- This Place Called Home:Curating from an Insider's Perspective
As a young boy, accompanied by my family, I joined the Washat religion at an area longhouse. I was nurtured with a traditional education; the elders taught me the Yakama legends and time-honored lessons, and encouraged me to understand everything around me. These early influences continue to inspire me as a beadwork artist. I learned patience, observation, design, and composition, skills that carried over to my collection management work. I learned to care for collections by thoroughly evaluating, completing, and updating accession and catalog records, thus facilitating the process of preservation and attending to exhibition concerns with care. The combined influences of my traditional Yakama upbringing, museology, and contemporary Native American art history studies motivate me as a curator to utilize exhibits as a new pedagogical method of pursuing Native American history, culture, and arts.
This essay will introduce the reader to This Place Called Home, an exhibit I curated in 2008 as part of my master's thesis project at the University of Washington's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.1 In this essay, I will reflect on my experiences as a Native curator from the Yakama Nation—specifically how, in my opinion, traditional cultural beliefs enhance current museological practices and the relative power of decision making in collaborative projects between museums and tribal communities. Related to this shared management process, I will address two additional issues: (1) the relationship between pan-tribal [End Page 21] advisory committees and tribally specific values, and (2) possible tensions between culture and religion in museological practices.
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In the course of the object-selection process for This Place Called Home (TPCH), an Umatilla cultural adviser brought his concern over ten historical objects that might possibly fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to the attention of [End Page 22] the Plateau exhibit curators. These archaeological objects come from a particular accession in which the archaeologist and collector often acted without the guidance and advice of local Native American consultants. The intended use of these objects—a sinker/maul, sculpture/ effigy, pestle, ground stone tools, and stone mortars—is often misunderstood. My course of action to resolve the issue was to research accession records in search of evidence supporting this claim of a burial connection. Finding no evidence, and acting as a curator familiar with traditional Yakama teachings, I chose to override the recommendation of the Umatilla cultural adviser. This internal decision making is indicative of new understandings of what we mean by indigenous museum curating and the implications of consultation.
This Place Called Home
In March 2007 I accepted the invitation by Dr. James Nason, curator emeritus at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, to cocurate a complementary, object-based exhibit to augment Peoples of the Plateau: The Indian Photographs of Lee Moorhouse, 1898-1915, a traveling photographic exhibition from the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.2 Both TPCH and the Moorhouse exhibit were designed to focus on the arts and culture of middle Columbia Plateau tribes—Yakama, Umatilla, and Nez Perce—and as such, would be the first major exhibits about Plateau culture in the past twenty years at the Burke Museum.
The Moorhouse exhibit included fifty-one important historical images of known people, village sites, clothing, and other objects of material culture—all reproductions of Lee Moorhouse's glass plate negatives taken at the turn of the century. The Burke Museum was interested in enhancing the exhibit to highlight and present to western Washington audiences Plateau objects from the Native American permanent collection.
TPCH explored the indigenous aesthetic of the Columbia River Plateau region. Carefully selected objects looked at relevant historical and prehistorical objects characteristic of Plateau culture from the Burke Museum, and demonstrated...