On-Site Report

Weaving Reflections

On Museology and the Rematriation of Indigenous Beings from Ethnological Collections

Photo: Grant Watson, 2018.

I begin these reflections by stating that my participation in bauhaus imaginista has been a great privilege. I often asked myself why I was invited to join these experts on the Bauhaus and Indigenous textile arts from around the world. What I can say about my own position and subjectivity as an artist may provide some clarity in understanding what it was and is I might contribute to the conversations arising during our two-day workshop held in conjunction with the Junius Bird Collections at the American Museum of Natural History and the “Infinity of Nations” exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution).

bauhaus imaginista: Learning From workshop in New York in June 2018, photo: Grant Watson.

In this context, we also visited the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Lenore G. Tawney Foundation. We were gifted by insights on the respective textile and textile-related collections, provided by the staff of the institutions we visited, including by Cécile R. Ganteaume (Associate Curator, NMAI Washington D.C.), Virginia Gardner Troy (Associate Professor of Art History, Berry College GA), Brenda Danilowitz (Chief Curator, Josef and Anni Albers Foundation), and Kathleen Mangan (Director, Lenore G. Tawney Foundation).

This essay brings together thoughts expressed during the Learning From symposium hosted by bauhaus imaginista at the Goethe-Institut in New York City on 9 June 2018, while in conversation with Erin Freedman (Goethe-Institut, NYC) and afterward during the question and answer period. This conversation encompassed many of the thoughts, discussions and knowledge we shared during the workshop, held on 7 and 8 June at the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Museum of Natural History, Lenore G. Tauwney Foundation and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I also spoke extensively with Grant Watson, Marion von Osten, Erin Freedman, Candice Hopkins, Luiza Proença, Elvira Espejo, Virginia Gardner Troy, Cecilia Vicuña, Elissa Auther, Brenda Danilowitz, and Katharine Maller.

Many questions and critical insights arose during these visits through a mutual exchange of knowledges. I will try and sort these according to their various thematics. One such theme could be named “what is seen and what is unseen”—a theme exemplified by what Elvira Espejo termed in her lecture, when describing how Andean textiles have typically been incorrectly hung from walls, as “the backside of the weave” (since the rear of the weave is equally important as the front from a weaver’s perspective). In this regard, it is helpful to extend our sensory perception and consider what is said and not said, heard and not heard, felt and not felt, perceived and not perceived, et cetera.

Primarily, this essay examines ethnographic and natural history museology and how Indigenous cultures are perceived, translated and exhibited through Westernized perspectives that are informed by a philosophical subject-object divide. One primary question leading up to the bauhaus imaginista workshops and symposium had concerned the extent to which Bauhaus artists had been culturally informed by and subsequently appropriated Indigenous art. This was found conclusive by the bauhaus imaginista group upon comparisons between Andean abstract textile patterns and those employed by Bauhaus painters during workshop and symposium lectures presented by Virginia Gardner Troy and Elissa Auther. By critically engaging with both the material cultures and ideologies that inform how Indigenous beings (also known as belongings or artifacts) are collected, exhibited and presented as objects, as well as how they are mistranslated and mis-contextualized within art history we were able to identify a number of practices that remain normative in Western museological practices, perpetuating certain misunderstandings about Indigenous arts and cultures.

The assertions I make within this essay are not new to Indigenous peoples. Rather, my text is primarily directed towards a Western and Westernized readership. The stories related in this essay encircle, loop and intersect, forming insights through their relationality, their inter-woven-ness.

On Relationality: What is seen and not seen, heard and not heard, felt and not felt, experienced and not experienced

Sebastian de Line and Erin Freedman at the bauhaus imaginista: Learning From symposium in New York, June 2018, photo: Daniel Albanese.

A fundamental difference in exhibiting cultural belongings1 collected from Indigenous nations can be examined by looking at differences in how belongings are described and understood within museums in relation to their intended audience, who learn about the histories2 of these belongings in relation to the families/communities they descend from. It is rather safe to conclude that if one were to ask the curatorial staff of any national museum institution in the United States who the intended audience is, the reply would be “for everyone.” And yet, most institutions operate through a Western perspective, and present an implicitly Eurocentric/colonial bias. What languages are used to communicate about exhibition materials to its intended audience throughout the institution? Is it a colonial language or in the languages spoken by the peoples whose belongings are put on display? Are the curatorial, educational staff and board of directors composed of Indigenous peoples, the peoples whose belongings are collected and displayed by the museum or by representatives of economic and cultural elites?

When describing the belongings on display in ethnological museums, let us begin by examining the word “object.” As understood within the Eurocentric (Cartesian, Kantian, Hegelian) philosophical tradition, the word implies a schism between subjectivity, animation,3 embodiment and agency, a notion which is deeply embedded within globalized Western societies (and most certainly within art historical contexts, where the English language and Occidental philosophies often translate art and culture by recontextualizing micropolitical, localized and multiple bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing, rendering these as distorted and reductive versions of their original meanings and modes of relationality. This translation of beings into objects is further fragmented and extracted from its original contextual meaning through Eurocentric notions of linear time, locating objects within a past, present or future, and within an art historical timeline further stratified by the categories of high art, low art, folk art and craft. Such a notion of linear time negates animate beingness when they are collected as art or become categorized as objects/artifacts. For example, should a ceremonial being such as an Ancient One embodied as a mask be acknowledged within Western scholarship and museology as an ancestor within a given family and nation, this recognition produces a shift not only in the fields of anthropology or art history, but in European philosophical phenomenology as well, which considers what is beyond notions of the living as “dead” or “inanimate” and therefore objectified.4

By visualizing how cultural belongings are exhibited in museums such as the American Museum of Natural History Museum or the Smithsonian Institution, which we visited in New York City, one can categorize such museums according to how they examine and represent “the past.” Such tendencies find their cognate in archeology and ethnography, the two most prominent disciplines with regards to how cultural belongings are introduced—through processes of collecting, acquiring, categorizing, siting and translating—into the domain of academic/artistic knowledge production.

I will begin by sharing two observations during my visits to these museums and the thoughts that arose from my own Haudenosaunee perspective. The first story I will share is an encounter with a spoon. As an interlocutor and correspondent of bauhaus imaginista, I was invited to join this exceptional group of art historians, curators and artists and to use my drawing practice as a way of responding to what we saw and what we discussed. For the past year, while working on my doctoral studies, I have been sitting with the writings of Mohawk cultural anthropologist Audra Simpson and her politics of ethnographic refusal. 5 Hers is a politics further elaborated by Tuck & Yang 6 regarding the refusal to research (and institutionalize) subaltern pain narratives within academia. It is present as well in artist David Garneau’s refusal to allow access to all forms of Indigenous knowledges 7

Participants of the bauhaus imaginista: Learning From workshop in New York, June 2018, photo: Grant Watson.

"The colonial attitude is characterized not only by scopophilia, a drive to look, but also by an urge to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit. The attitude assumes that everything should be accessible to those with the means and will to access them; everything is ultimately comprehensible, a potential commodity, resource, or salvage. The academic branch of the enterprise collects and analyzes the experiences and things of others; it transforms story into text and objects-in-relation into artifacts to be catalogued and stored or displayed." 8

It was through this everyday politics of refusal that I approached the task of illustrating and responding to each collection we visited. I chose to carefully select what I would draw, what I would detail, and what I would leave out or obscure from the scopophilic gaze described by Garneau. Inevitably, this is an impossible task, for the agreement to illustrate any response at all quickly becomes one outcome of institutionalization. But my hope was that these renderings, conversations, and writings would serve the purpose of encouraging restorative change within museum culture. For instance, during one of our visits, I chose to draw Haudenosaunee belongings alone, as these are related to my father’s relatives. I did not want to draw the belongings of other communities, since my relation to these belongings would always be from an outsider’s perspective, re-installing the very scopophilic gaze I wished to negate. There were two belongings hanging within a vitrine at close proximity to each other, one a Mohawk baby carrier and another labelled “Seneca ladle.” As I stood beside these belongings, I was reminded of two stories shared with me by my family: those of the One Dish, One Spoon wampum and the Seven Generations teaching. When I looked at this spoon suspended in the air, I immediately began to search for its accompanying bowl and was unable to find it.

The One Dish, One Spoon wampum is an important agreement and teaching within Haudenosaunee tradition, signifying a relationship of reciprocal land stewardship between our Confederacy, and later with the Anishinaabe people and the British9, with whom we share territory. This teaching is connected to our responsibility to care for our relations, the lands, waters, animal nations and all who are included within the Great Law of Peace and the Thanksgiving Address—an address extended to all our relations, including our non-Indigenous relations. How can the spoon fulfill its responsibilities to the community—thereby enabling us to fulfill our own responsibilities to our community—if it is separated from the bowl used to gather and offer nourishment? Such reciprocal relations of care are extended seven generations into the future (remembered and carried by us and the baby carrier). Looking at this spoon, I not only saw a spoon (translated by being filtered through a Western perspective and thus transformed into an object), but I remembered its story.

Using Simpson’s politics of refusal as a guiding principle, what becomes instrumentalized as knowledge production within institutionalized settings primarily directed by non-Indigenous peoples is a question that should be asked by museums and curatorial staff when considering what knowledges are appropriate to share outside of the communities from whence beings (who have been ethnologically objectified) originated. Some knowledges are not meant to be shared with everyone.

In “Gathered Together: Listening to Musqueam Lived Experiences,” Jordan Wilson describes a relationship between community and curation which emphasizes how protocol, roles and responsibilities are woven into storytelling.

(A)s curators we would ask, “Is it appropriate to display this belonging, likely removed from a burial?” The discussion would begin with a response such as, “When I was young, my older brother and I got in trouble for …” Or, as another example, when asked about a particular type of whistle, the conversation ranged from the role of every community member to the timeliness of these exhibits in bringing diverse stories together."10

Rather than employing a Western linearity to describe beings through their objectification, aesthetics and function within the exhibition space, curators would benefit from listening to the nuanced layering of storytelling, to focus on asking the right questions when in consultation with elders and other community members about their ancestors.

Nahò:ten kén:ton'?11

Participants of the bauhaus imaginista: Learning From workshop in New York, June 2018, photo: Grant Watson.

Another important aspect of learning within an exhibition setting has to do with which languages are used in telling the stories of artistic beings in a museum. Do we come to know a belonging directly through encountering it, or through the use of a colonial language or philosophical system, which interprets for us? What we learn and in what language is fundamental to creating a correct relationship to the communities for whom an exhibition is intended, and for how we generally relate to belongings housed in museums. Museums would do well to co-initiate, partner with or support existing Indigenous language revitalization programs. This would enable museums and other art institutions to perform the necessary task of shifting the implicit knowledge perspectives ordinarily reproduced from that of a historically colonial and Eurocentric interpretation (objectification) to a subjective and relational way of knowing, grounded in localized, Indigenous points of view. By breaking from the English language and colonial/ orientalist12. The colonial uptake of the word “Indian” to describe Indigenous peoples in the Americas is an example of the extension of such Orientalism. Said, further references this on page 345 when he says, “Most of all they see in the discourse of modern Orientalism and its counterparts in similar knowledges constructed for Native Americans and Africans a chronic tendency to deny, suppress, or distort the cultural context of such systems of thought in order to maintain the fiction of its scholarly disinterest.” 13 perspectives as a primary mode of translation and understanding in museum culture, the museum might potentially become of greater benefit to Indigenous communities by doing more than merely acting as a cultural service provider for the West’s contemporary settler imaginary. By referring to beings (these animate beings that I have previously named belongings) such as the adógwa’shä’14 in its own Ontwehonwe name rather than only coming to know this being as a “ladle” would signify a shift towards a deeper institutional investment in the sustainability of Indigenous cultures and arts. Given the loss of Indigenous languages within our communities due to forced assimilation policies, mandated through colonial education systems such as residential schools, missionary schools and public schools that fail to teach children their own Indigenous languages, nor encourage non-Indigenous students to learn the languages of the peoples whose lands they populate, the project of language revitalization is vitally important to Indigenous nations.

This brings up a particular point of tension with respect to the deeply entrenched tendencies towards objectivity and paternalism that continue to support extant museological preservation models. As stated previously, Western paradigmatic schisms between subject and object continue to dominate epistemological ways of being and knowing within art and academia alike, and these pertain not only to modern and contemporary art, but art historical contexts associated with history, archeology and ethnography. It nearly goes without saying (and this is a central problem of the ethnological museum enterprise) that the main prerogative of museums focusing on researching and exhibiting artifacts is to economically accumulate wealth through the value of these collections, in the process separating “objects” from their relational subjects; one consequence of the rational administration and maintenance of private property that lends museum collections the air of possession rather than a form of stewardship that might benefit the communities for whom these “objects,” formerly belongings, are kept in a state of dispossession.

I now wish to share my second observation, based upon another encounter, one that occurred in a museum whose focus emphasizes the specific narrative entitled “natural history.” Before continuing, I wish to share the importance of proximity where the spatialization of exhibition layouts is concerned. Upon visiting an exhibition in the “Hall of Eastern Woodlands Indians” at the American Museum of Natural History—which by now is assuredly in dire need of remodeling as its dated, objectifying perspective on Indigenous cultures is reflected throughout an exhibition design dating from 1966—I found to my dismay that the location of this hall depicting narratives of Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples was situated next to the primate section. Given the AMNH’s coming centennial in 2020, this would mark an important moment in history when the retelling of Indigenous hirstories need to be emphasized from Indigenous perspectives, thus correcting an ethnographic methodology which continues to exhibit the cultures of people of color as objects without self-determination, agency or subjecthood.

I mention this relevant point regarding the importance of proximity within exhibition layouts in order to address what is connoted through the construction of narratives, notions of different relationships to time, and what falls under the category of “natural” or “history.” In Che Gossett’s article “Blackness, Animality, and the Unsovereign” they speak of the construction of scientific racialism through anti-Black narratives that compare people of African origin to animals:

"Black people have historically been portrayed through scientific racism as animal-like and this anti-black discourse has overlapped with the ways that the animal has been depicted throughout the course of Western philosophy as the desolate ground upon and against which the human, as a colonial and racial construct, has been defined."15

Candice Hopkins and Cecilia Vicuña (background) at the symposium bauhaus imaginista: Learning From at the Goethe-Institut New York, June 2018, photo: Daniel Albanese.

Gossett’s critique of animal studies, Western philosophy and scientific discourse underlines how the academic correlation between racialization and animality within Western science and philosophy can also be found within museology, through its reductive, historicizing comparison of Black and Indigenous cultures to animals or objects.

Lengthy study or examination is not needed in order to realize that while passing through the primate section in proximation to an exhibition depicting one’s culture—in effect visiting the belongings of one’s community—one might feel disrespected or hurt by its connotation. From a decolonial perspective, both common sense and basic empathy dictate that placing two disparate exhibitions adjacent to one another is inappropriate, revealing biases contained in the West’s ostensibly impartial, objective scientific project. One need not be Indigenous or from a hirstorically oppressed background to comprehend this, but one must begin the work of deconstructing how different forms of knowledge are produced, layer by layer, in order to understand the various steps that are necessary in creating a shift in perspective. This natural history museum’s insensitivity in situating its display on Indigenous peoples next to that of primates emphasizes how attitudes towards Indigenous contemporary communities are continually imagined through the lens of a distant, primitive past, constructed within a settler imaginary that functions to maintain systems of superiority through the production of knowledge from Western perspectives that conflate racialized peoples with animals or objects rendered as inferior to European culture and “whiteness” as such. As Zine Magubane emphasizes: “Ethnographic showcases not only encouraged viewers to revel in their racial superiority; they also invited ordinary English people to imagine themselves as colonial overlords.”16 Such displays reproduce systems of inferential racial superiority through a skewed scientific narrative that spans generations. Thousands of school children visit museums such as this on educational excursions. In the process they absorb perspectives that are deeply rooted pedagogically and ideologically within received forms of coloniality.

From an Indigenous perspective such as that of Haudenosaunee17 culture, philosophy is relational. All matter, animate energy, embodiment, connectivity and flow are in infinite motion and inherently relational to one another. Professor Emeritus Leroy Little Bear best describes this through his perspective on Blackfoot science and his critique of the West’s paradigmatic logic, which forms the basis of Eurocentric colonial societies:

"(I)n the view of this writer, the most important aspect of traditional knowledge is its philosophical and/or paradigmatic base. The philosophy/paradigm is the lens through which all sense datum is interpreted to define reality. The actual application of knowledge is the manifestations of the interpretation of the sense datum based on the philosophy/paradigm. (…) (N)ative philosophy consists of and include[s] ideas of constant motion/flux, all creation consisting of energy waves, everything being animate, all creation being interrelated, reality required renewal, and space as a major referent."18

With regard to curatorial strategies, if we were to begin by addressing one of these tenets, such as “everything being animate,” conducting museological affairs from this premise, then all levels of museology would need to be reconsidered with respect to the collection, storage, exhibition, economy, property rights, ethics and relations connected to each and every individual belonging. But such a proposal underscores the problems inherent in a term such a “belonging.” I would like to further unpack this term in reference to property ownership, and within contexts of racial capitalism and coloniality.

On Belonging, Being, and Rematriation

Virginia Gardner Troy at the symposium bauhaus imaginista: Learning From ​at the Goethe-Institut New York, June 2018, photo: Daniel Albanese.

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.

Elissa Auther, Grant Watson and Marion von Osten (from left to right) at the symposium bauhaus imaginista: Learning From ​at the Goethe-Institut New York, June 2018, photo: Daniel Albanese.

In the international indigenization framework constituted by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, article 12 declares that the repatriation of human remains and ceremonial objects be granted to Indigenous nations.24 Thus inscribed within a legal document, the term “repatriation” becomes the linguistic and juridical mechanism by which patriarchal hegemonies become re-inscribed as normative relations of power, marginalizing or avoiding altogether the traditional matriarchal power structures maintained by different Indigenous nations. The poet Susan Deer Cloud offers a remedy to the hegemony of patriarchy by replacing repatriation with rematriation.25 The implications of amending the Declaration to include rematriation alongside repatriation would open up the potential for establishing a legal framework supporting the rights of beings to be recognized as female citizens within Indigenous matriarchal societies.

From a philosophical perspective, what the term repatriation does well is to support a shift from objects to beings, expanding recognition of the agency of all beings, as well as their capacity to be granted equal rights under the law. We see evidence of this in New Zealand, with the Whanganui River being granted recognition as a person under domestic law, and in India, where the Ganges River was also granted human rights.26 What this does not adequately repair within discourses of Western subject/object epistemologies, is that these river-beings have gained legal status and rights through anthropocentricism. This emphasizes the power of the Western philosophical schism between subject and object which is so firmly embedded within case law. Case law limits language, and therefore, makes it more difficult to define the rights of nonhuman beings. Lidia Cano Pecharroman states that,

"As opposed to the idea that rights are a set of timeless and immutable values that already exist, instead rights constitute an intricate system of relationships that keep evolving. (…) The evolution of these relationships allows us to recognize new rights. These relationships do not only exist amongst humans but are also established when we interact with nature."27

As Erin Freedman discussed during one of our bauhaus imaginista workshop conversations, a relationship of stewardship has already been adopted by various museums—such as the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology—in order to address the problematics of property ownership, as well as the caretaking and rehoming of artistically-valued beings. This idea of stewardship is relational and focuses on the maintenance of a relationship between the museum and each Indigenous nation whose beings are housed within the museum, pursuant to a negotiated agreement with each nation and family that their relatives may be called upon for service and ceremony within the community. It is sometimes in the interest of an Indigenous nation to have beings cared for by a museum, with the stipulation they may be returned upon request. But it is also necessary that the museum not assume such a role of stewardship, in the same way that it often assumes a more paternalistic role in believing that it is more capable of protecting the beings in its collections than the Indigenous nations that they have acquired them from. As Kristina Ackley states:

"For some museums, there is still a belief that Native people will not care for cultural items properly, which in Western terms is focused mainly on preservation. Some curators may no doubt cringe at the thought of repatriated items turning to dust on a remote mesa, unable to accept that those items are completing their life cycle." 28

In any case, each relationship must be nurtured between the museum and each separate Indigenous nation in consultation, with the priority placed on connecting to the families whose beings are in collections and reuniting them with their relatives. The will and opinion of each Indigenous family is essential to guiding these discussions, while the museum must work to support what has been requested with care and generosity. It is this very process of relationality which should govern how museums and Indigenous nations might work together towards commonly agreed upon ends.

What is left for further reconsideration are the parameters of Repatriation Acts, especially their definitions of who and what qualifies as “sacred” or to whom a being may be rehomed to, qualifications founded on the legally-recognized status of various Indigenous nations by nation states and their relationships through lineal descent. The latter are frequently counter to many systems of Indigenous kinship and ignore the complexities of each nation’s status with regards to the nation state it is occupied by or the systems of tribal recognition employed by different Indigenous nations. As Vine Deloria Jr. states, “The revelation that establishes the tribal community or brings to it the sacred pipes, the sacred arrows, the sacred hats, and other sacred objects is a communal affair in which the community participates but in which no individual claims exclusive franchise.”29 There are, arguably, far more Indigenous nations and self-determined communities on Turtle Island than are legally acknowledged.


Symposium bauhaus imaginista: Learning From ​at the Goethe-Institut New York, June 2018, photo: Daniel Albanese.

By understanding a process of relationality from multiple Indigenous perspectives while also recognizing animacy as a force of energy waves 30 flowing through all matter of beings, museums can begin the work of learning from their relations rather than acting according to the presuppositions of the subject/object epistemological world view that are projected upon non-European cultures and disseminated as ultimate fact. By understanding each being through the languages it is related to, the exhibition has the potential to facilitate the protection of Indigenous languages (an aspect of what is defined as culture) by supporting language revitalization programs, which may serve the following seven generations of Indigenous peoples to come, while also teaching non-Indigenous peoples aspects of our stories, ethics and laws from our own perspective. Simultaneously, a rethinking of the English language (and other colonial languages) that shape art historical narratives through the meaning and power of each word, as well as its legal ramifications, is called for in order to unpack the repercussions of their implementation within economic systems. While words such as “belonging,” “being” and “repatriation” demonstrably expose certain tensions operating in their connoted meanings, it is clear that one or several new words are necessary in order to replace the term “object.” It is also clear that expanding the citizen rights of all beings is a project in great need of advancement in order to dismantle systematic supremacy imbedded within law, art, and mediations of life.

  • 1 In a conversation between Candice Hopkins, Erin Freedman and myself during our visit to the American Museum of Natural History on June 8, 2018, Candice suggested that the museum needs to shift their wording from “objects” to “belongings.” Such a lexical shift would foreground the fact that belongings “belong” to people, and thus would become understood on a personal level rather than maintaining the scientific separation between “objects” and the the people, families, and communities who made and used them. For this reason, I replace the word object(s) for belonging(s) throughout this essay. I will further problematize the word belonging within the subsection: “On Belonging, Being, and Rematriation.”
  • 2 A non-binary intervention replacing the word “his”story.
  • 3 Mel Y. Chen describes the work of “animacy” theory like this: “Animacy activates new theoretical formations that trouble and undo stubborn binary systems of difference, including dynamism/stasis, life/death, subject/object, speech/nonspeech, human/animal, natural body/cyborg.”, in: Mel Y. Chen: Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect, Duke University Press, Durham 2012, p. 3.
  • 4 While in conversation with Audrey Dreaver on 26 July 2018 at the Creative Conciliations summer residency at University of British Columbia Okanagan, Audrey offered the words, “ancestors” or “Ancient Ones” to describe beings (otherwise known as belongings, artifacts or objects).
  • 5 Audra Simpson: “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” in: Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue, No. 9, 2007, Otago Polytechnic Te Kura Matatini ki Otago.
  • 6 Eva Tuck & K. Wayne Yang: “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in: D. Paris and M.T. Winn (eds.): Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks 2014.
  • 7 David Garneau: “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation: Art, Curation, and Healing,” in: Dylan Robinson and Keavy Martin (eds.): Arts of Engagement: Taking Aesthetic Action In and Beyond the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Canada 2016.
  • 8 Garneau: “Imaginary Spaces of Conciliation and Reconciliation", 2016, p. 3.
  • 9 See Susan M. Hill: The Clay We Are Made Of: Haudenosaunee Land Tenure on the Grand River, University of Manitoba Press, Winnipeg, Canada 2017, p. 43.
  • 10 Jordan Wilson: “Gathered Together: Listening to Musqueam Lived Experiences,” in: Biography, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Summer), University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu 2006, p. 490.
  • 11 “What does it mean?” in Mohawk.
  • 12 As Edward Said states, “The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles”[footnote 1994, p. 2
  • 13 Edward W. Said: Orientialism, Vintage Books/Random House, New York 1994 (1978).
  • 14 Adógwa’shä’ is the word for spoon/ladle in the Seneca language, (18 July, 2018).
  • 15 Che Gossett: “Che Gossett: Blackness, Animality, and the Unsovereign,” in: Verso Books blog, 2015, (22 June, 2018).
  • 16 Magubane: “Ethnographic Showcases as Sites of Knowledge Production and Indigenous Resistance,” 2009, p. 49.
  • 17 Little Bear’s Blackfoot perspective on relationality can be similarly understood from a Haudenosaunee perspective by listening to the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen (Thanksgiving Address).
  • 18 Little Bear: “Traditional Knowledge and Humanities: A Perspective by a Blackfoot,” 2012, p. 521.
  • 19 Little Bear, 2012, p. 522.
  • 20 I use neutral pronouns when addressing beings, rather than “it” because “it” is commonly used in the English language to describe an object. Therefore, I use “they”, “their”, and “them” for gender neutral pronouns as well as “hir”storical.
  • 21 My encounter with the term rehoming comes from Paige Van Tassel, a graduate student in Art Conservation at Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario.
  • 22 (22 June, 2018).
  • 23 A sachem is a Haudenosaunee leader.
  • 24 (25 July, 2018).
  • 25 Barbara Alice Mann: “Rematriation of the Truth,” from: (25 July, 2018).
  • 26 Mihnea Tanasescu: “Rivers Get Human Rights: They Can Sue to Protect Themselves,” from: Scientific American, from (23 July, 2018).
  • 27 Lidia Cano Pecharroman: “Rights of Nature: Rivers That Can Stand in Court,” in: Resources, MDPI 2018, p. 2.
  • 28 Magubane:“Ethnographic Showcases as Sites of Knowledge Production and Indigenous Resistance,” 2009, p. 265.
  • 29 Vine Deloria Jr.: God is Red: A Native View of Religion, Fulcrum Publishing, Colorado 2003, p. 195.
  • 30 Little Bear: “Traditional Knowledge and Humanities," 2012.
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