Indigenous Representation; the American West

In Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, Amy Lonetree comparatively analyzes the representation of Native Americans at national and tribal museums at Mille Lacs Indian Museum, National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways. Lonetree is interested in examining the role museums play within contemporary Indigenous communities and the ways in which museums engage in the process of decolonizing. A successful decolonizing museum practice, according to Lonetree, involves aiding Indigenous communities in addressing historical unresolved grief. Museums should work with communities to address this grief and “speak the hard truths” of colonialism in an effort to promote healing. Other ways in which museums can serve as sites of decolonization include honoring Indigenous knowledge and worldviews, challenging stereotypical representations of Native Americans, and act as sites of knowledge creation as well as remembering.

After examining the history of Indigenous representation at museums, Lonetree begins her comparative study at the Mill Lacs Indian Museum. This museum is a hybrid tribal museum, as the space is owned by the Minnesota Historical Society, and staff members collaborate with members of the Mille Lacs Band. As in the final chapter of Conn’s Museums and American Intellectual Life, employees and tribe members sought to move away from an object-based approach to exhibits to one focused on concepts. Although Lonetree does not think the Mill Lacs Indian Museum is a site of decolonization, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe exhibit does privilege the Mill Lacs Ojibwe interpretive voice, use Ojibwe language and first-person testimony, addresses sovereignty and other contemporary issues relevant to the Mill Lacs community, and promotes the idea that Indigenous people persisted and were able to keep their communities intact throughout the twentieth century. Lonetree then moves on to discussing NMAI, which she also feels does not go far enough in the decolonization process. While NMAI has state of the art film presentations, first person voice text panels, emphasizes Indigenous survival in the twenty-first century, and is more thematic rather than object based, Lonetree argues that the exhibits at NMAI fail to present a clear understanding of colonialism and its ongoing effects. The museum does not address the subject of genocide, for example, and it does not hold visitors accountable for the colonization of Native peoples. The presentation of objects is too abstract for visitors to understand the meaning and context behind their display–Lonetree’s anecdote about the gun display is a poignant and troubling display of this. The Ziibiwing Center, on the other hand, is one institution that successfully utilizes decolonizing museum practices. The Center was formed in the early nineties to address issues related to NAGPRA, and effectively engages with the theoretical concepts of historical trauma and unresolved grief. The Center was created and is maintained as a community center–a place where Indigenous peoples can come for healing, learning, and empowerment. The permanent exhibit at the Center is framed within the context of the tribe’s oral tradition and presents an Indigenous sense of history rather than a postmodern one. A significant amount of space within the exhibit is devoted to dealing with colonization and its effects on Indigenous people directly, and tells the hard truths of land theft, disease, poverty, violence, and forced conversion. The exhibit also emphasizes Indigenous survival and offers a place within the exhibit for quiet reflection and the possibility of healing. The Center has excellent programming that focuses on protecting, promoting, and revitalizing Ziibiwing culture, including an emphasis on teaching the Anishinabe language.

Decolonizing Museums is an important work within the field of museum studies and public history. It is a highly accessible text, and Lonetree’s work and visitor experiences at each of the three institutions helps to flesh out her arguments more completely and her anecdotes are not distracting. She identifies successful decolonizing practices and how the various communities came to and enacted such practices, while also calling out institutions when they fall short of decolonization. Her thesis is coherent, clearly stated, and her comparative case study approach is used effectively.

Robert Hayashi, in Haunted by Waters: A Journey through Race and Place in the American West, examines the role racial minorities have played in shaping and defining the western landscape, particularly what is now present-day Idaho. In Hayashi’s work, the land itself takes on an active role and exerts its own form of agency. He intersperses the academically-inclined text with his personal pseudo-travel narrative, much to my dismay. While he lays out the bare bones of his argument in the introduction, it is not until the final pages that he more eloquently and forcefully states his thesis. He argues that we need “a more complicated model for understanding environmental and social development that allows one to chart how the western landscape has evolved, including in relation to race and ethnicity” and that “our definitions about what is natural and how progress should occur have created a dominant story that has been anything but natural or complete.” (148, 152)

Each of the four chapters of Hayashi’s compact work study one aspect of Idaho history. The first chapter examines Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the American west, and Indigenous encounters with Lewis and Clark and the Discovery Corps. Jefferson wanted to map, define, and expand the boundaries of the United States and believed the health of the young nation was dependent on the expansion of yeoman farmers into the west. While exploring, Lewis and Clark and the Discovery Corps confronted Nez Perce Indians. At first, relations between the two groups were friendly, but within a few years, white settlers began encroaching on Indigenous lands. The next chapter examines Chinese and Japanese settlement of Idaho. The federal government continued its policies of western expansion and domination by enacting such policies as the Homestead Act, Desert Land Act, and Reclamation Act. In 1870, Chinese immigrants accounted for one-third of Idaho’s non-Indian population, but with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, those numbers began to dwindle. Chinese immigrants were replaced by Japanese immigrants, who had begun moving into Idaho in the early 1880s and found work in the railroad and sugar beet industries. The third chapter studies the experiences of Japanese-Americans at internment camps during World War II, with a particular emphasis on the Minidoka Relocation Center. Despite their internment, Japanese internees at Minidoka transformed the area surrounding the camp into productive farmland, and cleaned, irrigated, plowed, and fertilized the arid Idaho desert. Internees also provided crucial labor at farms located outside the camp as well as sugar beet companies. While at the camp, employees of the War Relocation Authority closely monitored internees activities, and, at the war’s end, forced internees off the land with threats of eviction. The fourth chapter reviews Mormon-Indian relations in Idaho. Mormons treatment of Indians was benign, and Mormons reshaped and worked the landscape as part of their theology. Mormons settled in Idaho to expand Zion across space. Their land use practices were directly mandated by the Church, and Church leaders distributed small plots of land to Church members. Hayashi ends the chapter by examining the work of the Japanese American Citizens League and reflecting on the phrase “haunted by waters.”

Hayashi does shed light on a part of American history with which I am little acquainted, and his scholarship raises important questions about the role of racial minorities and Others in western expansion and the ways in which humans use and reshape natural environments to suit their various political, social, and religious purposes. However, his work does not tell the complete story of Idaho history–it would need to be much longer to do so. Additionally, his forays into personal travel narrative were distracting and uninteresting. In the academically-leaning portions of the text, he jumps around chronologically in a confusing manner, making it difficult for the reader to have a clear sense of which particular forces were at work at any given time. While a mostly enjoyable read, Haunted by Waters could have been better had it been more academic (or more personal–Hayashi should have chosen one), and a longer, chronologically-oriented work.

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