Ignored Narratives: Telling the Stories of 21st Century Native Americans

Growing up, I split my time between the cities of Spokane and Moses Lake, Washington. Both have long and complex histories with the indigenous tribes of the region, many of which no longer exist and the others were forced to relocate to reservations. I was always aware of the reservation, yet the history I was taught in school was that of indigenous groups from what is now the Eastern United States and nothing after the Indian Wars of the 19th Century. After reading Sherman Alexis’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, set on and near the Spokane Indian Reservation, I began reflecting on just how little I know about any contemporary Native American Life.

I set out to find exhibitions related to mid-to-late 20th Century or contemporary life. A task the was far more difficult than I imagined. Many of the exhibitions online related to Native art, many of which were solely textiles and tools and treated Native Americans as though they were no longer in existence. Finally, I came across an online exhibition from the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine called “Headline News: Wabanaki Sovereignty in the 21st Century.” The exhibition focuses on the unique struggle of the Wabanaki, as their treaties of sovereignty were negotiated with European powers or with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, rather than with the Federal Government of the United States, which did not recognize the Wabanaki until the 1970s. [1] The exhibition is highly based around the efforts of the Wabanaki to retake control over their land and how they work with the federal, state, and local governments of the United States as partners and allies to enact meaningful change. After providing a summary of a specific issue (the exhibition touches on the border, veterans, identity, language, the Emerald Ash Borer, gaming, hunting and fishing right, environmental management, and truth and reconciliation commissions) the viewer can follow links to newspaper articles and additional resources that offer further information about these important issues.

The struggle for sovereignty continues to create problems in the broader context of US-Wabanaki relations. Indigenous people throughout the United States have long used gaming as a means of economic independence. With the passing of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988 regulations were established to promote the legal gaming industry for Native Americans, yet the Wabanaki were not included in that legislation so Maine has not allowed for the establishment of gaming facilities. [2] Although there are many concerns about gaming, such as addiction, the decision of how to grow economic independence and how to regulate the venture should rest solely with the Wabanaki people. It is time for the United States to recognize that Native Americans are more than capable of governing themselves and part of sovereignty is the freedom to decide what is best for the people being governed without outside interference.

An additional and highly important aspect of the exhibition is the integration of the views of individual members of the Wabanaki. The exhibition does not try to speak for everyone and offers differing opinions to muddy the narrative further. The goal is not to paint the picture that the Wabanaki have all the answers, rather that they have just as many problems to deal with as Americans, but they alone have the authority to address those issues. Views differ on many aspects of Wabanaki life, especially in terms of relations and status in American society. Veterans quoted in the exhibition range from feeling unrecognized and underappreciated, to advocating for the removal of an us versus them mentality. [3] These perspectives highlight the differences in people that exist through the world; no two people are entirely identical, let only a whole people group.

The history and struggle depicted throughout this exhibition agency is given to the Wabanaki people. Viewers are brought into the story through various media and are brought face-to-face with the reality that Native Americans are still grappling with oppression and navigating stereotypes resulting from early American history and forced relocation to reservations. “Headline News” treats the issues present in Wabanaki society just as all issues regarding Native Americans should be viewed, as a sovereign nation grappling with trying to govern its people while dealing with international pressures and a history of outside influence. This model should be adopted throughout the United States and Sovereign Nations of Native Americans as a way to bridge the gap of understanding between tribes and the surrounding communities, while educating the public of a long ignored, but highly important historical narrative.

[1] “Headline News: Wabanaki Sovereignty in the 21st Century,” Abbe Museum, Accessed March 24, 2017. http://archive.abbemuseum.org/headlinenews/Introduction/HeadlineNewsIndex.html

[2] “Gaming” Abbe Museum, Accessed March 24, 2017. http://archive.abbemuseum.org/headline-news/Gaming/HeadlineNewsGaming.html

[3] “Veterans: In Their Own Words” Abbe Museum, Accessed March 24, 2017. http://archive.abbemuseum.org/headlinenews/Veterans/HeadlineNewsVeterans%20Quotes.html

One thought on “Ignored Narratives: Telling the Stories of 21st Century Native Americans

  1. Great stuff! The Abbe Museum is such an incredible leader in being a social active cultural institution. It brings Native Americans into the present, something I think Sherman Alexie does really well, from where history books have consigned them to the past. Really want to get up to that museum soon!

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