Are Museums Accidentally Supporting Stereotypes about Native Americans?

Think of all the famous museums in the United States? Which ones come to mind? I would guess your list includes any of the Smithsonian Museums, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, or the National Museum of American History in D.C. However, when you think of the exhibits in the museums, what do think of? Pieces by artists such as da Vinci or Renoir would probably come to mind. Rarely would people think of works by Native American artists. This is due to a lack of awareness and education about Native American art—schools simply do not offer materials or examples of this type of art. Thus, the problem arises that people grow up without a realization of the importance of Native American art. Without Native American art, we can never tell the whole story of American art simply because Native American culture is apart of American history.

I attended a lecture last week that discussed this problem, specifically in terms of how museums handle native art. Surprisingly, most museums do in fact have collections of native art; however, rarely are they displayed to the public. If a Native American art collection is shown, it is usually exhibited in an ethnographic way, lumped together with African ‘tribal’ art. This tribal art idea arose through the colonization of American—it implies that this type of art is primitive or inferior to that of Western civilizations. Furthermore, one could almost bet that the Native American art collection only includes art up until the mid-20th century, which supports the stereotypical view that Native Americans are no longer here. These Native American collections (if displayed) are usually found in the back of the museum, sending a statement that those collections are less important and supporting the stereotype of Native Americans.


With additional research about this issue, I found an interesting article that talked about how the way museums display Native American art can be demeaning. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History, Native American art can be found right next to the dinosaur exhibit. This display placement sends a message that these people are from an uncivilized, natural world; when in fact, evidence found by archaeologists (such as Cohokia artifacts) shows that Native Americans had their own civilization, society, and technology—they were not uncivilized or savage. Furthermore, these exhibit usually have 3-D depiction of a Native American scene (a diorama). These dioramas support the belittling stereotypes about Native Americans and takes away from the value and history of the art by guessing about how that culture lived.


Therefore, the root of the problems facing Native American art comes from the way it is presented in schools and museums. Museums are being ethnographic by only displaying native art from prior to the 20th century while schools teach little about Native American art and history. Thus, both institutions create a population with little appreciation for such an important part of our history. Only with better education and awareness about Native American art can our society learn about the complete American past.


Image 1:

Image 2:

Read More:





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.




Brooklyn Museum:

contemporary north american artists:

Paul Chaat Smith:

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4




Exhibiting the Colonized: Modern America’s Erasure of Contemporary Native American Art

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Native American art? If you’re anything like the majority of non-Native Americans, a vague jumble of pottery, baskets, and blankets probably sums up all you know about Native art. But what about prints, photographs, paintings, and all the other forms contemporary art can take? Native artists have been creating incredible, inventive contemporary art for decades, but most Americans have no clue.

Here’s a piece of contemporary art you’ve probably never seen before: “Animals out of Darkness,” a 1961 print made by Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak and displayed in “Decolonizing the Exhibition,” a show of modern Inuit art hosted by the Frances Lehman Loeb Gallery at Vassar College.

The reasons for this knowledge gap, said the artists, collectors, and curators on the panel Decolonizing the Exhibition: Four Perspectives on Indigenous Visual Culture in the Museum Space, are numerous. First off, very few museums exhibit contemporary Native art. Some own contemporary pieces but never let them out of storage, while others display only decades-old examples of “traditional crafts” that are often viewed from an ethnographic perspective—that is, not as works of art, but rather artifacts that provide information about the life ways of Native peoples.

For example, a look through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website revealed a single gallery containing the “art of Native North America,” part of a larger collection entitled “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.” The most recent pieces in that gallery are “1970s-era tobacco bags.” By contrast, the American Wing has 73 galleries, while the Modern and Contemporary Art collection hosts over 12,000 works by a wide range of international artists dating from 1900 to the present. Although it would have been impossible to look through the combined 29,000 pieces in these two collections, the fact that the gallery of Native art is separate from both the American and the modern collections suggests that few to none of the works in the two latter collections are by Native artists.

The gallery of Native North American “artifacts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In addition to this museum conundrum, the panelists pointed out that Native Art is rarely studied or discussed in academia. Sarah Sense, a Native artist with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art, said that she had never taken a course in Native art and had rarely seen any examples of it during her time in art school. Similarly, Pilar Jefferson, an art history major at Vassar, said that she had never discussed Native art in the classroom.

This erasure of contemporary Native artists has a range of negative consequences. By only exhibiting works that are generally over a century old, museums reinforce the Eurocentric narrative that Native Americans all died off or simply vanished after the arrival of European settlers. And by displaying Native art as ethnographic artifacts or traditional handicrafts, museums negate Native artists’ creativity and ability to respond to the modern world.

“Red Raven, Red Raven,” a screen print made by Tom Greyeyes, a contemporary Navajo artist, in response to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the recent film adaptation of “The Lone Ranger.” This is one of many examples of Native artists critiquing the portrayal of Native Americans in popular media.

From both the panel and the exhibition of contemporary Inuit art in the Loeb Gallery, it quickly became clear that contemporary Native art is not only real but thriving, addressing everything from the incorporation of modern technology into traditional life ways to the portrayal of Native Americans in the media. Contemporary Native American pieces are not crafts or artifacts; they’re works of art.


To see more contemporary Native American art, check out the following links:

Tom Greyeyes’ blog

Sarah Sense’s website

The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts



Image 1:

Image 2:

Image 3:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection

Sarah Sense Weaving Water

Pitaloosie Saila Strange Ladies, 2006

Vassar College’s Art History program has been known for its progressive contemporary art programs, but for this experiment interdisciplinary efforts were called for. In fact, the Art department was not the one to call for this experiment – the Native American Studies department did the majority of the preparatory work under Professor McGlennen. It took two years, but the class, Decolonizing the Exhibition, was a huge success; pulling from the Art History department many of its students. In its novelty the exhibition held a panel for students inside and outside the class to hear from the forces that put the exhibition together. One panelist was McGlennen herself; another, Edward Guarino, a collector of Indigenous art and friend of Vassar; third, a student: Pilar Jefferson; and lastly, Sarah Sense, a Native American artist.

All four panelists explained the goals of the course as related to the art/museum world, as well as the education world. The panelists expressed their concerns that they had never learned about the contemporary Native American art movement in their Art History educations and when they came into contact with Indigenous art in the museum it tended to focus on older generations in an anthropological manner.

The way this exhibition was executed – through the Native American Studies department instead of the Art department – allowed for a new approach to contemporary Indigenous art installation. Jefferson and McGlennen both explained the limitations and challenges of such an exhibition, especially in a museum, where traditionally Indigenous art is displayed in an anthropological manner, stopping right around the 20th century – as if Indigenous art died out, as if Indigenous people died out. This tradition of displaying only older generations of Indigenous art and artifacts in art museums reinforces the colonialist view that Indigenous people died out when the Europeans came.

McGlennen and her students stressed this problem in their working on the exhibition, in hopes that they could destroy this traditional view of Indigenous art. They picked contemporary art because it was so rare in the art museum and it exemplifies the struggles that Indigenous people encounter, sometimes the same problems as older generations, often compounded with new problems. They also expressed interest in being as true to the artists in their wall labels as possible because none of the students were Indigenous themselves. They began each label with a quote from an Indigenous person, always conscious of their job as allies.

The most important theme in this exhibition was the idea of “the story.” It seemed to all four panelists that Indigenous art sought to tell, express, or continue a story. Sense and McGlennen, both Native American, agreed with this idea; Sense many times told a story herself in hopes to explain her art to the students. McGlennen stressed, though, that the exhibition’s purpose was not to simply display the art in a non-anthropological way, but to help display the art without adding America into the story. Even if America affected the story, the story was never about America.

Columbus Day Critique

In this day and age, Christopher Columbus is known by most Americans as the brave and tireless explorer who made the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to discover the New World. It’s a common perception, seeing as how the earliest mentions of the explorer originate in elementary school most often, and paint him as a heroic figure that civilized the Americas. Well, as it would turn out, not only is this view point incredibly wrong, it’s downright insulting to many Native Americans, some of which have actually gone as far as to equate Columbus with Hitler. The issue that is taken against the typically renown explorer is that the Native American people feel that the celebration of Columbus day is in a way a celebration of the mass genocide against their people that the European colonist brought about. Now obviously, this was not the intention of anyone planning the parades or celebrations. However, in the movie Unsettling Columbus Day it is clearly shown that the intentions of one group may come off as offensive to another. Particularly, the apparent embracement of Columbus as a cultural figure in the Italian community upsets the Native Americans, for to them the treatment of Columbus and the explorers that came with him was nothing to be celebrated. For this reason, the Native Americans gather every year to protest the Columbus Day parade in Columbus, Colorado where it was first established.


The Native American community is hurt that almost no regard is given to their sentiments on such a day that has a very significant part of their own history behind it. A fair compromise perhaps would be to include the Native peoples in deciding what should be done concerning the day, and involve them more proactively in the archaeological anaylisis of the history of Columbus. This process would take the form of indigenous archaeology. Indigenous archaeology is the form of archaeology in which indigenous people are involved in the excavation and care of the culture and artifacts of their ancestors. By neglecting the Native people’s concerns and their outreach to assist in more fully developing a coherent and correct history of Christopher Columbus for all, one big wave of ignorance is formed in which protesters are seemingly angry with no direction, as seen in the documentary, and parade goers are insulted anyone would ruin their fun. Through indigenous archaeology, the Native Americans can settle the offensive material away from the festive, and establish a more fairly balanced telling of Columbus for even textbooks.


Unsettling Columbus Day

Though the movie that was showed for the Unsettling Columbus Day event never directly mentioned archaeology in any capacity, its message no doubt remains in tune with that of indigenous archaeology.  The film was a half-hour documentary of sorts.  If followed a Native American group in Denver, Colorado as they tried to raise awareness and hopefully put a stop to the Columbus Day parade that was scheduled to happen.  While to most white (or at least non-Native American) people featured in the video regarded the holiday as a sort of origin story for their country, the initial event that would in time precipitate both America and their personal families’ history in it, the Native Americans, understandably did not.  Rather, they saw it as the event that would eventually result in the subjugation of their people, the displacement from their lands and, most horribly, mass genocide.  It’s striking to think of the stark contrast between the two views of this day that come so naturally to these two groups of people.

It is no mystery then, how indigenous archaeology relates to these themes being discussed.  The central goal of indigenous archaeology is to prevent the such one-sided views from occurring in study of past cultures.  Given that fact the Native American population is so small in America compared to other demographics, it is no surprise that they are underrepresented in the field, even when it is their own culture that is being studied.  Indigenous archaeology, then, seeks to include members of a culture being studied in the research process so as to prevent the misinterpretations and insensitive practices that can go on without them.

This deference to indigenous perspectives shows an attitude of acknowledgement and respect that is sadly denied to the protesters in the film.  Though their demonstrations got a bit extreme (at one point, a protester poured a bucket containing fake blood and a baby doll in front of the parade’s path), their being upset is very understandable.  As was mentioned in the post-film discussion, Native Americans are often forgotten in the public consciousness as a still existing people, in large part due to the atrocities committed against them that greatly reduced their numbers, paired with the desire of white Americans to forget their immoral, bloody past.  Thus, practices like indigenous archaeology bridges the gap between the Native American and European American communities that is built by such attitudes.

Rethinking Columbus Day

In a film screening about the Columbus Day parade protests in Columbus, Colorado (where Columbus Day originated), it was very interesting to see the arguments that Native Americans made that show how oppressive and wrong these parades truly are. Everything that Columbus Day represents is incredibly offensive to the ancestors and descendants of Native Americans. What Columbus Day stands for is genocide, violence, and dominance over Native Americans.

Anti-Columbus Day protests in Colorado

Anti-Columbus Day protests in Colorado

It is interesting how glorified Columbus is today. From elementary school forward, I have learned that Columbus was brave, determined, and heroic. However, in reality, he destroyed the lives of so many people and took their land as if it were his own. This holiday shows disrespect of Native American culture and sends a bad representation of Italian American culture as well. At one point in the film, an Italian American (who is on the Native American’s side of this issue) reminds people that these parades are not reflections of Italian American culture and heritage.

There is also the question of “what can we do about this issue today?” This matter is clearly affecting Native Americans currently and we need to ask ourselves what we can do in order to make this better for them. It is an interesting topic because it is more about pride and dominance than anything. Admitting today that what Columbus did was wrong would subject a person to accusations of being unpatriotic and questioning the “pure” origins of the United States.

This relates to indigenous archaeology as well because it shows the effect that the past (and our treatment of the past) has on people today. It is important that we respect archaeological sites that belonged to indigenous people because it is still theirs. Listening to these people and actually hearing them out helps us find common ground and decreases the “othering” that is used in the etic approach of indigenous archaeology. When excavating in an area that was occupied by native people, it is important to use techniques that show respect to them. Looting is the exact opposite of the correct way to carry out indigenous archaeology. It shows disrespect and offense to the native peoples. This also relates to the people who put on Columbus Day parades. They are belittling the culture and history of Native Americans and are acting superior to them by celebrating a murderer of their people. If abolishing Columbus Day is not attainable, each side must learn to listen to each other and make compromises in order to begin to respect one another.



Columbus: Saint or Sinner?

Victorious. Courageous. Lionhearted. Determined. Heroic.

These are words commonly associated with Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer sponsored by Spain in the 15th century. His daring voyage across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean nearly cost him his life and the lives of all the sailors on board the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, yet it culminated with him “discovering” the Americas and founding the New World.

Columbus reaches the “New” world

How he managed to reserve the title as “founder” of the New World is truly an enigma. North America had been inhabited for millennia prior, by migrants who crossed the Bering Strait in Alaska to Vikings who sailed from Scandinavia and landed ashore in what is today Newfoundland. Even though archaeological evidence indicates settlements prior to Columbus, textbooks today still attribute the discovery of America towards him; and when he traveled back to America, he spurred on one of the largest genocides the world has ever seen.

To refute the common claim of Columbus being the first man to discover America, archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and students from across the nation have been condemning such history textbooks. Protests appealing against Columbus Day parades shown in Unsettling Columbus Day views Columbus day from the perspective of Native Americans.

Columbus Day parade

This form of anthropology is referred to as “indigenous archaeology”. Indigenous archaeology heavily relies on the perspectives of the native population and uses a more multilinear approach to archaeology in order to gain a more holistic understanding of a society. In a scenario such as the Columbus Day parade, the opinions of the Native Americans play a vital role. Their viewpoints portray a vivid picture of their unified anger towards the celebration of a man who arguably set the ball rolling in the extermination of the vast majority of the indigenous peoples of America.

This country was built on opposition – the colonials revolted against the British and resulted in an independent America. It runs today, as a democracy, on debates in the Senate and judicial system. As a nation, the very concept of being able to stand up for one’s own rights and having an individual voice is fundamental in its constitution. Unsettling Columbus Day displays that very sentiment by showcasing various stances taken by Native Americans on Columbus Day. By utilizing indigenous archaeology, the movie is not only able to bring about different perspectives, but also emphasize emotions and therefore connect with the audience.


Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology

Columbus’ Conquest and Indigenous Archaeology

As a grade-school student, I learned very little about pre-Columbus history of the Americas. Even in AP US History, only one chapter out of 30 described the natives that lived undisrupted before European settlers moved in. The story in itself is completely one-sided. Though many Americans celebrate the day in remembrance of a great navigator, they remain unaware of the atrocities Columbus’ travels brought to the natives. By ignoring the other, negative side of what Columbus accomplished, the American celebration of this day legitimizes such a conquest. The importance of rewriting the story relates to the indigenous archaeological approach.

Indigenous archaeology uses the study of past human activity in a way different from older techniques. Focus is placed on deconstructing colonization frameworks and bringing cultures in the margin to the center. A key piece of this approach is to involve the culture being studied, thus giving agency back to the people while studying a culture in a fair, nonjudgmental way. The movie Unsettling Columbus Day attempts to study the national holiday from multiple perspectives. Though material culture is not necessarily addressed, the voices of Native Americans is brought forth to the center and discussed. A very effective part of the film also discussed the importance of the holiday to Italian immigrants, as Columbus himself was Italian. This holiday, for Italians, celebrates a Euro-American origin story, as Italian Americans were treated poorly, as well. The question then becomes, is there room for two minorities?

The indigenous archaeology approach is very suitable for such a question. Decolonizing the past does not necessarily mean replacing one majority group with another. Instead, balancing all the voices of the past and listening to many sides of a story. Due to the horrible actions committed by Columbus, many can relate his story to that of current terrorism. Others who celebrate the holiday do so with a sense of pride in America and Italian heritage. The issue lies not in celebrating the conquest of Native Americans, then. The name of the holiday itself implies that America condones what happened many years ago. Compromise must be made on what exactly is being celebrated and accepted by the American culture at large. It is of the utmost importance to keep in mind all sides of the story, as well as give power to those who deserve it the most. To construct a more equal future for all, rewriting the history is necessary.

-Kathryn Marshall