When used as a replacement for the terms “object” and “artifact,” belonging presents both positive and negative potentialities. The word “belongings” may connote a more intimate proximity to those whom they are related and is in general, a far better alternative than “object,” yet it also carries negative connotations with reference to the concept of property ownership. Therefore, “belongings” contain a historical reference to the colonial plantation with its system of enslavement and indentured servitude where Indigenous, Black and Asian peoples were bought, sold, and itemized as “belonging to” plantation owners. In her contribution to the New York bauhaus imaginista symposium, Elvira Espejo’s proposed the word “being” rather than “object” or “belonging,” tying its usage to Indigenous Bolivians perspective on the animate being-ness of everything, a concept akin to what Little Bear also describes in his Blackfoot tenets of Indigenous science or within the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address. “Being” is perhaps a more apropos word than “belongings” to shift prevailing ethnological methodologies away from the Western philosophical system to which it is currently tethered.
I wish to bring up two further points that need to be thought through carefully with respect to localized perspectives and the specificity of Indigenous protocols, thereby potentially influencing museum and academic research protocols. While there are at times, overlaps in individual philosophies or ways of knowing specific to each Indigenous nation, it is necessary to understand that Indigenous ways of knowing are relative to their contexts—which cannot be disassociated from the particularities of locale—rather than presenting a pan-Indigenous perspective.
More so than (linear) time, space is an important consideration when considering ethnological curation from an Indigenous perspective. As Little Bear illustrates, “Space is a major referent in the mind of Aboriginal peoples as opposed to time, which is a major referent in the minds of Westerners.”19 A consideration of time is, from Little Bear’s analysis, non-linear and always in relation to space and flux. Space-time can be understood through a circuitous emergence of patterns. In practical terms, if we are describing a being (previously termed in this text as, variously, a belonging, object or artifact) in the context of an exhibition space, the being’s relationality to their20 home of origin and the location where they are presently exhibited needs to be considered within the different hirstorical contexts that inform their positionality, which is a political matter. Within the context of the exhibition in particular and museology in general, all racialized beings—artists, curators, artistically-valued beings—are politicized. This can be said of exhibitions within contemporary art or presented as past (such as the case of natural history museums). Therefore, it is of particular importance to consider the shifting political contexts and locales of artists, curators and artistically-valued beings with regards to their transnational movements within international art circuits and systems of collection or exhibition. An example of the importance of abiding by the traditional protocols of Indigenous nations aligns with an affirmative politics of refusal which are necessary within museum protocol. Certain artistically-valued beings, such as medicine beings (medicine bags, medicine society masks, ceremonial pipes, etc.) are not meant to be publicly displayed. Additionally, certain stories connected to their related beings are only meant to be shared during particular seasons or ceremonies. It is important, therefore, for museum institutions to build long-term relationships of trust with the Indigenous nations and communities that are home to these beings in their possession. Not all knowledges are meant for the general public, and not all knowledges are even meant for everyone within a given community—they are safe guarded by different knowledge keepers. It is important to ask which stories or teachings would be permitted to be shared with the general public and what is the benefit to the community in question.
What I have presented here are some of the problems of a shifting transnationalism with regards to racialization and changes of context/positionality. Certainly, these issues are too complex to provide one specific solution. What I would like to emphasize is this: with respect to the collection, exhibition and rehoming of Indigenous beings, learning what each being’s relationship and role is within the communities and nations they derive from, together with abiding by the traditional protocols that guide these relations (as well as the adoption of a politics of refusal when deemed necessary), are of vital importance if museums and other collectors intend to build and sustain healthy relationships with Indigenous and other hirstorically marginalized communities.
From this point, I would like to reflect back on a discussion I had with Erin Freedman during the bauhaus imaginista workshop about the idea of a museological shift from collection to the stewardship and rehoming of artistically-valued beings.
The term rehoming21 has been suggested as an alternative to the term repatriation, as in tone it implies a certain degree of care between museums or other collections and Indigenous nations with regards to the return of artistically-valued beings to their communities of origin. While I do appreciate the term rehoming and use it quite often to signify a particular politics of care with respect to the beings involved in processes of return, I would like to revisit the meanings, connotation and implications of the word repatriation.
In the Cambridge dictionary, the word repatriation means “to send or bring someone or something back to the country that person or thing came from.” 22 This brings up an interesting issue with regards to animacy and beingness rather than objecthood from the standpoint of political philosophy—that of citizenship. On the one hand, the word repatriation speaks to the recognition of Indigenous nationhood and sovereignty by a nation state such as the United States or Canada. But in fact, such nation states do not fully recognize or legally respect the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous nations. What repatriation does not adequately recognize is that all of Turtle Island is home to Indigenous peoples and therefore, one need not “repatriate” a being to a foreign land as the nation state is itself the foreign entity, having been established through colonialism. What the term repatriation reinforces is the legitimacy of patriarchy, while in the same instance delegitimizing matriarchal systems of governance. For example, Haudenosaunee nations are governed matriarchically through a clan system lead by clan mothers who appoint sachems.23 Clans mothers also have the power to replace their sachems.