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Preservation On The Reservation [And Beyond]
Fall 1999

Online Archive

*  Museums and Cultural Centers: Traditional Roots, Modern Preservation

(photo) Grandmother and granddaughter, both members of British Columbia's Heiltsuk tribe.

"Of the 300-plus languages indigenous to what are now the United States and Canada, nearly a third have disappeared. Only about a quarter of those that survive are being passed on to children. [Without intervention] all of these languages will fall silent within the next few decades. "

Teresa L. McCarty and Lucille J. Watahomigie

by James Nason

For centuries, American and European museums have collected objects from Native American communities. These institutions—the ideological descendants of ancient Mediterranean temples and the private, princely collections of Medieval and Renaissance Europe—are, at heart, facilities that house objects of significance to a community, cared for by specialists who use them for the enlightenment of the people.

Tribal museums have their roots in antiquity as well. In pre-European North America, there were both sacred and patrimonial objects of great community significance. These, too, were kept by specialists, under special conditions, for the community's benefit. In the Southwest, kivas housed collections whose use was vital to the members of the pueblo and to their sense of place in the world. The Iroquois of the Northeast, the Great Plains societies, and communities of the Pacific Northwest all followed similar practices.

These institutions are rarely, if ever, thought of as "museums," despite their close ideological match to those of Euro-American origin. This lack of appreciation may simply be a function of colonial denigration, or may relate to a Native American view of objects as having a life and spirit of their own. However it is seen, today's Native American museums have their foundations in institutions that were widespread before 1492.

The impetus for many of today's tribal museums lies in history. Most Native American objects were either destroyed or appropriated by Euro-American museums or into private collections. It seems likely that up to 90 percent of the objects that survived into the reservation period were alienated by means both fair and foul. What is less known is that many Native American communities never abandoned their "museum" institutions. On the contrary, they have been actively establishing modern institutions that both derive meaning from the past and exemplify new opportunities for community enrichment and preservation.

The development of new tribal museums began primarily in the 1960s, with significant growth in the '70s and again in the '90s. By 1981, approximately 44 had been established, most part of tribal governments with others operating as adjuncts to a parent organization (e.g. the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum) or as independent non-profit organizations like the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. Today there are more than 180 throughout the United States and Canada, most in the western states and provinces, with more new facilities in design or under construction.

Tribal centers and museums have not replaced traditional institutions, but have instead enhanced preservation. From the start, they have not only collected, preserved, and interpreted objects for their communities, but have also carried out other functions. Many operate K-12 programs focused on tribal heritage and language, including research and interpretation in history, archeology, and traditional and contemporary arts. Tribal museums operate theaters, libraries, archives, and gardens. They have also established living history programs, cultural festivals, and special events such as ecotours.

Two institutions typify these trends. The Suquamish Tribal Museum, a short ferry ride from Seattle, provides educational and research services for the tribe and the greater Puget Sound community. Founded on a remarkably successful photographic archives and oral history program begun in 1978, the museum's achievements include oral history projects, several media productions, education programs, and excellent exhibits, including an acclaimed presentation of Suquamish life and history.

The discovery and excavation of an ancient Makah village at Ozette, Washington, not only led to unparalleled insights into Makah history and culture, but also to the Makah Cultural and Research Center, which opened in 1979 after seven years of tribal work and close collaboration with architects, exhibit designers, and museum specialists. Its extensive permanent exhibits have been augmented by a succession of special shows. The center has also been the focus of research and publication in several areas, a major language program, and numerous other initiatives.

The diversity and strength of tribal museums also reflect a growth in economic and political power and a collective determination to maintain Native American identity in our increasingly pluralistic society. There is cutting-edge exploration as well. Tribal museums are researching new methods for culturally appropriate storage, handling, and access consistent with museological practice. They have long exemplified community-based approaches to interpretation and new ideas about presenting Native American cultural constructs.

Because of NAGPRA, some are now involved in new community and family relationships embodying shared ownership and use of highly valued cultural objects. Tribal museums are also creating new standards for research done by community members and others, and new concepts in intellectual property—all of which will have an impact on other museums and researchers.

In many respects, tribal museums have as many similarities to other museums as they have differences. They complete a circle that began with alien institutions imperialistically collecting and interpreting Native American culture and ended with a resurgence of tribal communities. They are, collectively, an important new element in preservation. They have embarked upon successful partnerships with other American institutions and have brought new insights of value to us all.