Category Archives: Spring 2017

Maintaining Museums in a Changing World

Twenty years ago, if you had asked any museum director where they see museums going, their response would more than likely involve technology, as that was a monumental societal shift that was happening at the time. The internet was just beginning to grow rapidly and people were communicating with more ease than ever before. Museums saw the introduction of technology as a way to expand into digital forms. They foresaw the use of digital exhibits, interactive participation, and even virtual reality in museums.

In order to succeed, museum exhibits should be able to withstand and adapt to any major social changes that may occur. Museum curators often keep in mind the prediction of what will matter in the future when they create these exhibits so that their exhibits maintain relevancy within the public sphere. For this reason, most museum directors are well aware of the changes happening in society and how their exhibits are being reflected in the public eye.

Museum directors are often aware of what they need to change in museums and how museum interactions will change over time. In a project called, #FutureMuseum, museum directors were asked where they see museums in the future. The majority of directors hoped for increased diversity, collaboration, and conversation to be generated by future museum exhibits. Museums have already somewhat started to make these changes, slowly but surely. Art museums are organizing their exhibits with the purpose of making a political statement, forcing visitors to think about the pieces they are seeing rather than mindlessly staring at a painting on a wall. Science museums have started a reboot that involves a heavy

An exhibit in the Cleveland Museum of Art includes an interactive digital curation experience. 

amount of interaction as compared to older science museums where the exhibits were just displays of scientific discoveries for the visitor to read about on a little placard.

As museums are centers open for public consumption, the main goal of any museum is to please everyone that happens to walk through its doors. However, the biggest challenge that museum directors face is to please everyone while also finding a way to challenge their views and ease them into an environment that engages them in those difficult conversations in a way that is memorable. In the #FutureMuseum project, nearly every director hoped to see increased social interaction and participation within the exhibits as opposed to the traditional learning emphasized by museums in the past. Directors understand that for the next generation, museums need to focus more on creativity and self-discovery rather than the didactic storytelling method of earlier times. As Clare discusses in an explication of

Exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

the integration of the Black Lives Matter Movement with the recent opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the museum encouraged interaction by offering safe spaces to grapple with the heavier topics introduced throughout the museum. It is not necessarily about the display of culturally relevant objects; it is about applying them to an experience and how they can influence the future.

Further Reading:

Works Cited:

Clare, Rod. “Black Lives Matter: The Black Lives Matter Movement in the National Museum of American History and Culture.” (2016)

Museum Education as the Future of Museums

When I was a kid, museum field trips were the highlight of my school year. I had the privilege to grow up in a city full of museums of all kinds and privileged enough to go to a school that could afford field trips. I know I was not alone in loving museum trip but I also was not the majority. My brother, in particular, hated museum field trips for him they were full of uncertainty and stress. For me, museum trips both in and out of field trips offered an alternative way of thinking about knowledge that excited me.  Museums let me think about knowing and facts through objects and video and display rather than textbooks and lectures. By presenting museums as exciting opportunities for knowledge and engagement to kids we are creating a future for museums that will continue field trips and rainy day excursions.

Kids on a trip to the Field Museum engaging with a teaching collection

And the way to engage these kids is with museum education that is relatable and interesting. When museum educators work with teachers to develop curriculum and programming that dovetails with classroom work it shows kids that their learning and knowledge can extend outside of the classroom walls into the world around them.

But it is important that our museum education programming doesn’t just replicate what is in the galleries. Programming should complicate and expand the exhibits and ask patrons to think beyond the objects on display. And sometimes this programming has to come from outside of the institutions themselves, often they are too entrenched in their own histories and paradigms to really critique themselves.

This is where organizations like Museum Hack come in. Museum Hack runs renegade museum tours in major museums like the Met but outside of the structure of the Met. They take you through the museum focusing on often lesser known exhibits and integrate information about the history of the museum alongside the objects themselves. These kind of tours as well as others led by un-affiliated academics open up new ways of reading museums that engage with different histories.

A tour by Shady Ladies focusing on women

Through creating museum education programming that engages a diverse audience we can build a future for museums that is more accessible and critical of the structures that have created them. We can interrogate the colonial histories of museums as collecting institutions and set our future apart from these practices but within that history. Museums will never be fully separate from this colonial past but by changing how we talk about museums with kids and how we introduce museums to kids we can create a culture of criticism around the museological legacy.


Further Reading:


Why Should Schools Visit Museums?

Museum Hack – Team Building Activities & Museum Tours


1954 Hague Convention Protecting Cultural Property After Massive Nazi Looting of WW2

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, the Nazi’s looted thousands of items throughout Europe as Germany expanded its empire from 1933-1945. Hitler had long been infatuated by art and before he became the Fuhrer of Germany, he was a young artist unsuccessfully attempting to study at the Academy for Art Studies in Vienna in 1907. Hitler’s love of art did not disappear as he rose to power, stoling nearly 20% of Europe’s art or over 750,000 pieces of artwork during the war. In some of the largest thefts of art history in the world, the Nazi leaders used the inventories of Europe’s elite museums as “shopping lists,” pilfering through priceless pieces of artwork just to add to their personal collections. Hermann Goring, Nazi Leader and art enthusiast, visited the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris 20 times to look at its work and choose what he wanted to take. And because there are were no laws or rules to looting, he seized hundreds of items, needing two additional railroad cars just haul back the new additions to his personal collection. While the Nazi’s were not the first to loot art, they do serve as a great example of how devastating the cultural destruction can be if museums and cultural property are not protected during armed conflict. As a result of the overwhelming Nazi Looting during the second world war, the Hauge Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was signed in 1954, ensuring that a country’s cultural property will not be threatened during wartime.

An American soldier looks in awe of the massive loot of stolen art stored in a church at Elligen, Germany in 1945

As the first international treaty of its kind, the Hauge Convention requires the 127 states that ratified the treaty to adopt protective measures for cultural property during times of war. Cultural property is defined as the expression of cultural heritage of a group or society and can take the form of artwork, monuments, manuscripts, books, etc. The protection of cultural property is important during times of war because as this property reflects the life, history, and identify of the community, its looting/destruction would take a piece of that community away, making the re-building phase after the war an even harder task. The convention requires the establishment of special units within the military to protect the cultural protect when a conflict breaks out and US provided a great example of a successful military protection during the Gulf War. When the US became involved in the Gulf War, they published a “no-fire target list” of places known to have cultural property, in order to protect the involved country’s heritage amidst the fighting. While not all protective measures from the Hauge Convention are successful during war, the treaty is important because it legally shows the need to protect a culture’s heritage from the devastating looting, something the Nazi’s did not care for as they stole thousands of pieces of cultural heritage during the second world war.

Official sign of a protected cultural site, protected by the Hague Convention during times of war



Additional Readings:

Nazi Looting of Art

Throughout WII, one of Nazi’s Germany’s campaigns was to loot art from Jews all over Europe. Despite post-war efforts by the allies to recover and return a wide range and quantity of this art, much did not make it back to their original owners or were never relocated. In fact, some private holdings of art by Nazi Germans remained in their possession or were given back to them after the war. Some famous cases have been brought to the forefront of public attention, most notably the five Gustav Klimt paintings and the lawsuit against the Austrian government for their return, as dramatized in the film The Woman in Gold. In this case, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was often a subject and patron of his paintings, sued the Austrian government for their return.  The paintings were seized by the Nazis from the Bloch-Bauer family townhouse in Vienna during World War II. The entire family home and collection was raided… the Klimt paintings originally hung in Adele’s private apartment. Her niece, Maria Altmann and the suit lawyer Randol Schoenberg won the case, and Altmann later gifted them to the Neue Gallerie in New York where they remain. 

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907

Another painting by a famous artists had a similar journey from Jewish to Nazi hands, but was never returned. View of a Dutch Square by the Dutch artist Jan van der Heyden– a painter from the Dutch golden age– was part of a personal collection owned by Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, whose home in Vienna was raided by the Nazi police. Hitler’s private secretary, Henriette von Schirach, requested “nearly 3,000 works” including View of  Dutch Square form the Bavarian government. These were given to her at a heavily discounted price (aprox. $600) and was apparently a common practice. These “return sales” were secret sales that have begun to be uncovered as people search into the provenience of museum holdings and lost art.

View of a Dutch Square, c. 17th Century

Yet again, a famous case involving nazi looted art became a major motion picture. The film Monuments Men tells the story of a volunteer force dubbed Monuments Men, whose mission was to protect churches, museums and cultural artifacts from damage in Allied attacks. Soon they began to focus on recovering artifacts looted by Nazi Germany, and found masterpieces in some impressive hiding spots, including tunnels inside the Altaussee Salt Mine in Austria. In it they found over 6,000 paintings including  masterworks such as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and the Ghent Altarpiece. Given the scope of stolen and misplaced art during Nazi’s extensive and vigorous plundering, this effort became the Monuments Men Foundation which continue its efforts today.

Modern efforts continue in attempt to remedy some of the damage caused by Nazi looting of Jewish holdings throughout Europe. The Lost Art Database “registers cultural objects which as a result of persecution under the Nazi dictatorship and the Second World War were relocated, moved or seized, especially from Jewish owners” as part of the German Lost Art Foundation, a government initiative. The work of organizations and conferences to regain the cultural patrimony wrongfully taken by Nazi Germany  remains vital.

Works Cited:

Additional Reading: (can also search their archives)


Difficulties and Realities of International Repatriation

While NAGPRA has done a lot for the American Repatriation movement, it does have some major flaws.  One repatriation that NAGPRA does not address is international repatriation of Native American objects and remains.  This poses a real problem for any tribes whose ancestors or sacred objects are abroad, especially because just how much is out there is unknown.  When repatriation across borders does take place, it can become very tricky, very quickly.

In a recent case, a ceremonial shield of the Acoma Pueblo was being auctioned at the EVE auction house in Paris.  Domestically, there are laws in place to help protect these items from dealers, but these do not apply to foreign territories.

Exchanging of gifts after return of Katsinam.

And while the hope is that cases like these will become more infrequent, it does not seem likely.  In 2013 and 2014, similar French auction houses put Hopi Katsinam up for sale, with French courts backing auction houses against Native Americans.  Negative publicity did help return some of the masks, but the overarching difficulties of international repatriation are still very present.

A common problem with international repatriation of Native American objects/remains is that the withholding institution gets to call the shots.  For 23 years, the British Natural History Museum stalled and avoided repatriating hundreds of Native Hawaiian iwi kūpuna because of reasons like information on ‘specimens’ being classified and only available to ‘true scientists’.

Leader of Hui Mālama successfully receiving iwi kūpuna.

After a long process, and even the passing of an act (2004 Human Tissues Act), the repatriation group Hui Mālama was able to get 145 iwi kūpuna permanently released.

Though international repatriation is heavily reliant on the cooperation of the withholding institutions, there are some applicable international statutes that can be used during international repatriation processes.  The United Nations Charter makes it clear that not cooperating with repatriation claims is a violation of human rights.  Furthermore, the U.N. supports international repatriation through the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, acknowledging indigenous people’s rights outside of just their respective countries (UNDRIP is now recognized by all United Nations members).  UNDRIP specifically acknowledges that indigenous people have rights to the repatriation of remains.  Another often used statute that deals with objects is the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law’s 1995 Convention, specifically including indigenous peoples in their concern for treatment of cultural objects.

Tools do exist for assisting Native Americans with international repatriation, but the same problems under NAGPRA (and some prior to the act) must be overcome.  Competing interests with foreign governments and institutions make repatriation difficult, not to mention the lack of knowledge of international collection itineraries.  Even operating at an international scale is not easy for many tribes with small repatriation operations, or occupied with domestic repatriation.  International repatriation for Native Americans may be difficult, but is possible, and hopefully in the coming years will become more refined and efficient.

Additional Readings:

Hopi Tribe Fights to Halt French Sales of Sacred Artifacts for Good


Image Sources:

After ‘Shameful’ Auction in Paris, Sacred Katsinam Returned to Hopis





Oral Tradition and the Case of The Ancient One

In 1996, near Kennewick, WA, two college students accidentally discovered remains that were later estimated to be over 9,000 years old. Today, Native Americans refer to the individual as The Ancient One (Fabry, 2016). According to Bonnichsen v. US, in 2004, Native Americans could not prove the necessary affiliation to modern day tribes in court for the remains to be repatriated under NAGPRA (Bonnichsen v. United States, 2004). However, The Ancient One was recently repatriated this year by an act of Congress after new DNA evidence proved otherwise (Clarridge, 2016). One reason that the court system failed Native Americans for about 20 years is that oral tradition was not seen as reliable evidence in court (Fielding, 2013). The treatment of this evidence in Bonnichsen v. US demonstrates one way in which the US legal system is biased against Native American ways of knowing.

Where students found The Ancient One

Oral tradition should be valued by both museums and courts during the repatriation process. Native Americans should be considered experts on their own cultures because of their lived experiences. Having been raised in a culture should qualify them as experts beyond what another person can learn in school, and if that culture includes oral traditions, they should be accepted. However, even if courts want to evaluate evidence only by Western standards, oral evidence should be admissible because it is reliable. Many anthropologists accept oral stories from Native Americans because it can be stronger than written evidence (Fielding, 2013, 297). Furthermore, oral tradition is supported by written records in many cases (Fielding, 2013, 304). Oral tradition therefore has both a moral and scientific basis to be persuasive in court.

Figure showing relationship between The Ancient One and modern Native Americans

Still, oral tradition was rejected as evidence in the Bonnichsen v. US case, illustrating how the legal system prioritizes Western ideals. In Bonnichsen, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined, “…Because the value of [oral] accounts is limited by concerns of authenticity, reliability, and accuracy… we do not think that the oral traditions… were adequate to show the required significant relationship of the Kennewick Man’s remains to the Tribal Claimants” (Bonnichsen v. United States, 2004). An affidavit submitted by Dr. Andrei Simic, an anthropologist at USC, similarly concluded, “As a general rule, folklore and oral tradition are not stable enough to be taken as inherently accurate witnesses of events from the remote past” (Simic Aff. 3, 2000). In court, there was bias against Native American evidence. The court elevated the testimonies based on Western models, such as inaccurate craniometric analyses (Routledge, 2008), over others. In this way, the Kennewick Man reinforced the narrative that in the US legal system, science can be prioritized over culture.

Repatriation should be a way for healing, but during legal battles, wounds remain open. Oral tradition is just one way in which judges will favor scientists who aim to study the remains. The focus on Western science continues to privilege scientists in repatriation, when its goal should be to yield justice for Native Americans.


For the full court decision, click here:

For the new DNA evidence, click here.

Works Cited

Bonnichsen v. United States, 357 F.3d 962, U.S. App. (2004).

Clarridge, C. (2016, December 10). Legislation enables transfer of Kennewick Man to tribes. Seattle Times. Retrieved from

Fabry, M. (2016, July 28).Where Kennewick Man Stands, 20 Years After Discovery. Time. Retrieved from

Fielding, T. S. (2013). Evidence issues in Indian Law Cases. American Indian Law Journal, 1(2): 285-308.

Hamilton, M. D. (2008) “Colonizing America: PaleoAmericans in the New World.” In Kennewick Man: Perspectives on the Ancient One by H. Burke, C. Smith, D. Lippert, J. Watkins, and L. Zimmerman (Eds.). Walnut Creek, California: Routledge.

Simic, A. (2000). Affidavits Address Oral Tradition and Cultural Affiliation. Friends of America’s Past. Retrieved from

Collecting health, sickness, and difference at medical museums

Medical museums catalogue the history of biomedicine (using empirical sciences to understand illness and disease) by displaying medical instruments, preserved specimens as examples of pathologies and anomalies, and photography. The museums I will be using as examples are the Mütter Museum and the Indiana Medical History Museum. The aims for these museums is to show how biomedicine, and the science upon which its predicated, follows a linear progression from ‘primitive’ practices to contemporary practices, which are understood as scientifically enlightened and valorized.

First, it is necessary to unpack what museums do and how they do it. Museums are ostensibly places for education and entertainment. At once, they teach and titillate. They impart ways of viewing and classifying the world onto the visitor, implicating them in narratives of history, evolution, and selfhood. Visitors to medical museum not only fulfill morbid curiosities, but place themselves within the narratives of medical progress. But at what cost? Whose bodies are used to tell which stories? Whose suffering is the currency of knowledge? Who has the authority to turn people who have these abnormalities into curiosities and objects of education and entertainment?

The Exterior of the Mütter Museum.
The Exterior of the Mütter Museum.

The Mütter Museum, founded and operated by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, is possibly the most famous medical museum in America. Among its most famous displayed artifacts are the ‘Soap Lady’, Albert Einstein’s brain, President Grover Cleveland’s jaw tumor, and a cast of Chang and Eng Bunker’s liver. The museum’s website states that the specimens and photographs are ‘beautifully preserved…in a 19th-century ‘cabinet museum’ setting’ ( By associating itself with a professional organization for medical doctors, the Mütter Museum places itself as a medical education institution that bases medical history on the presences and purging of bodily abnormalities and trauma.

Indiana Medical History Museum Interior
Indiana Medical History Museum Interior

The Indiana Medical History Museum is located in Indianapolis, Indiana. It occupies the now defunct Central State Hospital, an old psychiatric hospital. Visitors are taken through lecture halls, surgical theaters, and laboratories where specimens and tools are displayed. Among the exhibits advertised on the website (warning: graphic depictions of surgery) are a recreated family practitioner’s office from the early or mid 20th century, an exhibit about lobotomies, and the connection between mass incarcerations and mental illness.

By connecting these museums, the pathologies they exhibit, the narratives of progress and evolution, and the questions about embodied suffering and difference through illness and disease, we can understand how collecting the manifestations of biological and physical difference plays into the pathologizing of difference, be it mental or physical. This pathologizing process casts disability, culturally different categories of selfhood and embodiment, and the self into rigid categories of ‘normal’. We must interrogate the means by which our entertainment, education, and knowledge of mental and physical illness and differences stems from visiting and viewing these places. The objectification of illness and difference fits in with the history of objectifying and doing violence to bodies of color, including Indigenous bodies.

Works Cited


[The Indiana Medical History Museum]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2017, from

[Mütter Museum Exterior]. (n.d.). Retrieved April 4, 2017, from

Works Cited

Arnold, K., & Söderqvist, T. (2011). Medical Instruments in Museums: Immediate Impressions and Historical Meanings. Isis, 102(4), 718-729. doi:10.1086/663613

Indiana Medical History Museum. (n.d.). Exhibits. Retrieved from

Indiana Medical History Museum. (n.d.). LOBOTOMY: INTENTIONS, PROCEDURES, EFFECTS. Retrieved from

The Mutter Museum. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from

Wilson, E. K. (2015), The Collection and Exhibition of a Fetal and Child Skeletal Series. Mus Anthropol, 38: 15–27. doi:10.1111/muan.12070

The Hiawatha (Canton) Asylum for Insane Indians and Repatriation of Collected People and Culture

Abandoned insane asylums are a topic of morbid curiosity for many people today – ghost tours, trespassing, and fascination with mental illness and pop psychology all invoke Freud’s concept of the “uncanny” – “the appearance of that which is thought to be hidden and would remain so but has been brought to the surface (Jackson, 2016, p. 161). An example is the case of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota, which operated from circa 1902 to 1934. The Hiawatha Asylum functioned as tool of cultural imperialism by collecting “rebellious” Native bodies.

The asylum where majority sane Native Americans aged two to 80 were held captive.

The cemetery adjacent to the asylum consists of 121 unmarked graves of Hiawatha patients from 53 different tribes (Duty, 2015). It has been found that many of these patients died because they were denied the care they needed, and that although there is a list of names of the dead (unrelated to grave location), no cause of death or reason for incarceration at the asylum was listed. On the flip side, in 1933, the Bureau of Indian Affairs found that many of the patients at the Asylum were not actually mentally ill, but rather kept at the institution because they refused to assimilate into white Euro-American culture in one form or another, whether that was by singing traditional songs or getting into physical fights with white men (Stawicki, 1997). Furthermore, the asylum was determined by investigators to not be up to standard for an institution treating the mentally ill (keep in mind that these were early 1900s standards, so it had to be awful not to pass minimum standard). Living patients were even “shown” to paying visitors — a true example of objectification.

These factors essentially combined into a “collection” of Native Americans who rebelled against white supremacy – one without context due to unmarked graves and non-existent records of exactly why each individual was institutionalized. It was a collection created without proper protocol and qualifications by the people running the institution. In this way, it was a collection utilized to exert power upon a marginalized group, which relates to the case of the 1914 fire at the Florida Industrial School for Boys, and the issues there related to the lack of documentation of burials and disregard for the health and safety of the boys there.

The asylum’s cemetery is now surrounded by a gold course — does this further delegitimize the lives of the patients kept there?

Also in both cases, the requests of the living are major factors in bringing a voice to the dead people who were objectified as collection items in life. Many descendants of those incarcerated at the Hiawatha Asylum are left with little to no information about why their ancestors were taken away and where they are now buried. One example of strides in repatriation efforts related to the Hiawatha Asylum is a 2015 effort to repatriate an Osage man from the cemetery there by the nation’s Traditional Cultural Advisors Committee (thanks in part to NAGPRA). While it is hard to find direct descendants, the Osage as a nation claim him, requesting to restore a memorial for all Native Americans buried at the site.


Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians: The Parallel of Honor

Further Reading:

‘A Living Burial’: Inside the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians









Sterilization of Native American Women

The United States government forcibly sterilized thousands of Native American women without their consent or, in some cases, knowledge. An independent study found that one in four Native women were sterilized without having consented, and according to another source, 25 to 50 “percent of Native American women were sterilized between 1970 and 1976” (PBS). Coerced sterilization was “used as a means of controlling “undesirable” populations” and thus was not a practice performed solely on Indigenous peoples (PBS). Other groups that were targeted were poor people, unmarried mothers, people of color, the mentally ill, immigrants, and the disabled. Similarly, women were not the only ones who were forcibly sterilized, men and in some cases children, were subjected to this cruelty as well. Throughout the 20th century, federally-funded sterilization programs were in place in 32 states. California led with the most forced sterilizations, a third of the total number, inspiring the Nazis with their eugenics program.
What is surprising is that, in this case, the government eventually did admit to their wrongdoing, and according to a government website, 3,406 Native American Women were sterilized without their permission between 1973 and 1976 alone. However, keeping the source in mind, I would tend to think that this number is a conservative one, especially considering the country’s history of not recognizing the atrocities that it commits.

Doctors played an important role in the forced sterilizations, clearly breaking their oath to “do no harm”.

Between 1997 and 2010, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, about 250 female inmates were sterilized in California prisons without state approval. A doctor who performed these procedures claimed that the cost of the procedures was minimal “compared to what” would be spent on “welfare paying for these unwanted children” (Indian Country). The $147,460 that were spent on these tubal ligations came from the state. I believe that if Californians knew that their states resources were going to this cause, they might not be supportive of it.

The law that is supposed to treat everyone equally and provide justice made this all possible.

Some of these programs occurred extremely recently and/or were very widespread. There is an extremely troubling history in the United States when it comes to this topic, that very few people know about. Disturbingly, these programs were sanctioned by the government and were made into law. The really disturbing part, however, is that many of these decisions have not been overturned. In some cases, the implications of this fact could be shocking and detrimental to the health of many.



Strapped Down & Sedated: Female Inmates Illegally Sterilized in CA


Sexual Violence Against American Indian Women

The exploitation of Sarah Baartman was (at least to us now) clearly and explicitly a result of colonial, white supremacist structures in South Africa and Europe and their sexual implications at the time. I think it is important as well to consider how cases of sexual violence that are closer to home – that is, recent and in the United States – are also reflections of colonial and racial violence.

Rates of sexual violence against Native women are enormous. A study of 2000 women found 56 percent had experienced sexual violence. Native women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than other ethnic groups (Gilpin 2016). They are also more vulnerable to organized sexual violence: a 2007 study in

Northern Minnesota found that 24% of women charged with prostitution were Native, despite representing less than 3% of the population in the area (Sullivan 2016). Native women and girls are often trafficked to areas with high concentrations of men, such as Duluth’s international sea port and rural South Dakota for pheasant season (Sullivan 2016, Hilleary 2015).

Billboard advertising Cherokee initiative against domestic violence

Law enforcement provides little help to sexually victimized Native women and – like in Baartman’s case – may blame them for their own trafficking or assault. Edith Chavez was abducted and drugged for several days until she managed to escape. Police did not take her statement, but rather arrested her for an unpaid ticket and “issued a press release in June claiming Chavez had smelled of alcohol and had been to a casino” (Sullivan 2016).

Sign at a shelter in the rural village of Emmonak, Alaska

Blame for sexual violence among Native women must go beyond individual attackers, and take a historical, colonial, and racial perspective, especially since close to 90% of rapes reported on reservations are committed by non-Indian men (Waghorn 2015). Sexual violence is an inextricable aspect of colonialism, and the historical treatment of Native populations in America can be directly linked to the assaults so many women now face. Lisa Heth, who runs a shelter on the Crow Creek reservation, notes that girls may be vulnerable to trafficking when they come from families involved in alcohol and drugs, but it is important to understand that these kind of dependancies can be understood as a kind of violation themselves (Hilleary 2015). Says one woman living on a reservation, “we’ve already been [violated] in so many ways, from historical trauma, to the addiction, to the sexual abuse that we don’t talk about as communities, to the things that have happened at the boarding schools and the breakdown of our communities and our families” (Sullivan 2016). As one reporter points out, “it is impossible to discuss the trafficking of Native youth outside of the context of history, especially the so-called ‘boarding school’ and ‘relocation’ eras” (Hilleary 2015). Displacement, separation from families, and sexual violation are integral parts of colonialist violence that have relevance to Baartman’s life, early histories of American settlers, and the violence that pervades on reservations today.


Image Sources:

Further reading: