Though his official titles are deputy assistant director for cultural
resources and director's special assistant for Mall exhibitions at the
Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, one might just as well
call Dr. Gerald McMaster a mediator. For the core of his many
responsibilities is to ensure that "Native voice" comes through as to the
shape, look and feel of every NMAI exhibition.
Native voice is a tricky concept because every voice is mediated by the
authority and framing of the speaker(s). But with Native museums of the
past, the speakers were always someone else. "So we had no voice ... with
museums, someone was always speaking in our behalf ... They spoke for
Indians, they filtered our voices."
At NMAI now, however, Native peoples are capable of representing
themselves. "Now we're beginning to reclaim that authority ... the cultural
authority that we have."
McMaster's role is to mediate the unmediated Native voice ... unmediated in
the sense that it comes straight from Native cultures the museum has
consulted, but mediated too in the sense that museum requirements and
constraints must be respected. For instance, he sees to it that every
assertion is supportable by research, and that the spatial setting of
exhibitions visually supports the subject culture's dominant philosophical
model - circles and quadrants for some tribes, good and bad or male and
female for others.
"We're overturning the idea of a single, authoritative voice ... Native
peoples have fought hard for this" - this right to represent themselves
through multiple, complex voices.
At the same time, none of this should "lean over into political posturing,"
for Native peoples are not trying to displace any other voice. Because the
historical moments and philosophies of all Native peoples share a sameness
that also admits new perspectives, they are simply adding new facets to
Native perspective. Eventually the perspective may change as new ideas
emerge, and the Native voice will affect all that - but change will come
through the cultural authority of the Native voice, not anyone else's.
McMaster is Plains Cree of the Siksika Nation.