One Down, 500 to go: Indigenous nations contextualize their own artifacts at the New York Museum


NEW YORK – Thirty years ago, David Boxley (Tsimshian), a Native sculptor and dancer from Southeast Alaska, was stopped dead at the entrance to the Northwest Coast Hall of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan .

He felt a palpable energy emanating from the sacred objects that had been taken from his people and related indigenous tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast and displayed inside the lobby, the museum’s oldest permanent exhibit, opened in 1899.

“The air was like Jell-O,” remembers Boxley, now 70. “And I had never seen these objects, and I thought to myself that the majority of my people had never seen these objects.”

But on May 5, Boxley stood in the newly reopened room wearing his traditional Tsimshian regalia, showcasing the Tsimshian exhibit he had helped reinterpret – from an Indigenous perspective.

“Now look at it, all of our consultants had such good input on this that [visitors can see] we are alive and well,” Boxley told Native News Online. “Or at least we are alive and better. Our own people are much better informed about ourselves and pride [we feel].”

Traveling with him was his wife, their son and their five-year-old grandson, who will grow up with a different reality.

A recontextualized exhibition

For the past five years, Northwest Coast Hall has been closed for renovations. Meanwhile, Peter Whiteley, Curator of North American Ethnology at the Museum of Natural History and Co-Curator Ḥaa’yuups (Huupachesat-ḥ First Nation) worked with 10 Indigenous consultants to recontextualize the exhibit with an Indigenous perspective. to the first person. The 10 consultants came from Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haida, Haíłzaqv, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, Nuxalk, Tsimshian and two Tlingit communities. Each culture is now represented in its own alcove in the room, which includes translations in each language and introductions to distinct interconnected traditions, music, stories and themes of the surrounding Northwest communities.

Not only does the room’s new feature focus on the “living cultures” of indigenous tribes and First Nations of the Pacific Northwest Coast, it doesn’t shy away from the damaging histories of Indian boarding schools and the American, British and canadian. ‘ efforts to eradicate Indigenous peoples, the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the colonial nature of museums.

Judith Ramos (Tlingit), a consulting curator from Yakata, Alaska, has worked on an exhibit about traditional Tlingit doctors, or shamans, which includes a specific story of how the museum came to acquire the sensitive and powerful objects.

“It’s really important to talk about grave robbing,” Ramos told Native News Online, pointing to a panel on the wall next to a glass exhibit containing sensitive shaman artifacts and information. “He’s my ancestor, Teik’eesh,” she said. “There’s something they have in this museum, it’s his headdress, so talking about how these items were removed from the funeral homes was very important. These items came into this collection through the looting of the Funeral Homes by George Emmons.”

Emmons, a US Navy officer who lived in Sitka, Alaska, sold these items to museums around the world, points to a new sign on the wall behind the Shaman exhibit.

A changing tide with museums

Many Indigenous consultants and their loved ones in attendance for the Hall’s premiere on May 5 commented on how much the nature of museum work has changed in recent years.

“Indigenous peoples and museums haven’t always had the best relationship,” said Morgan Gueria (Musqueam Indian Band, Coast Salish). He recounted how he first saw the Natural History Museum during a FaceTime call from his daughter in 2016: She was visiting the museum and called in concern when she saw the sacred regalia of her family displayed on the walls of Northwest Coast Hall.

A year later, the curator Whiteley asked him to participate in the recontextualization of the exhibition. Gueria himself removed his family’s sacred regalia from the wall, along with other sensitive cultural objects that were on display.

“We actually limited the collection to choose the story that we want to tell, rather than the sexy stuff that people come to see, but it actually has somebody’s mind attached,” he said. .

Museums changing their behavior to treat natives as partners rather than subjects has been a generational process, Gueria said. Thirty years ago, two powerful aunts in her community asked the Natural History Museum to remove the sacred insignia and were refused.

“It’s really changed, the way the conversation is even approached,” he said. “They came to us. It’s not us who have to go from museum to museum, even if it’s always true. The museum [having us] telling our story is truly a legacy of reconciliation, and… should be a monument for all other museums in the world. So one less, 500 to go.

Other Indigenous curators, including James McGuire (Haida), said now is the time to work on healing.

“The tide is going in this direction in museology, and it’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “It was wonderful to work alongside everyone here and to be treated like a human being on this continent of the colonial world that hasn’t treated us that way for about 200 years.”

“It’s a bit disgusting”

The elephant in the room at the May 5 press conference was the Natural History Museum’s consistent poor record of returning human remains and Indigenous cultural artifacts it has in its collection.

“They measured our skulls to see how smart we were,” Boxley said of the 19th-century practice of cranioscopy, since debunked. “It gives you the impression that they didn’t think we were human back then. We were just another object to be studied. It’s kind of gross.

Although the museum last week approved the voluntary return of an unknown number of cultural objects — beyond what is required by federal law, according to Whiteley — it still has 938 human remains and 4,085 associated grave goods. in its storage, including the ancestors of many of the tribes and First Nations present in the Northwest Coast Hall.

“In a way, it’s good for now,” Gueria said. “As long as the conversation lasts, how do you take care of them? It takes time to prepare to do what is right. There are nations that wouldn’t even have the capacity for… 500 ancestors. But when we’re ready, this conversation shouldn’t be difficult.

For First Nations in the Pacific Northwest, this conversation will also include changes to U.S. law, since federal law requiring institutions to return Native American human remains and certain cultural artifacts does not extend to Indigenous peoples beyond international borders, such as those of Canada.

“We get these long-term loans [of artifacts]that are suitable for possession purposes, but realistically it is not about actual healing and reconciliation,” Gueria said.

A message of hope

Each Indigenous curator expressed a sense of satisfaction with their progress, but also an awareness of the work that remains to be done.

“At our first meeting for Indigenous advisors in 2017,” Whiteley said, the Coast Salish made an explicit request: “These things need to be removed from display, and they need to be retained in the collections of some way until we ‘are ready to do a repatriation.’ So we did. So you won’t see any masks in this section. Other nations feel differently.

Megan Humchitt (Heiltsuk Nation), the daughter of cultural consultant Harvey Humchit, told Native News Online that her heart is happy for the work her Indigenous parents have contributed to, but also sad that the spirit of her ancestors still holds on to the museum objects, like masks, and not at home with their people.

“In general, when [the masks] are not danced, we wrap them in blankets, because they have to sleep,” she said. “We believe the museum achieves this by understanding who we are as people and living culture, not just the past. I hope we are on this path.

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About the Author

Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeE-mail: This email address is protected from spam. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Personal editor

Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business News. His bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily News. In 2020, she was one of 16 American journalists selected by the Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the Arctic region of Alaska. Previously, she was a senior reporter at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in New York.


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