GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Lisa J. Watt, Seneca, doesn't claim to be the ultimate
expert on tribal museums, but what sets her apart from most is that she's
visited about 70 of the museums owned and operated by federally recognized
She works as an independent museum consultant, a position that has provided
the opportunity to travel nationwide visiting tribal museums "from the
magnificent Kodiak Islands in Alaska all the way to the shores of Maine and
Florida, right up through the center of the country and down through the
desert Southwest into California. That's where my travels took me. It was
an amazing experience," she related during a recent symposium in Great
She said the oldest museum in the country is the Osage Tribal Museum in
Pawhuska, Okla., which opened in 1938, although some individuals had
museums in their own homes even before that. That was followed 10 years
later by the Museum of the Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, N.C.
The tribal museum movement took off in the 1960s and '70s during the time
of American Indian activism which called attention to issues of tribal
people and especially the need to honor tribal treaties. The question of
mainstream museums being the purveyors of tribal culture, rather than the
tribes themselves, arose.
During that same era, four pilot projects were approved and constructed
with federal funds to create jobs and diversify tribal economies: Yakama
National Cultural Center, Makah Cultural and Research Center,
Seneca-Iroquois National Museum and the now-closed Native American Center
for the Living Arts in Niagara Falls. The next surge came in the 1990s,
particularly from 1993 - '95 when tribal museums were constructed in Idaho,
Oregon, California, Montana, Alaska, Oklahoma and Arizona. "They were all
over the map," Watt said. "Now that the tribes have the resources and
knowledge to do it, they're starting to build museums."
Some estimates place the number of tribal museums as high as 250; but Watt
contacted them and found that many wouldn't qualify as museums, being,
perhaps, just a single display case in an office building. She estimates
the number of actual tribal museums is closer to 120.
That number continues to grow as more and more are being planned. Canada
has a total of 14 tribal museums: five in British Columbia, five in Quebec,
two in Ontario and two in Alberta. Watt commented, "One of the finest ever
is the Woodland Cultural Center in Ontario." She added that Canada has
another 84 cultural centers that are without collections, and many more are
in the planning stages.
"Museums are very desirable to tribes. Despite the great cultural diversity
in this country, you can boil it down to two types of tribes: those that
have tribal museums and those that want tribal museums," she said.
She explained that these museums are frequently the only place you learn
about history of a particular tribe and they tell the story from a tribal
perspective. They perpetuate tribal culture and tradition and instill an
upbeat tribal identity. They help reinforce treaty rights, exert tribal
sovereignty and help hold what little some tribes still have left of their
culture. She added that the most successful are where the tribal government
and community have a clear understanding of the museum's purpose and where
the tribe is willing to commit the help and resources needed to make it
What are some of Watt's favorite museums?
"I don't have a favorite. They're all special, but some stand out. The
Pacific Northwest has some of the best. There's the Makah Research and
Cultural Center on the northwest coast of Washington. The Museum at Warm
Springs is in Oregon; and the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, owned by the
Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, is also in Oregon. It's a
beautiful institution! When you're coming up the back road and look up, it
looks like it's emerging from the wheat fields. It looks like something out
of Star Wars," she laughed.
She mentioned the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka - "a
fascinating one, and one of the prettiest sites of any museum" - and
mentioned its 30-year relationship with the National Park Service where
they work as equal partners. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage
is another; it's not a collection-based institution but a place
specializing in public programs. Between these two Alaska institutions,
over 300,000 people visit each year.
She mentioned the Ak-Chin Him-Dak Museum in Maricopa, Ariz.: "Another that
stands above the rest. It's small but a lovely facility. The tribal
government made a clear determination [that] this museum is for their
community and understood they more than likely would have to fund this
museum in its entirely. And they do," Watt said.
The Poeh Museum, owned by the Pueblo of Pojoaque near Santa Fe, is another
for which she has a particular fondness. Made of adobe, one building is a
basic museum and an adjoining building has facilities for teaching tribal
arts and crafts.
In summarizing other regions, she said, "The Plains are diverse. The Great
Lakes are quite active. There aren't a lot of tribal museums in the
Northeast and what are there are quite fragile. The Southeast has a few,
and more will likely be built soon." Regardless of where one lives, she
encouraged people to seek out museums and find out more about them and the