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Contesting Knowledge

Museums and Indigenous Perspectives

Susan Sleeper-Smith

Publication Year: 2009

This interdisciplinary and international collection of essays illuminates the importance and effects of Indigenous perspectives for museums. The contributors challenge and complicate the traditionally close colonialist connections between museums and nation-states and urge more activist and energized roles for museums in the decades ahead.
The essays in section 1 consider ethnography’s influence on how Europeans represent colonized peoples. Section 2 essays analyze curatorial practices, emphasizing how exhibitions must serve diverse masters rather than solely the curator’s own creativity and judgment, a dramatic departure from past museum culture and practice. Section 3 essays consider tribal museums that focus on contesting and critiquing colonial views of American and Canadian history while serving the varied needs of the indigenous communities.
The institutions examined in these pages range broadly from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC; the Oneida Nation Museum in Oneida, Wisconsin; tribal museums in the Klamath River region in California; the tribal museum in Zuni, New Mexico; the Museum of the American Indian in New York City; and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. ix-x

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Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives

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pp. 1-6

At the time of European encounter, the first residents of the Americas were divided into at least 2,000 cultures. The original inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere did not conceive of themselves as one or even several nations. Most people knew very little about distant communities—awareness was often circumscribed by kin and trade networks. Consequently, ...

Part 1: Ethnography and the Cultural Practices of Museums

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The Legacy of Ethnography

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pp. 9-14

The four essays included in this section address a range of subjects associated with museums and heritage; they each in one way or another consider how Indigenous peoples have been represented in a variety of cultural and historical settings—in the archive, in the "ethnographic theater," and in the museum. The essays offer a variety of historical and...

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1. Elite Ethnography and Cultural Eradication: Confronting the Cannibal in Early Nineteenth-Century Brazil

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pp. 15-44

When Prince Regent João declared war against the Indigenous inhabitants of Brazil's eastern forests in 1808, cannibalism served as the principal basis for deeming the military action legal and just. From the onset of Portugal's colonization of the Atlantic coastline between Salvador da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro in the sixteenth century, native peoples who ...

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2. Ethnographic Showcases as Sites of Knowledge Production and Indigenous Resistance

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pp. 45-64

In May of 1853 the Athenaeum, a popular British magazine, carried an item in the weekly gossip column about the popularity of human exhibitions (also known as ethnographic showcases). The article noted that "a man may travel a great deal without seeing so many varieties of the human race as are constantly to be seen in London." 1 Ethnographic ...

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3. Reinventing George Heye: Nationalizing the Museum of the American Indian and Its Collections

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pp. 65-105

The year 2004 was important for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). For many, NMAI's opening on Washington DC's National Mall marked the fulfillment of overdue obligations and long-awaited dreams. Few recognized that 2004 also marked a forgotten anniversary: a century had passed since George Gustav Heye ...

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4. Ethnographic Elaborations, Indigenous Contestations, and the Cultural Politics of Imagining Community: A View from the District Six Museum in South Africa

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pp. 106-126

On April 3, 2001, in a landmark moment in the history of cultural display in South Africa, the bushman diorama, exhibited in the South African Museum (SAM) since 1960, was shut down. Amid strong feelings expressed by some staff members that the act of closure smacked of political correctness and that it appeared to be a knee-jerk reaction, the diorama ...

Part 2: Curatorial Practices: Voices, Values, Languages, and Traditions

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Museums and Indigenous Perspectives on Curatorial Practice

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pp. 129-132

If there was a time when museum exhibitions were designed solely to entertain and engage the imagination, it is no more, at least on the topic of Indigenous peoples. The following four papers that center on curatorial practice illustrate the point. The papers show that exhibitions serve not just a curator's creativity and judgment but rather many masters, and ...

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5. A Dialogic Response to the Problematized Past: The National Museum of the American Indian

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pp. 133-155

Over the past several decades, museum practices and associated legislation have been shifting to reflect newer understandings about self-representation and the exhibition of Indigenous material and non-material cultures. Museums like the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on the National Mall have adopted more ...

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6. West Side Stories: The Blending of Voice and Representation through a Shared Curatorial Practice

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pp. 156-191

On May 26, 2007, after months of research, consultation, and negotiation, an exhibit entitled West Side Stories: The Metis of Northwestern Saskatchewan, depicting the social, cultural, political, and economic life of eighteen subarctic Metis communities (see map 2) opened at the Diefenbaker Canada Centre (DCC) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.1 The idea for ...

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7. Huichol Histories and Territorial Claims in Two National Anthropology Museums

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pp. 192-217

This paper represents a long walk before we get to the museum. That is, I first want to survey the wide field in which 20,000 Huichol (Wixarika) Indians, who live scattered over 4,000 square kilometers of canyons and mesas in the Sierra Madre of western Mexico, make different kinds of claims about their territoriality. This field includes commerce, courts, ...

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8.The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian

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pp. 218-248

In September of 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)—the newest and last Smithsonian museum to be built on the National Mall in Washington DC—presented its inaugural exhibitions to the public. The NMAI is described as, "the culmination of nearly 15 years of planning and collaboration with tribal communities from across the ...

Part 3: Tribal Museums and the Heterogeneity of the Nation-State

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Creation of the Tribal Museum

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pp. 251-256

Tribal museums are unique institutions and their proliferation today is an affirmation of how history can empower Indigenous people. American Indian and First Nations peoples have not always been empowered by history or museums. In a number of ways, the tribal museum exists to contest and critique colonial notions of American and Canadian ...

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9. Tsi?niyukwaliho?ta, the Oneida Nation Museum: Creating a Space for Haudenosaunee Kinship and Identity

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pp. 257-283

Visitors driving to Tsi?niyukwaliho?a ("This is our way"), the Oneida Nation Museum (ONM) in Oneida, Wisconsin, will notice several things as they approach.1 The ONM is located just downhill from a tribal senior-housing facility and from a row of low, vacant buildings that used to house the former Oneida Health Care Center. Turning into the driveway, a pink ...

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10. Reimagining Tribal Sovereignty through Tribal History: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in the Klamath River Region

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pp. 283-302

There are a number of curious ironies in the burgeoning number of tribal museums, libraries, and archives among Indigenous communities across the United States. In the nineteenth century, nation-states employed museums and archives to preserve particular aspects of culture in order to inspire a sense of a common history for the nation. By demarcating what...

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11. Responsibilities toward Knowledge: The Zuni Museum and the Reconciling of Different Knowledge Systems

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pp. 303-321

The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, was established in 1991 as an institution dedicated to engaging younger generations in significant aspects of their cultural heritage. The guardianship of knowledge in Zuni is partitioned among clans and religious societies and is taught on a need-to-know basis in order to ensure the transfer ...

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12. Museums as Sites of Decolonization: Truth Telling in National and Tribal Museums

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pp. 322-338

The beginnings of this project are rooted in my previous work on the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and its presentation of Indigenous history and memory in their exhibitions. In May 2007 I completed a coedited volume on the NMAI with Amanda J. Cobb entitled The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations. ...


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pp. 339-344


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pp. 345-362

E-ISBN-13: 9780803225114
E-ISBN-10: 0803225113

Illustrations: 14 photos, 3 maps
Publication Year: 2009