A Night at the (American Indian) Museum for the Indigenous Studies Association

NAISA conference attendees were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Museum of Natural History.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) kicked off its 7th annual meeting and conference this week with a full house of participants and a packed agenda.

NAISA is an international and interdisciplinary professional organization for scholars, graduate students, independent researchers, and community members interested in all aspects of Indigenous Studies.

This year’s event took place June 4-6 at the Hyatt Regency hotel and conference center in Washington, D.C. Those who arrived on June 3 were treated to behind-the-scenes collections tours at the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), both administered by the Smithsonian Institution.

During the three-day conference, scholars from all over the United States and around the world shared their work in almost 200 panel discussions, workshops and roundtables. The subjects included activism, decolonization, governance, health, history, identity, indigenous knowledge, land, language, law, performance studies, philosophy, religion and spirituality, settler colonial studies, sexuality and more. Around 1,000 people pre-registered for the event.

This was the first conference that Robert Warrior (Osage Nation), founding member of NAISA and director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, did not attend. These were his prescient words eight years ago when the association formed:

“You find some associations that are national in scope… that have scholars in the field doing long standing work, but nothing that brings everybody together, and I think one of the enduring messages of our efforts is that, in fact, when we can bring everybody together in the same place at the same time, there’s a real benefit to everybody in seeing the diverse things people are doing across disciplines, across fields and that we really do have our own thing. It may be informed by different methodologies and approaches, but there’s really something going on here that's important.”

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NMAI was one of the major sponsors of this year’s conference, and at the end of the first busy day the museum hosted a reception at the museum on the National Mall for what looked like the entire 1,000+ conference attendees. The guests enjoyed beverages and a variety of foods served buffet-style. Dennis Zotigh, Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota, performed an honor song before museum director Kevin Gover, Pawnee, welcomed the guests.

“I started attending this conference in its second year… and I found it impressive then. It’s been astonishing to watch the growth of this conference and this organization over the past eight years—very impressive and certainly very heartening for us here at the NMAI,” Gover said. “The work that you all are doing is tremendously important to the museum, to the Smithsonian, to all museums, to all of us who work for the representation of Native American history and culture. We’re very grateful for the deep research that you are all doing because that really does inform what we do in very important ways.”

Gover invited the guests to enjoy the museum’s collections and especially to visit the special long-running exhibition called Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. He then drew their attention to recent anti-Indian speech in Congress that has raised the ire and indignation of many Indian leaders and organizations.

“Sometimes what happens inside the Beltway is tremendously important, especially to the Indian nations within the United States. In the past few weeks there seems to be the re-emergence… of ideas that, frankly, we haven’t seen in a very long time. They come back periodically any time the country is under a particular kind of stress,” Gover said. “The folks in Congress who don’t really understand this whole ‘Indian thing’ don’t really get what it is—that these communities, these Indian nations enjoy a special relationship with the United States, one that’s different from that of any other people in existence. Fortunately, we have someone in place—many people really—who are prepared to really fight back and fight back hard. And you all should know both the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and our current Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn are putting up one hell of a fight against these people. Because of their good work I feel pretty confident that those ideas are going to die a nasty death that they deserve. So we’re grateful to them and we want you to know how important what they do is.

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Malia Villegas, director or of NCAI’s Policy Research Center, talked about the museum’s significance to Indian country and the important work NCAI does. Washburn, Chickasaw, gave a short speech that left everyone laughing.

“I was told I would see some scholars and professors, but I look around here and I see some activists. Does anybody work undercover as a professor and they’re really an activist?” he said. “Well, I’m an activist too working undercover as a professor. Recently, I went under deep cover—I work for the government. It’s easy to blend in, you know, a bald head, a gray suit. It’s been fun and we actually feel we’re accomplishing a few things.”

On a more serious note Washburn told the NAISA members, “We need your voices. The work you do is so important, the stories that you tell in bringing the research to life, the stories of Native Peoples, are really, really important.” He thanked the scholars for their work and welcomed them to Washington “on behalf of the Activist-in-Chief Barack Obama.”