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  • Guest Editor's Introduction:Curatorial Practice and Native North American Art
  • Nancy Marie Mithlo (bio)

What is American Indian Curatorial Practice and why is it important now? Since the 2004 opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on the national mall in Washington, D.C., it may appear that issues of accurate and sensitive self-representations had largely been resolved. Native peoples were no longer routinely being showcased in diorama settings alongside stuffed elephants, as they were in the natural history museum setting. But American Indian scholars and activists discovered that we are now only beginning the process of reclamation of self via the museum enterprise. The enduring tensions surrounding American Indian history, arts, and culture are still with us: traditional or modern, tribally specific or pan-tribal, members of U.S. society or separatist nations.

Self-definition in the institutionalized era of Native representations requires an engagement with existing systems of reception and circulation, including the language, institutions, and concepts that were mobilized in the past to oppress. The museum as a context is simply a building, the exterior manifestation of prevalent ways of thinking and acting. While we can create newer models of exhibition, programming, and even architecture, the real infrastructure lies in the thoughts and actions of the senders and receivers—the theorists and the public who consume messages. As contributing author and curator Michelle McGeough reminds us, this is an act of storytelling, an enduring process [End Page 5] at which Indigenous people are known to excel. Her contribution to this volume exposes the complexities of Native participation in the museum enterprise, including the tensions inherent in pan-tribal consultations. In her words, "As a person from the northern prairie who was not privy to the Southwest's indigenous peoples protocol, I was cautious. For me, there is also concern that communities vary in terms of the degree of disclosure that is permissible regarding their spiritual practices. And to an indigenous person there is also the recognition that even in those seemingly benign depictions of everyday life are elements of ceremony and sacredness."

Similarly, artist and curator Miles Miller charts his professional course serving as a curator while negotiating the complexities of relying on inaccurate historical documents that inform the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act regulations. His negotiations appear to involve less a tension between tribes and more a matter of intertribal recognition and acceptance of his traditional training as a Yakama person. He states, "Traditional culture thrives today due to the nurturance of stories that are carried by individuals responsible for their continuance. These community experts serve as curators not only in an object-centered sense, but also in a broader philosophical sense within their tribal contexts. They thus curate not only objects, but also deep spiritual knowledge. This spiritual knowledge highlights notions of ownership and use." These applied, yet deeply theoretical insights by Native arts practitioners, are vital to our understanding of emergent themes and directions in curatorial processes.

Now that we are telling the rich stories of our lives, what stories do we choose and how do we go about the telling? Will established languages—those belonging to the disciplines of art history or curatorial studies—be of use, or are new terms and concepts needed? The researcher John Paul Rangel suggests linkages with TribalCrit theory, citing Walter Benjamin to argue that reduction and simulation in Native arts silence and erase the originating cultures. He suggests adopting the conceptual framework "contemporary" in a strategic manner, in order to assert a Native presence utilizing Indigenous perspectives and aesthetics defined by the case study example of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rangel's contribution highlights the "Indigenization of space" that occurs when Native people "reclaim a location through cultural signifiers, performance, ceremony, song, dance, or installation that convey the existence and presence of Native peoples and cultures." Importantly, MoCNA accomplishes this Indigenization of space by the staff's role as "ambassadors for Native America." His poetic description cites MoCNA as "a contemporary Native arts museum . . . in a U.S. government building that is near the center of a town that was built over...


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pp. 5-12
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