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Horse Capture: 'Native People Have a Story to Tell – Their Own'

Joe Horse Capture, associate curator for the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution, says museums need to form stronger partnerships with Native Americans.

The relationship (or lack thereof) between museums and Native Americans has been problematic for generations.

Historically viewed as icons of the past, Native American communities have had limited input on how their culture is presented in many museum exhibitions. I would like to take this opportunity to examine the most recent exhibition, “The Plains Indians [cue the flute music]: Artists of Earth and Sky,” through the lense of my 17-plus years of museum experience. These observations are my own, and do not represent the views of any institution, government agency, or sovereign Native nation. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.

Tim LaCroix, left, and Gene Barfield after their marriage was approved. Photo courtesy Annette VanDeCar, Communications Coordinator LTBB.

A few years ago, I was approached to contribute to the exhibition catalog, and my first question was, “Who are the Native partners?” No partners, but plenty of Native consultants. This formula, where Native people are consultants to the project and the non-Native organizers reserve the option to reject their input, is problematic. It was at that point I decided not to have anything to do with the project or see the exhibition, which I have not nor will. Major exhibition projects that use Native people as consultants instead of developing meaningful partnerships is a subject worthy of examination. The use of Native consultation should have ended with the community-curated exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004. A partner relationship would benefit both parties. Native people have a story to tell – their own. And there are plenty of Native people in the field that would qualify as true partners.

The organizers and venues have highlighted Native participation in the programming of the exhibition, and many distinguished people has served as presenters, performers, interviewees, demonstrators, etc. Furthermore, a few Native people have contributed to the catalog (which has no bearing on the curatorial direction of the exhibition). But those roles are secondary to the curatorial role in the exhibition, where the main ideas originate and reside. Asserting Native voice in the exhibition is represented by gigantic blow-up photographs of Native people in the exhibition, quotes, videos, interviews, representation in the gift shop, participation in the catalog, is inaccurate and disingenuous. If one steps back and looks at the entirety of the exhibition, its organization, the presentation at three distinguished venues (Musée du quai Branly, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the catalog, it becomes evident that true Native partnerships is lacking.

The catalog itself is beautifully designed, and many of its contributors are highly respected in the Native American art history field, and, naturally, the works featured in the catalog are also included in the exhibition. A few of these objects are deemed sensitive by many traditional Native people and communities and should have not been part of the exhibition or published without tribal permission.

The most glaring example is the Southern Arapaho Ghost Dance Dress. As a sacred religious movement of the 19th century, the Ghost Dance has a particular sensitivity due to the spiritual energy that is imbued in associated works. Because of the massacre at Wounded Knee at the hands of the U.S. Seventh Cavalry on the prairie of South Dakota on December 29, 1890, there is a well-known sensitivity with Ghost Dance material no matter which tribal group created it.

Actually, many museums whose holdings include Ghost Dance material refuse to lend or display it without tribal consent. But the dress appears in the exhibition and catalog and was borrowed from a private collection. There is no statement in the catalog that the Arapaho Tribal Councils or Cultural Preservation offices approved the display of their sacred material.

Secondly, among many Native traditionalists, pipe bowls with stems were, and continue to be a tool used for prayer, a way to communicate with the Creator. Traditionalists believe that when the pipe bowl and stem are joined, the pipe becomes ‘active,’ and ready for use within a ceremonial context. Many museums pay careful attention not to join the two together for display or publication out of respect for Native cultural traditions. But not in the “The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” catalog. There are several instances where the two are joined together on pages 114, 198, and 222. For many Native traditionalists, this is offensive.

An exhibition encompasses more than just the display of objects; one must examine the entirety including programming, advertising, and educational material. These are the aspects of an exhibition that average visitor consumes. In Europe, the main advertising image was that of a lone feathered headdress floating magically in a field of tall green grass. The majestic Plains Indian. Romantic, nameless, and faceless. Surprisingly, this perspective is compatible with the theme of the show, a general overview of a cultural region. Despite the fact that many museums have moved away from survey shows, in favor of digging deeper into a subject, understanding that Native art and culture is complex. I have previously mentioned the programming of the exhibition that included Native involvement, but we also need to examine the educational materials that were produced. The first and the organizing venue, was Musée du quai Branly, located in Paris, France. Known for their outstanding ethnographic collections, it also serves as a beacon for everything non-Western in Europe.

One must keep in mind that the vast majority of Europeans have little or no contact with Native culture or people. Most of their knowledge comes from romanticized depictions of Natives in the media or from the legacy of the German novelist Karl May. Any exposure to Native culture would be an important opportunity to teach a European audience properly about Native Americans, to dispel stereotypes and myths. Considering thousands of Parisians visited the exhibition one must look closely at the experience and educational opportunities during their visit. The interactive education tool that was in the gallery at the Musée du quai Branly features an animated caricature of a young Native boy named Yukari, who goes on different adventures during the seasonal year. His adviser, an elder referred to as “Tranquil Rock,” guides Yukari through the process. For winter, the Native girl “Rainbow” is sick and Yukari needs to find herbs to heal her. As she sleeps, the user of the interactive uses an animated dream catcher to “protect me from bad dreams.”

Tim LaCroix, left, and Gene Barfield after their marriage was approved. Photo courtesy Annette VanDeCar, Communications Coordinator LTBB.

Throughout this educational tool, users shoot at targets with an animated bow and arrows, understand the parts of the buffalo, and various other activities. There are multiple issues with this interactive educational tool, too many to mention here. For example in one scene, three different Native cultural regions are represented within a plains tipi. Southwest ceramics, Woodlands dream catcher, and plains outfits.

A separate educational curricula that can be found on the Musée du quai Branly’s website, and one can assume this was distributed at the museum during the exhibition, is an educational game targeted towards children ages 7 to 12 to further inform them about Plains Indian culture. Titled, “What’s Your Animal Totem?” the child learns about different objects in the exhibition, take tests, and discuss shields. At the end of the teaching tool, a series of questions are asked of the child to determine their personal animal totem. Once one has been chosen, they are encouraged to draw their animal totem on blank paper shield. In traditional Plains culture, shields are highly regarded as spiritual items, and the imagery painted on shields reference a vision that was given to its owner. Shields are a serious matter, and it is grossly inappropriate for child’s play. These “educational” tools do nothing to promote accurate and respectful information about plains Indian art and culture. I believe they do more harm than good by enforcing negative stereotypes and creating an environment where non-Native children are encouraged to play Native American.

Tim LaCroix, left, and Gene Barfield after their marriage was approved. Photo courtesy Annette VanDeCar, Communications Coordinator LTBB.

I believe that, if the exhibition organizers had developed a real and meaningful partnership with a Native individual or community, many of these issues with the exhibition and its associated educational resources would have been avoided. There are many Native people in the field that are very qualified to co-curate the project. This idea of collaboration and partnerships is not new to the museum field. A couple great examples of this can be found in the work of Heather Ahtone (Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art) and Daniel C. Swan (Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History). They work in partnership/collaboration with Native communities that benefit both parties.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume the project could not find any Native partnerships. There are several options. Since working on a large-scale Native art exhibition is a rare occurrence, it would have been a perfect opportunity to have a Native American intern or fellow to learn the process and have input in curatorial direction and educational materials. There are many museums in the United States that have developed programs to train Native Americans in the hopes that they would enter the museum field; The Peabody Essex Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian are two good examples. Pass on the knowledge; share it with Native people so they can enter the museum field.

Send exhibition catalogs to tribal college libraries across the plains for free. Since the vast majority of Native people will never see the exhibition, why not insure that the life of the exhibition lives on in Native communities? The catalog could serve as a great educational resource for tribal colleges. Spreading the research and information into Indian Country is critically important, as well as training the next generation of Native American museum professionals.

The cycle of museums displaying and interpreting Native American art and culture with no benefit towards Native people needs to stop. Now.

Lastly and on a personal note, it has been mentioned numerous times by the organizers of the exhibition that my father, George P. Horse Capture Sr., was a consultant for this exhibition, and implies that he endorsed this project. My father was a distinguished Native American curator, one of the first in the country, and dedicated his life and profession towards the betterment of Native people. The Creator called him home in April 2013. Since he and I are both in the museum field, we had many discussions about projects, exhibitions, and objects. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from him. Recalling our conversations, I can honestly say that he was not a supporter of this project. He would often mention that Native people do not need another exhibition about Native art organized by a non-Native person for a non-Native audience. We both believe in meaningful Native partnerships.

It would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to relay a story my father often told me and has been confirmed by others. Several years ago, there was a planning forum for this exhibition called by the project organizers. Many highly respected people in the Native American art field attended, many who did not have input in the exhibition, but wrote for the catalog. According to those who were at the meeting, the only two Native people that were present at this meeting were my father and a respected Lakota historian/curator. As the story goes, my father walks into the full meeting room, looks around and asks, “Where are all the Indians?”

Joe Horse Capture. Photo courtesy Dan Dennehy.

Joe D. Horse Capture (A’aninin) has worked in the museum field for more than 17 years. He has served as guest curator for many museums and is widely published. He was Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for 15 years, and is currently an Associate Curator for the National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution. The views in this article are his own.