Developments in the Reclamation and Ownership of New Mexican history

Indian Advisory Panel presentation at NMAM 2010 in Las Vegas, NM

This Note was first posted on my personal page in November 2010 and re-posted on the WOLF Consulting page today.

A session at the New Mexico Association of Museums meetings in Las Vegas, NM last week reminded me of how far we have come in readjusting the boundaries and opportunities for reclamation of cultural histories and responsibilities for care of museum collections made for different reasons at different times. Christine Sims of Acoma, Gary Roybal of San Ildefonso, and Ulysses Reed of Zia presented on the formation and purposes of Indian Advisory Panels for museums, and it prompted me to look back and see all the changes that have occurred in my short lifetime.

When I arrived in Santa Fe fresh out of grad school in 1977, it was to assume my role as the latest caretaker of the Indian Arts Fund collection that had been started in the 1920s by anthropologists like Kenneth Chapman and concerned citizens like Harry Mera, Amelia White, and Laura Gilpin. The notion was that Native American cultures, particularly the Pueblos, were endangered by proposed legislation such as the Bursum Bill which would have allowed the further distribution of reservation land to squatters and neighbors. The IAF bought up thousands of fine pieces in this well-meaning but patronizing process and intermingled them with collections of the School of American Research and Labratory of Anthropology of the Museum of New Mexico. After 1949 or so, the SAR was split off from the Museum of New Mexico and there began something of a Thirty Years War of disputes over ownership of the collections.

In 1977 the Indian Arts Fund collection was free to go to the SAR, and it was my assignment as curator to work with Santa Fe architect John Midyette to complete the design and oversee construction for the Indian Art Research Center, move the collection safely from its inaccessible location in the basement of the Fine Arts Museum on the Plaza, and to create the initial programs of the IARC while keeping an eye on the SAR collections remaining in units of the Museum of New Mexico. I felt honored to follow in the footsteps of IAF curator Betty Toulouse and my immediate predecessor Tom Dickerson. SAR was a wonderful mixture of staid tradition and cutting edge thinking, primarily about the Southwestern cultures in those days. I got to know resident fellows like Alfonso Ortiz of Ohkay Owingeh and Princeton, Steve Williams of the Harvard Peabody Museum and Dick Ford from Michigan, and to spend a lot of time in the Pueblos at dances and other public ceremonies. Some of the SAR board members like Sallie Wagner and Marge Lambert became my mentors regarding the collections. Researchers began to come in significant numbers.

Who was missing in this picture? It was the people themselves! I remember the first time that I invited some ladies from one of the Pueblos to come and visit the collections from their home. There was an immediate call from the administration, wondering what all the kids, dogs and pickup trucks were doing in the parking lot, making noise and disrupting the monastic silence of the SAR grounds. It all felt very colonial to me.

I later moved on to other adventures including working with tribes in the northern Plains, Plateau, and Southwest as a museum director and later as a consultant. Meanwhile the IARC has continued to evolve in ways that I endorse and support fully. Native American interns, fellows and staff members are now the majority at IARC, and Native scholars from widespread communities are now significant contributors to seminars and publications. While many of the elders are gone, their children and grandchildren are receiving inspiration from works in the IAF collection. And, best of all for me, a highly qualified and well-respected Native scholar, Dr. Cynthia Chavez Lamar, now sits in my former chair at the IARC. While the mission of the SAR (now the School of Advanced Research in the Human Condition) has broadened, the mission of the IARC has deepened and the Native experience has been fully blended with the traditional anthro approaches.

Other major changes in recent decades include:

–  The passage of the NAGPRA law regarding repatriation of sacred objects and grave materials, which has required   that museums get to know themselves, their collections, and their Native American neighbors in a better and different way

– The rise of Native American Studies programs and the encouragement of students to explore their own history and related histories

–  The rising clout of tribes with support from gaming activities that have resulted in their own interpretations of culture in tribal museums and visitor centers

– The major opportunities for Native American curators from all over the US to intern and take positions at the National Museum of the American Indian during its formation and opening

– The return of sophisticated, well-educated young people to their local tribal communities and the networks they bring home

– The acceptance of tribal elders as community scholars for projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal funders, which used to require Ivy League PhDs for all projects

– The increasing role of formal Advisory groups in museums, with many important content and interpretation decisions now made by Native Americans who are community elders while non-native people continue to care for the collections.

These trends will continue to evolve, and as I listened to the NMAM panel, it reminded me that the contest to create the continuing history of New Mexico has only begun. In response to the mostly celebratory 400th anniversary history of Santa Fe, a group of young Native scholars released their version of events and consequences in an anthology entitled White Shell Water Place, the very next day after the NMAM meetings.

I look forward to the next developments in the reclamation and ownership of history in New Mexico.

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