All posts by clfey

Jemima Pierre and Diaspora

Jemima Pierre, pictured here, is currently a professor at UCLA, researching and teaching on the African diaspora
Jemima Pierre, pictured here, is currently a visiting fellow at Vanderbilt University, researching and teaching on the African diaspora

Jemima Pierre’s speech at Vanderbilt University in 2013 begins by tracing the term “diaspora,” one of the two primary topics of the panel’s discussion that evening. The originally Western term (Greek in origin) has been applied to many shifts of group identities in the globalized lens of history. However, as Pierre points out, since the so called “British Cultural Incursion” over the last 20 years, there has been a tendency (by a significant portion of scholars) in theoretical discussions of African diaspora to conceive of all the dispersed cultures through the lens of syncretism.

The minimization of Africa as a source of culture for contemporary Black people follows from the assertion of syncretism amongst cultures of the diaspora, which is problematic and reeks of British attempts at some neocolonial hegemony of African history. Additionally, the assumption of syncretism between post-diaspora peoples is reminiscent of the perception of Native American cultures as a monolith since the colonization of North America.

Another interesting point in this comparison comes when introducing the term “homeland” into the discussion of African diaspora and post-colonial Native American cultures. As Pierre points out, there has been a tendency to label Africa as the homeland of the past without granting this “mother culture” much in terms of considering the role it plays in a continued dialogue across the Atlantic Ocean. It is this “either/or” mentality which has also pervaded outsider (non-Native) concepts of Native American identity.

In Pierre’s discussion of the rampant generalization of diverse, dispersed Black cultures, we see many more points of continuity to Native American cultures. The tendency by anthropologists and historians (as she terms it) to simply document “the Blacks over there,” resonates strongly with the ethnographic lens through which many Native cultures have been viewed and subsequently documented — cemented in text, seeping into the national consciousness and concepts of Native peoples.

Another overlap occurs when Pierre laments the economic hegemony of European forces in Africa which still continue to this day, crippling many nation-states’ ability to economically flourish and of course threatening sovereignty. The current state of the majority of Native American reservations in the US speaks volumes, each one its own living testament to the economic, cultural, and political consequence of many histories of violence and colonial incursion.

What should we glean from these many similarities? Instead of taking them to mean that cultures of the African diaspora and Native American peoples are inherently similar, perhaps we should look at the root of these many commonalities: colonialism. The overlapping challenges experienced trace their roots to wounds delivered by the same sword. It is through this commonality that, as in the case of the pan-Indian movement of Native rights, these very different groups could come together to fight against a common enemy, buoying one another with a unified activism.

A comparison of the American Indian Movement’s flag to the black power symbol popular since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s


image source 1 and 2 and 3

additional resources: an interview with Pierre and her notes from a lecture in Virginia



In defense of collectors

In our class readings and discussions this week, we have examined some of the motivations and ethics of collectors collecting their collections. As someone planning on working in an art museum, I can certainly empathize with the frustration of knowing that countless treasures are tucked away in private collections. However, I wanted to take the time to examine how grounded that frustration truly is.

Take the museum institution closest to home: the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The Loeb touts itself as a teaching museum. Indeed, Matthew Vassar’s founding vision of the college began with an art museum in Main. Access to art was a fundamental part of the education Vassar provided. Flash-forward about 150 years later and the art museum has moved to a new building with thousands of objects. Many may see this massive collection as a boon to the school, as more tools with which to teach. But with a collection so huge and an exhibition space so limited, how many objects have never been displayed?

While it is true that Vassar students can set up appointments to go down to storage, they must know what it is they wish to see and, more importantly, know that this service is available to them. In the case of the latter, I would say the majority do not. The Loeb does provide an online database of its (over 19,000) objects, however it is tragically incomplete. In terms of real access by the students of Vassar or the public of Poughkeepsie, how different is the vast array of stored items in the Loeb from a private collection?

From the database of objects provided by the FLLAC.
On the database of objects provided by the Loeb, many entries have no images

In line with questioning the assumption that museum acquisition of an object implies its availability to the public, we should also reexamine the perception held of the collector as some jealous hoarder of objects. In the case of the Loeb, collectors have been a major part of the museum’s growth. For example, were it not for collectors like Edd Guarino, the museum would have an abysmally small range of Native American art*. Guarino has donated and loaned a plethora of art objects from his private collection to the Loeb over the past decade. He has also been eager to share the wealth of knowledge provided by his collection with the wider public of the internet. Along with a handful of other collectors, Guarino writes a blog for King Galleries, featuring high quality images and art historical analyses of a large variety of privately owned Native American art.

Wild World, an inuit work on paper, displayed in the Loeb, from the collection of Edd Guarino
“Wild World,” an Inuit work on paper from the collection of Edd Guarino, formerly exhibited at the Loeb

When I worked with Guarino in 2013, his passion for educating others and sharing his collection was palpable. The experience taught me that the collector was not inherently a miser of beauty and knowledge. Rather, this collector wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by the objects he loved the most and to spread that love around. Certainly, Guarino should not be taken as the representative for all collectors, but his is a laudable legacy.

*It should be noted that, despite Guarino’s donations, no Native American objects are currently on display in the Loeb.

See also: the King Galleries “Collector’s Corner,” the website for an exhibit which was entirely comprised of objects from Guarino, the FLLAC database, and image source and information on Wild World

Red Power: Pan-Indian Activism

The state of Indian affairs today is not good, but it contains within it certain strengths which suggest a better future for the people.

-Vine Victor Deloria Jr., 1987

As many radical movements do, the civil rights movement of Native peoples began with a manifesto: the 1969 book, Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Victor Deloria Jr. The text decries the history of Native oppression and aims to invigorate Native peoples while starting a national dialogue. For this and much more, Deloria will be remembered as one of the most influential forces of Native activism in the twentieth century. Born in 1933 to the Standing Rock Sioux people of South Dakota, Deloria came up in a time in which the repression of and violence toward Native peoples primarily took the guise of well-meaning legislation from the United States government (like the paternalistic termination policy). Reclamation of Native identities in the face of such oppression was the bedrock of his activist movement, called “Red Power.” Although it was started by a Sioux man, the Red Power Movement is a pan-Indian one. That is to say, Native peoples of many tribal affiliations are able to rally together, seeking the amelioration of issues which jointly disenfranchise them.

Writing which is still visible on a building on Alcatraz Island from the 1969 occupation which reads, "Indians Welcome"
Writing which is still visible on a building on Alcatraz Island from the 1969 occupation which reads, “Indians Welcome”

This unified mentality is echoed in the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay by a group whose members identified themselves as “Indians of All Tribes.” The takeover was justified by a treaty which allows Native inhabitation of federal land that is unoccupied. The occupation lasted approximately one year, during which time the group became an inspiration for other efforts of radical Native activism. Dozens and dozens of occupations of federal lands by Native peoples followed the 1969 occupation, including a 1970 protest by the American Indian Movement in which the group seized a replica ship of the Mayflower and covered Plymouth Rock in red paint.

Flag of the American Indian Movement
Flag of the American Indian Movement

The protest was successful in reinvigorating national legislative debates about Native rights, and was an instrumental component in the development of self-rule policies as well as the expansion of federal funding to reservations. The early efforts of the Red Power Movement were loud and unyielding; they forced the US government and American people to confront not only the continued existence of Native peoples, but also their passionate refusal of continued injustice. Indeed, the public assertion of Native voice is an act of radical defiance to the colonizer’s myth of the disappearing Indian.

While groups like the American Indian Movement have faced internal division and experienced much change over the past decades, they laid the groundwork for pan-Indian efforts which are crucial when it comes to issues like repatriation. Repatriation is, much as termination policy was, a pan-Indian issue. The manner in which this is important is two-fold. First, legislating acts like NAGPRA would be much more logistically difficult if they had to be done on a tribe-by-tribe basis. Though the concept of a “Native American” is a constructed one, made of up thousands of cultural identities, the embracing of simplified terminology allows for at least some larger foundation from which individual tribes can work. And of course, in terms of future activism, a pan-Indian movement to push repatriation efforts surely has more power than a factionalized one. While it may be slow-going at times, Native activism promises progress.

Additional Resources: Full text of Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sinswebsite of the American Indian Movement, PBS 1961-2002 Timeline of Indian Activism 

Image SourcesAlcatraz and AIM flag