IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas
The National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. Curators: Robert Keith Collins, Penny Gamble-Williams, Angela Gonzales, Judy Kertész, Tiya Miles, and Gabrielle Tayac. Collaboration between the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian Institution Travelling Exhibition Service. November 10, 2009-May 31, 2010.
The exhibit, “IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” presents a comprehensive introduction to the questions that surround identity, recognition, belonging, and nationhood for people of mixed Native American and African American descent. It is a needed introduction since African-Native Americans may be one of the lesser-known results of contact, more so than Native Americans and Europeans with the resulting Mestizo, “half-breeds” or Métis people who have many of the same issues, but a different history of contact and contemporary living.
The exhibit is focused broadly for a lay audience rather than primarily for scholars. Scholarly text is kept to a minimum and a significant portion of each panel is dedicated to pictures, quotes, and stories of individuals who identify as both African American and Native American. The short video accompanying the exhibit focuses on people of African and Native American descent talking about their sense of identity and how they are perceived in society. The curators juxtapose these highly individualized vignettes on the panels and video with pointed theoretical questions or statements, such as “How did slavery link Native peoples and African Americans?” or “What does it mean to choose your heritage?” These questions encourage the reader to consider how issues of contact, ace, culture, history, government, slavery, conflict, and science have influenced notions of identity and belonging in the United States, particularly for African-Native Americans.
The exhibit is engaging. However, in focusing on its broad appeal, it does over-simplify important and complicated concepts. This is most apparent in a panel entitled, “African Roots, Native Roots,” where a Timucuan village in Florida is compared to a Fulani village in Guinea. The underlying text reads, “In these European views of two villages, the similarities between the two distinct peoples are compelling.” The central text on the panel suggests that African and Native American people shared similar world-views, however, the curators’ choice to provide a specific example comparing these two villages without any further supporting information or evidence to prove a cultural connection seems potentially misleading.
However, the overall intent of the exhibit, to highlight African-Native Americans as an important, if often overlooked, part of American society, is achieved. The exhibit begins with the statement “These people belong together” and attempts to distill the highly complex relationship between African Americans and Native Americans into four main areas of concern: Policy, Community, Creative Resistance, and Lifeways. The story begins in 1492 with the advent of Europeans to America and the connection that was forged as Native Americans and Africans were uprooted and enslaved together in order to further European expansion. The theme of shared social and legal oppression is repeated throughout the exhibit as the curators take visitors from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, up to the present-day. However, the curators do not assume that a shared history resulted in a shared sense of identity.
In fact, the goal of the exhibit is to show the multitude of ways that African-Native Americans have experienced their heritage and the complex and sometimes painful ways that society has treated them. The underlying message is that there are many questions that arise from having a mixed heritage of Native American and African American, and that there are as many questions and possible solutions as there are Indian tribes in this country. The exhibit focuses on the faces and stories of African-Native Americans by blending historical facts with individual stories and perspectives. The examples of African-Native Americans illustrate the complex issues highlighted on each panel, but offer only a glimpse into what belonging would look like or feel like to a person of both Native American and African American descent. Indeed the exhibit is decidedly unwilling to offer solutions.
The focus on individual stories, particularly in the accompanying video speaks to a desire for belonging rather than to invite the audience to consider how the multi-faceted, highly nuanced nature of Native American and African American relations throughout history influences the present-day lives of African-Native Americans. For example, the exhibit does not make a difference between contemporary and historical mixed heritage issues. Are there differences between historical African-Natives, which were usually the result of runaway slaves, adoption into, or enslavement of Africans by the Indian tribes, and those that are of mixed heritage as a result of recent interaction? As there are only 20 panels and a short video included in the traveling exhibit, it might be too much to show that a difference may exist, just as it is too much to delve into the issues that surround being of mixed heritages. Perhaps the book, which has essays by African-Native people, may begin to address these differences through 27 essays that are “passionate” first-person accounts.
In addition to the book and video, the Smithsonian has a web-based version of the exhibit on its website (http://www.nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/indivisible/). The website has many similar panels that are present in the exhibit. Moreover, the website also has a link to a symposium held on the topic where many of the curators and other speakers gave a more scholarly discourse on the issues of race, shared histories, contemporary struggles, and identity for African-Native Americans, which is where those that wish to learn more about this discourse should watch. It is recommended that all parts of the exhibit, including the book and website, should be viewed together.
In general, IndiVisible, provides a good overview of the issues that surround the mixed heritage of African-Native Americans. The curators did a fine job of distilling a highly complex issue into morsel-sized bits of information and also providing an avenue via the website for more, if desired. The exhibit adds an important voice to the discussion about what it means to be American and it good illustrates that there is not just one kind of Native American. As it travels throughout the country it will serve as a starting point for many discussions and debates about how each of us relate to one another.
National Park Service
National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers