Native American Voices: Come and Listen

The Penn Museum’s current exhibit Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now is a powerful celebration of contemporary indigenous cultures as living, breathing entities. Native American history as commonly recounted in the United States is a tale of woe and loss, framing Native groups as near extinct and struggling to survive. Post-contact Native history is certainly filled with tragedy, but using only this lens discounts the vibrant communities still existing who speak their own languages and carry on their cultural traditions. The Penn Museum’s exhibit aims to highlight these communities.

The head curator of this exhibit, Lucy Fowler Williams, is non-Native, but she is a cultural anthropologist who has worked with the museum’s American collection for 23 years.  For this exhibit, she had an advisory board made up of four Native women from diverse backgrounds. This is a useful example of how to amplify Native voices in a museum setting.

Another way in which this exhibit gives voice to contemporary Native peoples is that the Penn Museum did its own fieldwork, working with over 80 Native American contributors all across the United States. The fieldwork team created five videos which are used in the exhibition and are also posted on the website. The topics range from language restoration to fights for sovereignty, from “post-Indian consciousness” to Native art and dance. In one of the videos, scholar, writer, and poet Gerald Vizenor speaks to the typical narrative of Native history: “So much written about Natives is like a declaration that represents the tragedy of our cultures, our horrible experiences with the federal government. […] But that isn’t our story. Our story is also the people who came out of that to create a new consciousness, to create a new sense of presence.”  (See video below.)  Native American Voices works to tell that story.

The exhibit has four official themes. “Local Nations” deals with questions of sovereignty and self-determination, both today and in the past. “Sacred Places” examines the definition of a sacred place and the issues that arise when a Native group with site-specific cosmology is ousted from their land. “Continuing Celebrations” discusses cultural ceremonies, and how those traditions affect and shape contemporary Native identity and representation. “New Initiatives” focuses on political activism and efforts at Native language revitalization. These themes are supported by the Penn Museum’s extensive collection of Native artifacts, which make up the bulk of the exhibit. However, there are also images of and quotations from dozens of contemporary Native Americans, which infuse the exhibit with a strong Native presence.

Since many of the aspects that define contemporary Native culture cannot be captured in an exhibit, Native American Voices puts on a fair amount of public programming. Examples include dance shows, pottery workshops for families, a “gallery romp” for children (in which they go on a fishing trip with Kumak and his family), and a lecture on the origins of lacrosse. One of the most intriguing public programs is called Modern Native Voices: The Medium of Hip-Hop. It’s refreshing to see a museum embrace a contemporary musical genre and make space for non-traditional paths to liberation.

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Native American Voices boasts an impressive teacher’s resource packet. It begins with Frequently Asked Questions, which includes a discussion of the correct terminology for Native people (American Indian, Indian, Native American, and Native are all generally acceptable, but whenever possible, Native people tend to prefer to be called by their tribal name, such as Cherokee or Tlingit). The packet lists “Topics to Stress” to students, including the vast diversity of Native groups and that Native cultures are still living. The section “Actions to Avoid” recommends against making headdresses, dressing up as Native, assigning students “Indian names” or “tribes,” and speaking about Native people in the past tense. The packet also offers a variety of activities on Native treaties, pottery, regalia, and demography. This educational resource is useful in a variety of ways: not only does it give teachers guidelines to follow when working with their students, but it also educates the teachers themselves who might be lacking in cultural sensitivity.

Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now demonstrates the potential of museums to amplify voices that have been silenced and highlight narratives that have been marginalized. As future museum professionals, we should aspire to such inclusivity in our institutions.

One thought on “Native American Voices: Come and Listen

  1. This sounds like an amazing exhibit. It’s great that it’s focusing on contemporary Native Americans, instead of just talking about what Native Americans did in the past. Many exhibits I’ve seen that talk about Native Americans also include a lot of contemporary art, which is important, but I like that this exhibit is going farther and talking about modern-day political issues, sovereignty, ceremonies, etc. And the teacher’s resource packet looks like an excellent resource.

    I’m curious what the reaction has been from Native groups and individuals. Do they approve of the exhibit, or were there concerns?

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