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‘Spirited Encounters,’ by Karen Coody Cooper

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American Indian corpses taken from 19th century battlefields often wound up in museum collections, and museum agents commonly dug up skeletal remains from Native burial sites.

During the first part of the 20th century, major museum exhibitions were created from grave goods and war trophies, along with confiscated ceremonial items.

Not until the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s were agencies and institutions forced to reconsider their treatment of minority groups. In the 1970s, the American Indian Movement, American Indians Against Desecration and other Native social action groups launched protests across the nation.

Tahlequah author Karen Coody Cooper, a retiree from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., has researched American Indian activism and the ensuing protests regarding museums. Her research began as a master’s thesis at the University of Oklahoma and was published by AltaMira Press, a division of Rowman and Littlefield, under the title “Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices.”

American Indian protests caught the attention of the U.S. Congress in 1987 when hearings disclosed that the Smithsonian Institution alone possessed 34,000 American Indian remains. Native activists pushed for passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The enactment of NAGPRA in 1990 served to transform museums by requiring them to release information about their holdings to pertinent federally recognized tribes and to return Native remains, burial goods and ceremonial objects to their homeland governments.

Museum inventories received by the National Park Service, which manages NAGPRA, find that as many as 600,000 Native human remains have been held by museums across the United States. Today, museums no longer collect Native remains, burial items or ceremonial materials. As a result of the repatriation act, museums and American Indians have had to engage in an exchange of information which has helped the two entities better understand each other. Through interactions with Native spokesmen, museums have learned more about Native communities, leading to improved exhibitions
and programs.

During the 1980s, American Indians protested major exhibitions that were ignoring American Indian concerns about accuracy and appropriateness. Two such exhibitions were “The Spirit Sings” in Calgary, during the 1988 Winter Olympics, and “First Encounters,” originating in Florida during the quincentennial of Columbus’ 1492 voyage. The latter exhibit traveled to museums in Albuquerque and St. Paul, Minn., with protesters taking action at each location. Those museums sought to address the concerns of protesters by enhancing the exhibit with additional exhibit panels, program presentations and visitor handouts.

Prior to organized protests, exhibits in natural history museums and in historical societies often contained distorted information about American Indians and created poorly informed scenarios. Some exhibits had labeled garden and woodworking tools as weapons. Today, most museums consult with Native advisers to assure that descriptions of practices, materials and activities in museum exhibits are accurate.

American Indian artists experienced problems with art museums, which generally wanted to relegate Native art to ethnographic status. In the 1950s and 1960s, Tulsa’s Philbrook Museum of Art was host to one of the nation’s premier Native art shows, but organizers accepted only art that conformed to the museum’s definition of Native art. This served to severely restrict American Indian artists who were seeking to create new, dynamic art forms and who wanted to make a living as artists. Innovative Native artists struggled to open their own galleries while resenting their exclusion from museums.

The book also discusses protests at state and national parks containing Native sacred sites, where ongoing battles concern access and propriety. Also, chapters are devoted to museums or national parks that have long celebrated “heroes” deleterious to American Indians, such as the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation and the former Custer Battlefield National Monument, now the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Plimoth Plantation has instituted a Wampanoag presence at its living history site, now conforming to historical knowledge that Wampanoag people and Pilgrims were in constant interaction. Colonial Williamsburg, which once included a school for the sons of area Native chiefs, is also beginning to incorporate a Native presence there to conform to historical evidence of repeated visits by Native contingents and individuals.

Following a chapter discussing the development of museums managed by Native governments, the book’s summary chapter reviews the changes invoked by the protests and suggests that improved communication between museums and Native communities has led to better exhibitions and to more lively programs.

Many museums are now friendlier to community researchers, having opened their doors to Native emissaries inviting them to view archives, photographs and collections from generations past.

Cooper, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, recently began working as a historical interpreter at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, south of Tahlequah. She was born in Tulsa and graduated from Collinsville High School.

To obtain the book “Spirited Encounters,” visit the AltaMira Press Web site, www.altamirapress.com, or contact your local book dealer.