Providing Support for the Representation of Native American Art and Cultures

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What does it mean to “Decolonize” your institution?

Decolonization has become a buzzword in the museum field. It’s important to know the origins of the word, the Native scholars whose work first grappled with it and how it is understood today–so as to not trivialize the work and meaning of term.

Colonization as defined by Michael Yellowbird and Waziyatawin, “the formal and informal methods (behavioral, ideological, political, and economical) that maintain the subjugation and or exploitation on indigenous peoples, lands and resources and 

Decolonization is the meaningful and active resistance to the forces of colonialism that perpetuate the the subjugation and/or exploitation of indigenous minds, bodies and lands. Decolonization is for the ultimate purpose of overturning the colonial structure and realizing indigenous liberation.”

How we work

As scholars in the field of museums and the trend to make them more democratic, our goal is to operationalize and demystify the process of decolonization. Many museums with Native collections seek to engage in meaningful dialogue with descendent communities in an effort to better represent their histories and cultures and are perplexed or daunted by this work. By working closely with local tribal people and educating museum staff and board, we aim to bridge understanding for better representation of Native life and cultures. We conduct in depth listening sessions and interviews with key Native advisors to better tell the stories they choose to tell and to help museums set agendas that meet local Tribal goals.   

Why museums?

We believe museums have the power to change the way people think, feel and operate in the world. Maybe that’s giving them too much credit, but as scholars of museums studies we have seen endless examples where museums have facilitated real transformation of thought. For this reason alone, these institutions have immense power. In addition, they hold the cultural treasures of the world and the power and privilege to use sacred and ancestral pieces to tell the stories of descendent communities–mostly, out of the control of those communities. For Native people, those materials are alive. In many cases objects were stolen or acquired during times of desperation–objects that should never have left tribal lands. Many believe that in order to restore balance in our communities, we must liberate the ancestors and bring them back into contact with their descendents. Where repatriation is untenable, we look for ways to restore connection through education, culturally relevant exhibition and other reciprocal means.