- Legible Sovereignties: Rhetoric, Representations, and Native American Museums by Lisa King
by Lisa King
Oregon State University Press, 2017
since their arrival to what is now the United States, people of European descent (PED), including settlers, journalists, politicians, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, biographers, travelers, fiction writers, poets, and filmmakers, among others, have been telling the stories of American Indians. Yet Native peoples were never silent. We told our stories through oral histories and stories, the written word, birchbark scrolls, weaving, pottery, beadwork, petroglyphs and pictographs, and so on. However, those communications were not intended for a general PED audience. With notable exceptions, including the Cherokee Nation Museum in New Echota (1826), the Osage Tribal Museum, and the Mohegan’s Tantaquidgeon Museum (both established in the 1930s), Native peoples have not been included in the representations of their communities in the museum world until the 1970s.
Lisa King, assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, has authored an informative work detailing the relatively new phenomenon of Native Americans working in and directing museums and providing narratives of the Native experience in the museum context. Legible Sovereignties articulates the decolonizing efforts of Indigenous museum professionals and their supporters to provide new opportunities and understandings of Native American peoples for both Native and non-Native audiences. King persuasively explains how museum displays are a powerful form of rhetoric and that by taking control of these exhibitions of material culture and narrative, the museums she highlights are important expressions and confirmations of American Indian sovereignty.
King uses as case studies three museums: the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, created by the Saginaw Band of Ojibwe Indians; the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum, affiliated with Haskell University; and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), located in Washington, D.C.
Each museum is distinct and approaches its mission appropriately. The Ziibiwing Center focuses on preserving and protecting the history and culture of the affiliated Saginaw Native community and fostering appreciation for Ojibwe peoples generally. The Haskell Cultural Center and Museum provides a forum for confronting the horrors of the Indian residential boarding [End Page 144] school experience (Haskell itself started as one of those boarding schools) while celebrating the potentials for Native peoples today. Lastly, the NMAI creates an intertribal space that acknowledges the importance of American Indian peoples and communities to this nation. It operates as a forum to introduce and educate non-Native visitors to Native perceptions and perspectives about who we are, what has happened to us, what we do, and where we see ourselves (and this nation, which is now ours too) headed.
The book is clear, concise, well-written, and very informative. It would be valuable to anyone interested in and/or teaching in American Indian and Indigenous studies, museumology, or any other aspect of representation, power, and exhibition. [End Page 145]
JOHN N. LOW is an associate professor and director of the Newark Earth-works Center in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University–Newark and is a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. His research interests include American Indian histories, literature, material culture, representation, and memory studies.