting accordingly.

“You have to use your best judgement. Its contemporary, it’s about expression,” Singer said. “Contemporary art museums capture the emotions and thoughts of people and the issues they’re facing.”

At the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum in Pojoaque Pueblo located north of Santa Fe, artistic expression and anthropological preservation come together to capture the voice of Native American peoples. Through the permanent art exhibit Nah Poeh Meng that captures Pueblo history through Pueblo worldview, and the T’owa Vi Sae’we exhibit that houses nine historic Tewa pottery from the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., history and art are used to accurately portray the voice of Native peoples in the area. The return of the nine historic pots was the first phase of a larger project that would return 100 pottery back to the community to strengthen Tewa Pueblo cultural history.

When former Governor of Pojoaque Pueblo, George Rivera, and members of NMAI discussed bringing historical pottery from the museum into the community as a resource for Pueblo people, NMAI worked with the Poeh to secure an extended loan that granted co-stewardship with the Pueblo of Pojoaque and NMAI, allowing the pottery to be permanently displayed at the Poeh.

Members of the Poeh, including Executive Director, Karl Duncan, and Collections Manager, Lynda Romero, travelled to Washington D.C to see NMAI’s Tewa Pueblo Collection to pick pots from the eight Tewa Speaking Pueblos. Collections Manager, Lynda Romero of Pojoaque Pueblo, recalls the experience.

“I’ve seen potters inspired by ancient designs on pottery and incorporate them onto their own pots. You never know who will be inspired,” Romero said. “We chose pots that were unique and that hadn’t been seen or made anymore.”

The Poeh formed a cultural advisory board of elders from the eight Pueblos to incorporate community voices and cultural values into the process. The board instructed the Poeh on respectfully handling the pots and to be mindful of any culturally sensitive images painted on the exteriors. They remain on display in the T’owa Vi Sae’we Exhibit at the Poeh Museum. The Poeh is currently working towards the final transfer of pots from NMAI’s collection that will be a part of an expanded exhibit in August of 2019.

“This is a good form of education to our people,” Romero said. “I hope it revitalizes the community and brings a new direction to museums so that the cultural significance is always remembered.”

The Poeh is an example of contemporary and anthropological values preserving Native American histories while capturing the views of the people through art. Their mission inspires tribes to be engaged in museum works and encourages students to see the value in both anthropological and contemporary museums so that more museums such as the Poeh can accurately portray Native American voices in a world where there is a growing interest in Native American histories.

Brian Vallo hopes that students and professionals will see the importance of art and history museums so that they can be properly educated in both fields in order to carry on museum processes that include tribal knowledge and communities.

“There’s a wave of reputable museums abroad that are rethinking their engagement with Native art and history,” Vallo said. “A new generation of Native museum professionals is needed to be a part of that process and uphold the values of tribal people and properly portray that Native expression.”

The Science & Technology Building where the IAIA Collections is located. Photo credit: Hailey Suina
The nine original Tewa pots from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. on display at Poeh Cultural Center. Photo credit: Hailey Suina
Plan for the upcoming permanent exhibit of Tewa Pottery in the T’owa Vi Sae’we Exhibit.
Photo credit: Hailey Suina



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