Decolonization of Indigenous Art: Challenges in the museum

Since the Age of exploration and discovery, western civilizations have extended their political and  economical influence to the rest of the less-developed world through colonization. The technologic progresses during the industrial revolution further accelerated the speed of colonization and facilitated the implantation of western power in the colonies. With no doubt, the western dominance in the colonies’ politics and economy also encroached the culture and art of indigenous people. A great many natives under colonization gave up their traditional ways of living and crafts-making and embraced the western counterparts.


World Colony Map circa 1750

In the contemporary society where diversity and multiculture are advocated, decolonization in political field is on the way. Many countries in Africa and Asia became independent during the mid twentieth century. However, the decolonization of indigenous art encounters with loads of challenges, because the cultural stereotypes deeply imprinted prevent people from respecting and appreciating them. The native American art is just the case, as shown more evidently in the Brooklyn museum.


Inlayed Pipe Bowl with Two Faces, Sioux, early 19th century

Their works of art are rarely exhibited. Among the total twenty long-term exhibitions in the Brooklyn museum, only two are relavant to native Americans, which are Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas and Small Wonders from the American Collections.

Even there are only two, their works of art are not in independent sections. Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas focus more on Maya and Aztec, with a smaller portion on native Americans, while Small Wonders from the American Collections focus more on European settlers. The mixed display of native American arts with other art forms admittedly helps the visitors to compare for the stylistic and symbolic similarities and differences, but it also invariably lessens their attention to native American arts.


Kachina Doll (Anahoho), Zuni Pueblo, late 19th century

The location is another challenge. The two exhibitions are located in the fifth floor, while in the four floors below there are African, Asian, Egyptian, European and modern arts. Usually visitors start from the first floor, so the exhibitions there are commonly the most popular. Similarly, the fewest visitors will go to fifth floor. Even they do, they are likely very tired and will only skim the exhibits instead of looking closely.


A contemporary native sculpture by Rose Bean Simpson

Last but not least, the contemporary arts of native Americans are missing. There is not even one piece of them in the Contemporary Art Galleries and in American Identities: A New Look, Modern Life. The indigenous arts did not disappear in modern world. On the contrary, they are thriving in rich forms, such as ceramics, paintings, sculptures and hides. Also, the contemporary native American arts are indispensable, because only with them can we find out the continuity on forms and styles through history. There is no reason to be excluded.

There could be a solution to the challenges in museum. Like Paul Chaat Smith, to be a curator or to establish a museum as a native American may help spread and preserve native American arts. But still it is a long way.




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Action Archaeology: Agriculture, Population and Sustainability

“The possible futures of the global system are illuminated by careful study of its past and comparisons with power processes in previous eras.”[1] The thought-provoking statement from  archaeologists Jonathan Friedman and Christopher Chase-Dunn clearly demonstrates the importance of the past to the future. In other words, to look into how past people dealt with contemporary problems can give us an insight into how we deal with them at the present and in the future. This is exactly what we call “Action Archaeology.” More specifically, through analyzing the success and failure in agriculture of past civilizations, we are able to adjust and improve our agricultural strategies, to produce more crops for the growing population, and ultimately to develop a sustainable society.

The ancient Maya succeeded in maintaining their race by agricultural innovations. Between about 100BC and AD450, unlike “today’s relatively sparse population,” the northern Maya lowland in the Yucatan peninsula was heavily populated.[2]


A wetland of the Yalahau region.

In order to support themselves, first, the Maya mixed “a colony algae, fungus, bacteria, detritus and other living organisms” to make “periphyton,” which proves to be “a natural, renewable, and manageable source of agricultural fertilizer.”[3] Second, they piled “chich mounds” under economically important trees “to conserve moisture and to provide support for trees cultivated in the shallow soils.”[4]


A modern chich mound at the base of a tree.

As a result, such agricultural innovations “[led] to sustainable development in this region.”[5] If we could apply their ways of cultivation together with modern technology, we would be more likely to handle today’s population issues and to sustain our race.

The Sumerians, on the opposite, destroyed themselves by damaging the environment. Their “heavy irrigation in a hot, dry climate leads to a gradual accumulation of salt in the soil.”[6]


Salinization of soil.

At last, the salinization transformed the used-to-be fertile land to the extent that even barley could not grow.[7] “The very soil lost its virtue,” and Sumerian Civilization collapsed.[8] The negative effect on environment lasted even for thousands of years, for in the 19th century the population of Iraq was less than tenth of that in the age of Gilgamesh.[9] Thoroughly analyzing how the Sumerians destroyed their agriculture, we could avoid the same tragedy happening in the future and learn to develop sustainably.


Sumerian civilization in the middle of the desert.

Besides agriculture and sustainability, in action archaeology, the past can also help us reduce warfare, alleviate poverty  and strengthen identiy. In short, the achievements and mistakes of past civilization are ladders, leading to a happier life for every single person in the world.


1 Jonathan Friedman and Christopher Chase-Dunn, Hegemonic Decline: Past and Present (Paradigm Publishers, 2005), Introduction, as quoted in Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World (Walnut Creek, CA.: Left Coast Press, 2008), 45.

2 Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World, 49.

3 Scott L. Fedick and Bethany A. Morrison, “Ancient use and manipulation of landscape in the Yalahau region of the northern Maya lowlands,” in Agriculture and Human Values (21: 207–219, 2004).

4 Ibid.

5 Jeremy A. Sabloff, Archaeology Matters: Action Archaeology In The Modern World, 49.

6 Paul Krugman, “Salt Of The Earth,” in New York Times (August, 08, 2003).

7 Ibid.

8 Leonard Woolley, Ur of the Chaldees, as quoted in Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.

9 Paul Krugman, Salt Of The Earth.


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A view in Catskills

Acorn Hill, Catskills Mountains

Through a hole in the fence we entered the wilderness. With countless fallen tree branches and slippery mossy stones jutting out the ground, we needed to be as swift as a deer to jump over the obstacles. It is a paradox that we could not really act like a deer, because the nearby hunters thinking we were deers might mistakenly shoot us. This trek fitted perfectly with a stereotype regarding to archaeology–archaeologists are always accompanied by mysterious forests, poisonous bugs, and hands full of dirt. We were in a forest, we had dirty hands, but no bugs, if frogs did not count, probably because we all had sprayed ourselves before. However, the excitement of going on my very first real field trip dissipated  all the concerns and made me enjoy it.

In the woods of Acorn Hill.

In the woods of Acorn Hill.

Askohan Reservoir in the Catskills Mountains, lying ninety-three miles north of New York City, was completed in 1915 to provide clean water for the city. While water was transporting through ninety-two miles long aquaducts to slake the thirst of New York City, eleven towns and thousands of arces of farmlands were vanished underwater. Hoping to know how the construction of Askohan Reservoir affected local people’s lives and reshaped rural landscapes, we were here.


Olivebridge Dam under construction to build the Ashokan Reservoir circa 1910.



The Ashoken Reservoir seen from Monument Road in Ulster County, New York, USA.

 Finally, we reached the site marked by a washing machine in 1940s, and spilt into three groups to start working. Two groups were dealing with a sampling unit, with each of the three members in a group responsible for different jobs, describing the artifacts, writing down the descriptions, and drawing pictures in the notebook. Instead of staying motionless beside the unit, my group with Dr. Beisaw walked around to gain a better understanding of the adjacent area. There were several piles of stones not far away, on which scattered all kinds of glass, ceramics, metal cans and even shoes. According to Dr. Beisaw, these piles of stones were remains of houses of domestic people, while the bigger piles of soil to the right were industrial records of the exploitation of bluestone in quarry for the construction of the dam over the reservoir. Moving on, we were amazed by a huge man-made platform of stone about six feet high, because there used to be a entire mountain of stone over fifty feet, which completely disappeared after being quarried. At last, we drew a simple map of the area near the sampling unit and highlighted the piles of stone and soil, road and quarry.

During the field trip, what I enjoyed the most is to listen to the stories of every artifact, feature, and ecofact I encountered. They are alive. Trees were not only trees. Their composition and postion suggested that this was a farmland before being abandoned. Stones were not only stones. Their size and shape showed that some were walls to mark the rim of the farmland, some were to support domestic houses. The miscellany of artifacts told a more comprehensive story. Dining ceramics and a metal pan embodied that people were cooking on their own and eating near the quarry. Perfume and nail polish bottles manifested that some people here were in families. Archaeologists cherish the information more than the value in artifacts, because with information, they can reconstruct the past society. Even when you took a piece of gold to an archaeologist, the typical answer would be, according to Dr. Beisaw, “Gold? So what? Give me information!”


Search result of Ashokan Reservoir,

A.J.Loftin, The Ashokan Reservoir: The creation of the Ashokan Reservoir changed the Catskills forever

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