Posts Tagged ‘native americans’

Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…

A Lakota or Yankton robe, produced by a group of men c. 1780-1825, detailing their victories in war. Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, bird feathers, plant fibers, and pigment.

Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.

I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”

And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.

Gifts for Trading Land with White People, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1992.

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.

Breakfast Series, by Sonny Assu Gwa’gwa’da’ka, 2006, on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1

Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,

a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”

There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?

After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.

Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.

…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.

And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:

“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).

“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.

The Dole Corporation, still flaunting it today. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.

While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.

I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.

The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.

There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,

the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.

I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:

Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.

On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.

I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.

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I must admit, I’ve been kind of sitting on this link since Columbus Day. But, fortunately, it’s now Thanksgiving, so, it’s still sort of thematically appropriate. (Not that it would be horribly inappropriate to post about such things any other time of year.)

It’s a lengthy article from The Atlantic, and a slightly old one, dating back to 2002, but a very interesting one, by Charles Mann, long-time Atlantic contributing editor, and the author of the books 1491 and 1493, this article being a product of the process which eventually resulted in those books.

In this article, Mann asks us to reconsider the myth that North America was only sparsely populated, and that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. In a broader sense, the idea that large-scale environmental impact is limited to the modern age is one of the classic ones perpetuated by the presentism of far too many disciplines (not to mention out in the world, outside of the academy), and is one that several of my History department colleagues, in their studies of medieval Europe and Japan, rail against in their work, to be sure. I don’t want to digress for too long, but just to give one example, my go-to example: by the end of the 18th century, Japan was severely deforested, had nearly exhausted its gold, silver, and copper mines, and had dealt a very severe blow to the wolf population, with the Japanese wolf finally going finally extinct by 1905. Of course, the more classic example of the dodo, extinct by 1700, is a fine one too. And how about moas, the large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand and killed off by the Maori – yes, by the indigenous people who live so in harmony with nature – by 1500, long before any Europeans ever arrived. Not that I mean to disparage the Maori. Okay, let me continue this digression just a little bit longer, to say this: it only just occurred to me as I was writing this, but I think it holds some merit. The idea that indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, whoever, or non-Western peoples at all, e.g. the Japanese – are somehow in harmony with nature may seem benign or even a positive stereotype. In this age of environmental degradation, we all aspire to know how to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth. But, actually, this idea comes straight out of Orientalist / Social Darwinist notions of the 19th century, which contrasted “civilization” against being part of nature. In other words, even if the nuances may have changed today, and even if we intend a different meaning, by saying or thinking that anyone was living in harmony with nature, what we’re really saying is that they’re uncivilized, that they’re less advanced. I can’t remember precisely where I saw it, but I recall reading excerpts from European writings about somewhere in the Pacific (yeah, can’t remember the details – sorry) in which they fully lumped in the people with the natural environment, writing something to the effect of that the natural environment of that island – the climate, the plants, the animals, the Natives – was brutal, and would take a lot of work to be tamed. So, let’s maybe step carefully when we talk about other peoples having lived in harmony with nature.

Just a thought.

Now, returning to the Atlantic article. It opens with discussion of an area in Amazonia known as the Beni, an area where until recently, or perhaps still today, indigenous people live who have had only the most minimal of contact with any outsiders. Scholars Clark Erickson and William Balée believe that this area, and indeed much of the Americas, may have been far more densely populated than our conventional wisdom dictates, and further, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have imposed a far greater impact on the landscape – read: manmade lakes, hills, and so forth – than is traditionally believed. To be sure, I have heard, and find quite compelling, the idea that since disease killed huge numbers of Native Americans, perhaps as many as 90%, before the Europeans ever came more deeply into the continent, the European accounts of a largely empty land might not properly be able to reflect what was there before – before the Europeans were there to see it. Even the Plymouth colonists themselves acknowledged it, with William Bradford (1590-1657) writing “The good hand of God favored our beginnings, sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

But, Erickson and Balée’s work remains quite controversial, and understandably so. The article cites two prominent scholars, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian, and Dean Snow of Penn State, as saying, respectively,
“I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni. Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking,” and from Snow, that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want. It’s really easy to kid yourself.”

Perhaps the more important point is one articulated by scholar Elizabeth Fenn:

Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died… the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. … In the long run, … the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived.

Recovering the lost history of countless indigenous peoples is of course of incredible importance, and I wish luck to all of those working on such projects.

This particular one in Beni, focusing on the idea that the indigenous peoples profoundly altered the landscape, brings up some particularly interesting questions and implications. Firstly, by understanding the ways in which all societies have environmental impact, we can begin to understand one another as fellow humans better, so that we might stop seeing one another as those who supposedly “live in harmony with nature” and those who destroy it, and to instead start thinking about the ways that all human societies impact the natural environment. But, also, there is the question raised by this article: if the land was already profoundly altered by the people who came before (and who, in many cases are still here on the land), what exactly are we protecting and preserving in our National Parks and so forth, and to what state exactly should we restore things? In the Beni, it has been traditional practice for who knows how long to burn out the undergrowth, and to build causeways and weirs to trap fish. The Hawaiians, too, built fish ponds, and maintained artificially high, manmade, populations of fish within them, though I don’t really know the details of how extensively they altered the land to do this. Later in the article, Mann describes how many North American indigenous peoples used controlled burning, and other technologies, to shape the grasslands, and turn them into massive “farms,” essentially, for herds of wild buffalo, elk, and so forth. Quoting William Denevan, he writes, “Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? ‘The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so after Columbus, and for some regions right up to the present time.'”

After we landed, I asked Balée, Should we let people keep burning the Beni? Or should we let the trees invade and create a verdant tropical forest in the grasslands, even if one had not existed here for millennia?

Balée laughed. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?” he said.

From here, the article moves on to talk about the issue of virgin soil epidemics, and of pre-contact population, more broadly. While no article of course could ever be as thoroughly informative as a whole book, this 11-webpage-long piece is really quite thorough in its scope, touching upon a lot of really interesting information. Mann covers so much here, I can hardly begin to imagine what he covers in his book. I started writing a running summary of the article, noting interesting points as I came to each of them, but this blog post, which is meant chiefly to just point to the article, is already getting quite long itself. No one wants to read a super lengthy “summary” of something that’s only 11 pages in full.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, go take a look at Charles Mann’s 2002 article in The Atlantic, “1491.” It’s a really fascinating glimpse into what this part of the world might have looked like before (for most of us) our ancestors came here, and what happened to that world.

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Lots and lots going on. I’ve really let the links stack up this time.

To begin, as we have seen in the news in recent weeks, ISIS has not only been sweeping across large swaths of land, seizing territory, murdering thousands, and just generally seizing power for their violent & extremist “caliphate,” but they have also been destroying numerous ancient and irreplaceable historical and religious sites. The blog Ballandalus provides in a recent post a nicely thorough description of the violently iconoclastic Wahhabist movement underlying The Islamic State’s (ISIS) Destruction of Shrines in Historical Perspective. As this post explains, however, “this is not merely the revival of an eighteenth-century phenomenon but, rather, is the product of a very modern jihadist mentality.” I have commented on this sort of thing before, as similar events took place in Timbuktu a year ago. It sickens and disgusts me. I scarcely even know what else to say.

Working on this post, I started writing something sort of culturally relativist, whinging about how perhaps it is not our place to judge which form of Islam is right or best, or to judge how Muslims / Arabs choose to do things. History and culture cannot be allowed to be frozen in place, and change has to be allowed to take place. Plenty of great structures have been destroyed over the course of history, and plenty of major political, cultural, and religious shifts have taken place – that’s the nature of history itself. But, you know what? Fuck these guys. This is not a popular movement, a peaceful shift or change amongst Islam as a whole. This is a tiny fringe group who, let’s just hope are just as despised by Syrians and Iraqis as they are by us in the West, and who are the worst sort of religious extremists, cutting a violent swath across the region, murdering thousands and thousands of people and imposing their particular brand of the religion upon a populace who does not subscribe to their religious or political beliefs. A fringe group, purely by strength of arms, does not have the right to decide for an entire people, for an entire religion over a billion strong, what to believe, how to believe, how to live their lives, and to decide to destroy precious, irreplaceable, historical and sacred sites. Centuries from now, when people look at the history and culture and architecture of the region, they will point to today, to 2014, and to ISIS, as the reason there is no longer anything to be seen of the historical architecture of these profoundly sacred and historically significant sites.

The Mosque of the Prophet Yunus (Jonah) in Mosul, before and after its destruction by ISIS. Image from Ballandus.

Sticking with politics, Salon recently published a great article by Thomas Frank on the history of attitudes about capitalism, free markets, and monopolies in the United States. As the headline puts it, Free markets killed capitalism: Ayn Rand, Ronald Reagan, Wal-Mart, Amazon and the 1 percent’s sick triumph over us all.

This is, of course, a topic that’s been much discussed lately. I certainly cannot presume to be by any means the first to be bringing it up, or the only one. But it is something which has been worrying me lately, coming at it from a particular point of view, as my readings on the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom made me see frightening parallels between the ideologies and attitudes driving those events, and those (still) prominent today. As Frank writes,

The Sherman Antitrust Act was 1890. I’ve actually been reading the speech that Senator John Sherman gave in support of that act. And it is very clear that the fear that drove Sherman had nothing to do with higher prices, very little to do with the interest of consumers. The fear of monopoly, back in 1890, was mainly a fear that someone else would block me from doing my business.

We may think that our country is founded on “freedom,” but just what kind of freedom, and for whom? Freedom for entrepreneurs, sure. But freedom for consumers? Freedom for consumers from the predatory, exploitative, and dominating power of corporations? I am terrified, worried, and terribly saddened to realize/discover that not only is this truly not a fundamental part of American capitalist ideology, but that even more to the point, support for the freedom of the corporate sector to make profits regardless of the costs, regardless of who “loses,” just may be a truly core foundational belief of our country.

A key element to the haole (white) corporate takeover and overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, at least as my reading of the work of Michael Dougherty and Jon Osorio would have it, is the idea that corporate wealth or well-being equals the strength of the kingdom’s economy. Haoles pushed through many of the policies that they did by claiming that they were doing what was in the best interests of the kingdom’s economy; and even when the makaʻāinana (“peasants,” for lack of a better term) petitioned the government that these policies were severely harming their economic well-being, the haoles dismissed the petitions as unimportant, as totally peripheral to the matter at hand: establishing a policy structure for a political environment where corporations could enjoy the maximum “freedom” to make profits, including policies that ensured their freedom to exploit the land and the people in order to do so.

After a workshop some months ago on how to write and submit op-ed pieces (how, as academics, to be more directly engaged in public discourse), I began drafting something on this subject – talking about the looming, and quite possibly already too late, threat of a real oligarchic/plutocratic corporate takeover of American democracy, talking about Hobby Lobby and Citizens United and all the rest, from a somewhat novel angle, by saying that this isn’t new, and that Hawaiian history, generally quite marginalized and largely ignored in mainland US education and public discourse, can really do a lot to inform our understandings of American history and values, and their implications. But, then, at the end of the day, I am not nearly expert enough in either Hawaiian history, or the history of economic policy and economics ideologies in the United States, to do a proper job of such a piece. I’m still going to keep thinking about it, though.

Display at the Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Allison Meier for Hyperallergic.

On that note, speaking of Hawaii, and indigenous loss to American expansion, let me round out this Quick Links post with a link to a Hyperallergic article on the last Yahi Indian, who chose to live out his final days in a museum.

This is something I first heard about only a few months ago, in discussions in our Museum Studies seminar. And then, just a few weeks ago, Hyperallergic happened to post about it. A man called Ishi, who claimed to be the last Yahi Indian, is said to have “emerged” from the “wilderness,” “appearing” at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco in 1911. When offered help relocating to a formal Indian reservation, he refused, and instead elected to remain at the museum, where he stayed until his death five years later. I don’t really know the details of just where he lived (slept, ate) during this time, or in what ways he was on display. Today, we might imagine someone walking around the museum like a docent, speaking of his experiences; but, in 1911, so-called “human zoos,” a practice at World’s Fairs and the like where colonized and/or indigenous peoples were put on display in, essentially, living dioramas, or “habitats” like zoo animals today, complete with replicas of their “traditional” architecture and “native” environments, were still rather current.

In any case, arrows belonging to Ishi are on display in an ongoing exhibition at the New York City (Bowling Green) location of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian. You can read a bit more about it at the Hyperallergic link.

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I still have not been to the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, but took some time last week to check out the “main branch,” as it were, on the National Mall in Washington DC.

Discussing the National Museum of the American Indian means discussing complex and controversial issues. It’s the sort of thing that should take up a lot of space, as one negotiates, or struggles, with the material, or at least, as one covers one’s bases and includes tons of disclaimers. Once, not so long ago, as I’m sure you can tell by some of my past posts, I would have been that guy. I would have gone on for pages and pages criticizing or questioning, getting involved in other issues, big issues, of race and history, of colonialism, of progress and identity. But, today, I find that I feel I have argued these things with myself enough. Have I fully worked out precisely how I feel on this complex set of topics? No. But, I find myself more open-minded and accepting than ever before, more appreciative of native cultures and native struggles, and more willing to accept these issues without taking them personally, as attacks upon my country, or upon myself as a white person. I’m not saying I’ve necessarily made a decision exactly where or how I stand, or that I’ve “switched sides”, or that I think the sides should be so clearly defined. But, I do think that I’ve managed to obtain a certain emotional distance that allows me to see descriptions of circumstances and events without thinking them to be attacks.

I went into NMAI expecting to find something disorganized, or something otherwise misguided or failing from an exhibit design point of view (not that I’m a design expert or anything), or failing in terms of my experience as a visitor. I expected to find something very politically charged, and perhaps inappropriately unbalanced, in either one direction or another. Since many sections of the exhibits are curated by disparate groups of amateur curators representing their respective Nations, each with particular political goals and complex personal issues of identity, I had been told by others who have visited the museum that the end result is a rather disorganized and disoriented mish-mash of content. That many of the areas overlap, that many contradict one another, and that there is no clean, single narrative for the visitor to follow through the exhibit, i.e. from beginning to end, or entrance to exit. But, honestly, who needs such a simple narrative anyway? Life is complicated. History is complicated. And if we pretend it’s clean and simple, cut and dry, who are we fooling but ourselves?

In the end, I really don’t think that I can say that the museum is too disorganized, nor too politically charged. Yes, it’s true that it is way too easy to walk in the exit of each exhibit, thinking it to be the entrance, and to then find yourself experiencing the whole exhibit backwards. And it is true that by leaving much of the curation to amateurs, and to multiple different groups of people, the exhibits do lose some degree of cohesion and consistency, that they do get repetitive, and that they do at times reflect a group’s political motives or their particular identity politics in ways that an exhibit designed by a professional and ostensibly objective (though we know that doesn’t exist) curator, even a sympathetic one, would not. Still, I think that all one really needs to do to understand and appreciate NMAI is to understand where these people are coming from – their goals and motives, what the museum represents for them, in terms of historical precedents, symbolic recognition, the opportunity to have a voice and to present themselves rather than being presented, for a change. If you come into NMAI thinking about what the Native American curators and administrators are trying to do, what they want to accomplish, and why it is important and significant, and take it within that context, I think the whole thing will make a lot more sense. It is a very different museum in that way from the other museums on the Mall, and it must be visited in a different way, or with a different mindset.


That said, I can’t deny that I have some constructive criticisms. For one, while the museum does a fine job of showing the great diversity of native peoples, including not only exhibits on Sioux, Cherokee, and Iroquois, but also displays on the Aymara of South America and Inuits of Nunavut, there is still a strong idea within the museum that all of these different peoples are merely examples or aspects of “Native” or “Indigenous” (or whatever you wish to call it) identity and culture. Many of the exhibits tell a single narrative, applied in an umbrella sort of way to all native peoples of the Americas, citing examples from a range of different cultures as if they’re all examples of the same thing; as if one could choose different examples, from different tribes, and still prove the same point. The “break-out” exhibits that focus on individual tribes certainly bring some individual, distinct identity to each tribe, and show diversity both in their content and in the very style of the exhibit, but, nevertheless, I think one comes out feeling they have learned something about Native American culture, as if it were a single, cohesive thing, rather than an artificial umbrella term incorporating a wide variety of very different peoples. I found myself thinking, what if we had a museum of [East] Asia which spoke about Asian issues and Asian history and Asian culture and identity, making points about East Asia in general and citing examples from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, to back them up? “As you can see from this Japanese artifact, in Asian cultures they do XYZ. For example, in China they do such-and-such. Insert quote from a Korean historian here.” Imagine if there were a museum describing all European/Western history and culture as if it were a single entity. “All European cultures are like XYZ, as you can see from these examples from Scotland, Holland, Bulgaria, and Spain.”

Are all indigenous cultures of the Americas really that similar to one another? Or is this just something that we teach ourselves, to make it easier to understand?

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