Interview by Ana Croegaert
In the past few decades some museums of “natural history” have revisited their collections and reexamined their curatorial practices in efforts to shift away from grand narratives grounded in museums’ roles in imperial formations to foster spaces wherein artifacts can be engaged as dynamic and agentive, and as having the capacity to generate dialogue, disagreement, and affect among museumgoers. At The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the North American collection is composed nearly entirely of objects created by Native Americans that were acquired through Victorian-era curatorial practices of “salvage ethnography,” and became part of an archive of erasure that relegated Native American societies to the past. In recent years, senior curator and anthropologist Alaka Wali has led a major initiative to reunite Native curators, creators, and artists with the objects in this collection in order to expand understandings of these artifact’s social and material histories and the stories they tell about the contemporary world.
In what follows, Ana Croegaert interviews Wali about this process in a conversation focused on the current Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibit and the upcoming opening of the new Native North America Hall.
Alaka Wali is curator of North American Anthropology in the Science and Education Division of The Field Museum. She was the founding director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change from 1995- 2010. During that time, she pioneered the development of participatory social science action research and community engagement processes based in museum science to further access of museum resources for excluded communities. Before joining the Museum, she worked with Dr. Leith Mullings to document the consequences of structural racism on black women’s reproductive and social health in Harlem, N.Y. Currently, she curates the North American collection, composed largely of material culture of Native Americans from the late 19th century to the present. She is leading the curation of a new Hall of Native North America in collaboration with a Native American advisory committee. She also works closely with colleagues in the Museum’s Keller Science Action Center to implement environmental conservation programs that privilege economic and cultural autonomy for politically marginalized people in both Chicago and the Amazon regions of Peru. Her research focuses on the relationship between art and the capacity for social resilience. She has served in several roles for the American Anthropological Association, including currently as President of SANA.
So Alaka, we’re going to talk a bit about this exciting journey you’ve been on for years now, to revise the Native North American Hall at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. A project that has involved re-visiting the significant Native American belongings and archives and displays that comprise much of the museum’s North American collection of which you are senior curator. The museum’s “Native North American Hall” has not been updated since the 1950s…
You have said the work to revise the hall is, “not just a new exhibition, but represents a whole new way of thinking” that is being offered here…”
I would say, from the beginning…I have to go back a little bit to when I offered to take over this collection. I am not a scholar of North American Native Cultures, although I have a long history, even back to my undergraduate days of periodic / episodic encounters with Native American activism. I did my fieldwork as you know, not here, but in Panama (Wali 2019).
When I arrived at the museum in 1996, I was not hired as the North American Curator, but the opening arose—many of our curators were working in South America. So, I offered to do it, but I didn’t really engage with the collection for a couple of years…because I was scared!
Of what it implied to be the curator of this collection. Those belongings…because the relationship between Native Americans and museums is different – we can’t lump those dynamics into the other colonial aspects of museums of natural history because of the jurisdictional relationship between Native American sovereign nations and the United States. Which I didn’t fully grasp until I started engaging with what that would entail.
So, that was the context, and I kind of, fortuitously had these little opportunities to work with Native American artists and this is where I kind of started building the approach to rebuild this hall and as you say go beyond this hall. I had begun to research art in social context, curating an exhibit with Chicago-based fashion designer Maria Pinto, and through that I met artist Bunky Echo-Hawk. I began working on co-curatorial projects as a form of community engagement – as a way to re-enter the collection.
And doing these exhibits that were co-curated with Native Americans – that really helped me see what collaboration would a) require and b) why it was important to go beyond just an exhibition. What would it entail for Native Americans to have access to their belongings in museums – what would that entail? Thinking of this project as more than just the exhibition and rather as a kind of door into a bigger effort to privilege Native American ownership of these collections – changing the relationship between the museum and Native American communities.
You were saying there were these elements that are really fundamental to understanding how these shifts are going to happen – can you say a bit more about that particular experience–the quality of that relationship?
Ok, here, I’m referring to legal anthropology scholarship like the work of Justin Richland (2008) who spent a couple of decades w Hopi around these issues. He was interested in looking at repatriation and so we started talking about these issues. The Hopi were involved in repatriation of their sacred belongings and he would accompany them to visit the collections. And then the scholarship of people like Audra Simpson, who talks about how ‘we were never decolonized – we can’t be decolonized because our lands remain occupied!’ and whose work—even now—must continuously insist on Native Americans’ presence across the North American continent (eg. Cattalino 2008, Rifkin 2009, Simpson 2011). This work led to my understanding of the particularities of this relationship between Native American peoples and their belongings in the Field’s collection.
Doug Kiel, who is an Oneida historian of North America, talks about the way that the Oneida have reclaimed land that was taken from them in Wisconsin (2014) and it’s a really – all of those threads make you understand that Native American nations, tribes, this history of relationship with Federal and State governments is really different than any other colonized peoples that the United States, particularly, or even when I think about my own background from India, the Brits colonized but ultimately they left. It’s not the same – you cannot understand the Native American experience including the role that museums have had in continuing the occupation of their lands and their livelihoods—If you don’t understand that legal jurisdictional relationship.
In a recent decolonizing museums panel, one of your colleagues, Debra Yeppa Pappan, made a remark about how it’s important for institutions [that seek to decolonize collections and curatorial practices] to engage and be transparent with their particular institutional histories. I wonder how you feel that has worked or not worked at the Field?
Well, I think the Field Museum is changing – it’s a process, right? It’s by no means clear to me that, by the time I leave the museum, how far along it will be in the process of really transforming how the museum understands its responsibility to communities writ large, and to Native American communities in particular.
Things have changed–I’m glad we’ve been able to have that kind of impact and change–the way this hall is being built is a testament to that change and the impact isn’t only on the large scale of institution, but on individuals and that’s hard. It’s hard, that kind of change. Including me! I don’t exclude myself from having to have some hard reflections on some of my own thinking around some of these issues. I think it’s exciting to have created the space for that to happen in. Where it’s going to go, I don’t know, there are so many constraining factors: from financial to mindsets, but it is changing and there’s no way to ignore that.
Once the path was set – once the museum accepted that this hall, that the whole strategy here is not going to be a traditional hall, eg not just rotating objects for conservation concerns, or a narrative that stays the same. And they accepted that was not the way to do this hall.
The new hall has got these 5 rotating galleries—self-contained rooms of about 50 square feet. These rooms are surrounded by a display organized into 5 sections, each illustrating a fundamental dimension of social life and experience. The rotating galleries permit a more in-depth story telling from one group’s or one individual’s perspective. So for example, initially, the stories we are going to tell in the rotating galleries are: 1) The on-going care and attachments to Chaco Canyon by the pueblos of the SouthWest; 2) The Meskwaki food sovereignty initiative in Tama, Iowa; 3) The journey of a young Lakota hip hop artist to reconnecting with Lakota flute music; 4) The story of a Cahuilla basket maker from California and her efforts to maintain and teach the significance of basket making; and 5) the Chicago urban Native American community.
The Chicago gallery will always be centered on the urban experience here, but the other 4 galleries will change focus on different themes and regions. In this way, dynamic, changing. This illustrates the dynamic, changing relationship [of the museum] to Native American communities is designed into the very structure of the hall and will guide the collection and exhibits forever! There is always going to have to be a Native American advisory group deliberating, which stories? How to tell? Who to work with?
Right there creates opportunity and the museum has to commit to investing in that. I’m proud of that!
Apsáalooke Women and Warriors Exhibit at the Field Museum. John Weinstein photo.
This photo is of the penultimate section of the exhibition. It features seven of the 49 shields made in the late 19th, early 20th century that are currently in the Field Museum collection. Nina Sanders, the curator of this exhibition, wanted to display these powerful and sacred beings in a way that spoke to the role that women play in caring for and protecting them. She chose portraits of strong women from that time period to “stand guard” over the shields. The label text in the gallery reads:
Traditionally, war medicine is cared for by women: they clean it, put it away, and have the authority to tell its story. The portraits of Apsáalooke women in this gallery are here to symbolically care for these shields.
Brings to mind current debates municipalities and institutions like museums are having around monuments to colonization and the Confederacy – this type of imperial and postwar monumental architecture as efforts to stop time in place, and then once removed the question of, what comes next? Don’t just throw up another monument – how do we hold space that is also fluid, dialogic – these removals [of such monuments] are opportunities for communities to repair the uneven systems these monuments symbolize…
It is a challenge. The other challenge is our collection is from the 19th century – early part of 20th century: it’s a historical collection. It’s a story of a particular time and particular places; how do you use that to tell a story of change and to tell the story of contemporary life? Our advisory committee and staff wanted to address this challenge in two ways:
1) Include contemporary people from those communities talking about the way that these objects remain relevant to the way that people live today and what they think – that has completely shaken up the temporality of things – we have a wonderful story by Karen Ann Hoffman (Oneida) who is a nationally recognized master raised bead artist—unique to Haudenosaunee artistry. Her story / display is part of the section tentatively titled, “Ancestors connect us to the past, present, and future”
That sense of there isn’t a linear time, like in “braiding sweetgrass” (Kimmerer 2013). I mean, which we anthropologists have talked about up the wazoo! We concede this in anthropology–that conceptions of time vary across culture, space – this has come alive in so many visceral ways (through this project)! Basically, we return power to these historical objects and that is really exciting, so that they become once again living beings, which is how many people (not all, but many) think about them, and tell their stories.
2) Incorporating contemporary works: art, objects, so that again there’s that dialogue happening about past present future, so that’s exciting as well.
Yes, including incorporating mass produced objects, and also you were saying earlier—something I think is pretty special about the work you’ve been doing is how art informs the sensibility of the renovation and how people are invited to engage…
About the role of contemporary art as intervention in this fixed narrative –
Yes, this was an exciting time to take this project on because Native American scholarship is flourishing, really coming into its own, and so are Native American artists of all different genre: film, painting, digital, writing. So, yeah, we can really draw on that to provoke traditional visitors of the museum to really shake them up in this way – art can do that. I have a hard time articulating what I think the power [of art] is…I started working with artists because it seemed to me an easier way to bring in a different voice because there is a dilemma when working with a [given] tribal community, how’re you…what’re you going to do? Invite the whole nation to tell their story? Or simply go to the tribe’s designated cultural preservation officer / committee? But people maybe don’t agree with that person/group. Consensus would take 10 years!
Oh, my goodness, how do I…? But if you work with an artist – everyone acknowledges that an artist has a right to present their own perspective – this approach cuts through who gets to speak for whom – everyone understands they [artists] are interpreting through their lens–they are not beholden in same way. BUT, at the same time, they do have their sense of responsibility to their community, and there’s a lot of controversy when artists don’t respect their responsibility to their community.
There’s an accountability mechanism in place…
Yeah! One scholar described this as being like peer review, and that’s a difference between artists who are coming from historically marginalized oppressed communities, versus artists coming from backgrounds of privilege.
It’s been really great to work with these artists and to see how they select pieces from the collection to include or reinterpret – such creative approaches help people see the world differently in effect- to me that’s the power there.
Visual art also is not necessarily working within narrative form, a viewer can build narrative around it, but not necessary,
Yes, this art doesn’t necessarily provide an easy path – doesn’t let you off the hook,
Doesn’t bring you to, doesn’t offer a resolution to the viewer – really powerful, and the fact that you have included those pieces,
There’s going to be some really amazing contemporary works, some very very subtle – they might initially look like the same craft of the older pieces in our collection, but there’s a difference there when you look carefully
Like Karen Ann’s beadwork, the surface looks like older pieces in the collection, but then you look again and it’s this whole confounding of time that’s going on, AND of the history of encounter. Her piece “SkyWoman,” tells the Haudenosaunee SkyWoman story through this 19th c Victorian style little child’s rocking chair. She sewed the story of SkyWoman onto the cushions, this story of SkyWoman, there’s a turtle on the cushion of the seat – this hugely important story of SkyWoman all in this one piece.
Hoffman’s description of her piece:
“As I was walking through an antique store, I saw this child’s rocking chair. There were three panels on it, the perfect platform to tell the story of Sky Woman—how we Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) came to be. The chair said, “SkyWoman’s story needs to be on me,” so she’s my way to tell our creation story to people I’ll never meet. Then they’ll understand where we Iroquois come from. I’ll tell you the version of the story of SkyWoman as I know it, who fell through a hole at the root of the Ever Growing Tree to land on Turtle Island, where we all live today.”
Karen Ann Hoffman, Oneida
Stevens Point, Wisconsin, 2018
Wood, velvet, beads, thread
Karen Ann Hoffman has been beading peace, beauty, and meaning through her Iroquois Raised Beadwork since the 1990s. Iroquois Raised Beadwork is unique to the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, characterized by lines of beads that arch above the textile surface for a three-dimensional effect, typically sewn onto velvet. Hoffman is known for reimagining existing forms to expand their significance for today and the future.
The history of Iroquois Raised Beadwork derives from 19th-century tourism at Niagara Falls. Around 1850, Mohawk and Tuscarora beaders developed ornately decorative items to appeal to Victorian tastes, selling them as souvenirs, or “whimseys.” The aesthetic endured and expanded onto objects for internal community use. Hoffman’s beading combines these two ways of beading to create a third: objects that arise from traditional forms and are infused with Iroquois understandings but that otherwise are new. Two examples of this are large multi-sided beaded urns, derived from small 16th-century Iroquois birchbark seed containers, or “jardinières”; and a series of large mats, each beaded with a traditional seasonal story, emerging from small tourist items like table toppers and more traditional council mats. Hoffman describes her work as being in the Thomas Hill style: beads raised to a particular height, a select color palette, strong connections to the past, best quality materials, and strictly connected to story.
She gives the history of Native American peoples all in one artifact – it blows me away.
I’ve not yet seen this piece, but even as you’re describing it, I am thinking of the Native American kids of that time period – Victorian era – who were separated from their families, and placed in reform schools – intentionally separated from lineage of Sky Woman – Hoffman’s piece seems to invite repair of that separation through objects that evoke many stories…
Do you think that—it’s remarkable to have the level of community engagement that you’ve seen at the Field, but also having this participation means reckoning with what Pappan and others have described as museums as toxic, violent spaces, to work in those spaces is obviously very conflicting…How do people come to want to be and work in and show their work in this space?
That’s a really–I admire folks for being willing to do that because it IS painful and they say that to me, “It’s not like we’re so thrilled to be working w the Field Museum,” on the one hand – there’s all sorts of feelings – people deal with their own conflicting feelings – painful but, also amazing because they get to actually bring these things to life that have been sitting on our shelf and they want to do that— they recognize the opportunity to change things, and they welcome that, and to claim the museum. So, it’s not easy and even for me because I was always–the first 10 years I was at museum I never went into collections because it was too painful—coming from an activist understanding of Anthropology’s colonial roots—this was the belly of the beast! There’s no getting around it.
And, Native Americans have to live with pain and joy all the time, it’s not that different [the museum space] – it’s a part of how you live. The context of a museum is not that different from having to deal with those feelings in your daily life – I think people make that choice – now that the Field has Native American staff this makes it easier for people to feel like they can have an impact on the institution and open the door to change.
I really like that – people’s pain and joy to be visible, legible where it has been silenced, and not in exclusively native spaces – at the relational level of the reflections you and other staff – native and non-—the feelings that come up are having a space to be communicated and expressed in a way in a space that has historically, repeatedly silenced those experiences…
And you can hold those simultaneously and I hope that even the most casual visitor will grasp some sense of that. Um, that’s–what we’re going for is that. Because our advisory committee said from the beginning conceptual stages – when I would talk with museum members or donors and tell them about the hall – and they’d say, “you have to tell these terrible stories of what we did to Native Americans!” But then when we discussed these responses with the Advisory Committee, they said, “No, that’s not what we want to talk about–how we were brutalized and victimized; we want to stress we are still here, thriving, endlessly creative, that’s what we want people to know.”
So, we do touch on those historical traumas, but overall, the emphasis is more about creativity, ingenuity, joy, life.
This really is an unsettling in the sense that it reckons with a history of power and inequality and also provides a vision for future, hope (Rosa and Bonilla 2017).
Workful hope, radical hope.
The Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibit (Nina Sanders, curator) opened in March 2020 as the first exhibit of the hall’s renovation.
The New Native North American Hall is scheduled to open to the public in November 2021.
Cattelino, Jessica. High Stakes: Florida Seminole Gaming and Sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
Kiel, Doug. “Untaming the Mild Frontier: In Search of New Midwestern Histories,” Middle West Review 1(1): 9-38, 2014.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
Richland, Justin. Arguing with Tradition: The Language of Law in Hopi Tribal Court. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Rifkin, Mark. “Indigenizing Agamben: Rethinking Sovereignty in Light of the ‘Peculiar’ Status of Native Peoples,” Cultural Critique 73(Fall): 88-124, 2009.
Rosa, Jonathon and Yarimar Bonilla. “Deprovincializing Trump, Decolonizing Diversity, and Unsettling Anthropology,” American Ethnologist 44(2): 201-208, 2017.
Simpson, Audra. “Settlement’s Secret,” Cultural Anthropology 26(2): 205-217, 2011.
Wali, Alaka. Kilowatts and Crisis: Hydroelectric Power and Social Dislocation in Eastern Panama. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2018 .