Voices of the Present: Native Stories at the Penn Museum

Today’s Native American leaders are speaking. Come and listen.

— Native American Voices, the Penn Museum


For the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) collection of a million objects, there are plenty of pieces from Native American cultures throughout North America. Like many institutions with these artifacts, the Penn Museum in Philadelphia has used its panoply of tools, containers, and sacred objects to create an image of life and culture for native peoples. It’s an old approach. And it has just changed drastically for the better.

On March 1, 2014, the museum opened Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now, an exhibition that connects the variety of collections to the contemporary tribes and groups who once owned them. The goal is to educate and challenge visitors about how they perceive Native Americans, presenting objects through the lens of each tribe and its fight for cultural, economic, and sometimes political independence. Four themes tie them together: 1) “Local Nations” tells the modern stories of the Lenape people in the Delaware Valley (Pennsylvania and New Jersey); 2) “Sacred Places” illustrate the meaning of space and the reasons for protecting landscapes throughout the United States; 3) “Continuing Celebrations” outlines ceremony and tradition as central aspects of current Native American life; and 4) “New Initiatives” explores the social and political forces helping and hurting Native American identity today.[1]

The project began with the Native American Voices video project, when curator Lucy Fowler Williams hired Hopi journalist Patty Talahongva to conduct 25 interviews with Native American artists, activists, scholars, and youth around the country.[2] The interviews were combined into 7-8 minute videos that address everything from preserving language to political activism.

Many Native American languages are endangered, and perspectives on language change between each group and each individual.

These videos are a major part of the exhibition both in the gallery and online. Teachers are encouraged to use them in the classroom as part of five units for teaching history and culture. Visitors online are encouraged to explore the collections database (insert link) as well as the extended videos.

Kiowa Cradle Board
Kiowa Cradle Board, Oklahoma, Penn Museum Collection

The exhibition opened with a day of presentations from several of the project’s 80 collaborators. Native Nations Dance Theater (insert link), famous for educating about Native American culture throughout the world, performed and led dance and music workshops from multiple traditions. Leaders and teachers hosted storytelling and political activism sessions. Choctaw Joe Watkins, National Park Service Chief Anthropologist, lectured on modern indigenous archaeology while the University of Pennsylvania Native American student group led crafts inspired by the art on display.[3]

The students’ involvement speaks volumes about the exhibition’s connecting nature. Many visitors have been astounded after seeing testimonies from the existing Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe in South Jersey. Lenape Tina Pierce Fragoso told her story as a student, tribal councilwoman, and activist. “It’s a way to focus on us – now,” she reported to the South Jersey Times. While the tribe continues to push for more political strength, the exhibition has provided a voice to their opinion as well as a modern, involved image of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people and way of life.[4]


It’s a way to focus on us – now.

–Tina Pierce Fragoso, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, in the South Jersey Times


oThis publicity is where Native American Voices succeeds. The all too common phrase of “We’re still here” transforms into “We ARE here” as Native American groups have the chance to express their lives as individuals and as peoples in a major metropolitan area. Visitors cannot walk away from the show without knowing that there are native cultures living and breathing all across the country and only several miles away. Of course, there are groups that have been missed, as the perspectives are heavy from native artists who work to preserve culture in their tribes. And while the concept of landscape takes the forefront, the continuing problems of reservation life are not as essential to the story.

Still, few exhibitions can pull off this depth of humanity here and now. If other museums can make these connections with their archaeological objects, there may be an incredible opportunity to include those groups that are less represented in our cultural institutions.


[1]Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now, Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.penn.museum/sites/nativeamericanvoices/exhibition.php.

[2] “Extended Videos,” Native American Voices, http://www.penn.museum/sites/nativeamericanvoices/videos.php.

[3] “Native Americans from around the Country Join the Opening Celebration at the Penn Museum,” Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania. http://www.penn.museum/press-releases/1047-nav-opening.html

[4] Kristie Rearick, “Bridgeton resident’s voice heard in Penn Museum exhibit on Native Americans today,” South Jersey Times, March 7, 2014. http://www.nj.com/indulge/index.ssf/2014/03/bridgeton_residents_voice_heard_in_penn_museum_exhibit_about_native_america_today.html

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