Building a Nation: Chickasaw Museums and the Construction of History and Heritage (Contemporary American Indian Studies)

Building a Nation: Chickasaw Museums and the Construction of History and Heritage (Contemporary American Indian Studies)

by Joshua M. Gorman

ISBN: 9780817317409

Publisher University Alabama Press

Published in Calendars/Multicultural

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Museums and American Indians in Context

A discussion of the Chickasaw Nation's museums and heritage sites must begin with an examination of the historic intersection between American Indians and the museums that defined and displayed them. This chapter explores that intersection through a discussion of the display of native peoples in American museums since the nineteenth century, a discussion of the new museum studies that arose out of a critical examination of that exhibitionary tradition, an overview of the intersection of museums and nation-building, a short history of Native American tribal museums, and a definition of sovereignty as it applies to American Indian communities. This discussion provides the historic and theoretical contexts for the subsequent history of Chickasaw museums and heritage spaces.

Native Americans in Museums

In 1857 Congress transferred the National Cabinet of Curiosities from the Patent Office to the Smithsonian. John Ewers, the first curator of ethnography at the National Museum of Natural History, described the collection as thirty-one random Native American objects ranked as the best in the world. The public display of this cabinet represents the beginning of collection and display by the Smithsonian of Indian objects. The exhibition of these objects remained unremarkable for several decades, and no specific plan for collecting or curation was created. Collecting remained mostly random and sporadic and was mostly done by travelers, traders, and army officers. The exhibition grew with the collection, though interpretation of the objects remained cursory and inconsistent. In 1868 the U.S. Army was authorized and commanded to collect Indian human remains and skulls for study in the Army Medical Museum at Bethesda, Maryland. Though ostensibly focusing on skulls so that a catalogue of anatomical traits could be recorded on the Indian race, full bodies were of ten collected and eventually numbered in the thousands. As the collection of bodies of ten required digging up graves, the Army Museum also began receiving large amounts of material culture in association with the desired bodies. All of these associated objects were directed to the Smithsonian National Museum and would greatly expand the institution's holdings. By 1883 the National Museum in Washington had created a Department of Prehistoric Archaeology with Charles Rau as its curator. In 1897, the departments of Ethnology, Oriental Antiquities, Prehistoric Anthropology and Arts and Industries at the National Museum were merged into one comprehensive Department of Anthropology.

The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia opened a new period of museum-sponsored, systematic collecting of Native American objects within American museums. Henceforth, the Smithsonian and the Bureau of American Ethnology had lists of desired classes of objects to be collected. The objects were increasingly subjected to systematic curation through the development of collections, catalogues, and exhibitions. In this era of large exhibitions, expositions, and world's fairs, these places became foundational sites for the articulation of how native peoples would be defined and displayed in American museums. The American Indian exhibits at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia brought into focus native peoples in relationship to a racially defined national identity. Indian objects and material culture were displayed in typological categories embracing a unilinear evolutionary model. Mannequins were used to depict Indian people, but not within groups or with associated objects. The focus and details of the exhibits revolved around displaying racial characteristics and how they were specifically nonwhite and non-American.

This evolutionary anthropology became a master narrative for a totalizing theory of history, archaeology, and society that was broadly applied to late nineteenth-century social realities. Evolutionism provided the justification for missionary martial activity. It furnished the grounds for American Manifest Destiny and the destruction of American Indian communities and tribal nations. It also "codified the unbreachable gap separating the inhabitants of other parts of the world from those of Europe, forcing the former into the roles of passive receptors of the dubious benefits of European culture and influencing the structure of the relationship between Europe and the other to the present day. It provided a powerful and inclusive scale of differences through which otherness was measured." The emerging displays of native peoples at world's fairs and in the nation's museums provided the justification for eliminating them and the framework for viewing them once extinct.

The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago may also be understood as a site creating national identity through industrial and cultural exhibits. The principal architects of the exhibits, William H. Holmes and Otis T. Mason, were employed by John Wesley Powell of the Bureau of American Ethnology . A broad culture-area concept was the central organizing theme in these exhibits despite the reluctance of Powell to accept its tenets. Franz Boas was the major proponent of this approach, and its inclusion in this watershed exhibition would cement it as the preeminent organizing theme for native peoples in museums. The exhibits featured groups of mannequins, arranged in a context created by costume and material culture, portraying scenes from daily life. The exhibits reflected Boas's research methods and the growing shift in anthropology from research based on race to one based on social and cultural indicators. Powell still maintained influence in the exhibits by describing and enforcing geographic separations of people and cultures that resembled (and were influenced by) earlier racial determinisms.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, continued the use of Boasian culture-area exhibits in service of the broader theme of establishing America's imperial identity. Eight-by-five-foot cases were filled with culturally identified mannequins in family groups engaged in communal activities. The mannequins were using objects and placed within elaborate dioramas with minimal textual interpretation. These displays were read as exhibitions of dead Indian cultures, specifically contrasted with exhibits that contained live African and Oceanic actors. Subsequent exhibitions resulted in the aesthetic and conceptual equalization of the Indian body with culture and material culture that James Riding-In describes as imperial archaeology. These fairs provided an active demonstration of the manner in which museum collections of Native American material culture affected the exhibition of racialized evolutionary theory by arranging indigenous people into a "sliding-scale of humanity," from the barbaric to the nearly civilized. When placed in opposition to the modern grandeur of the industrial and commercial exhibitions and within the monumental architecture present at all of these exhibitions, the native peoples presented from around the globe were represented as earlier stages in the march of progress.

The success and broad exposure of these exhibitions produced an expansion in museums and exhibitions of American Indians through out the country. The subsequent increase in the collection of Indian objects saw the internalization of the culture-area idea and the concept of Indians as representing dead cultures that had been colonized. Boas, James Mooney, and Edward Curtis (among others) all engaged in salvage ethnography through the collection of objects and indigenous knowledge. Boasian collecting and research, especially, focused on collections of cultural traits that were thought to represent and describe the separate but equal cultures. This presumed equality was moot, however, with the coincident racialization of American Indians and the presumption that indigenous cultures were in rapid decline and facing extinction.

The rapid expansion of Native American objects within the collections of the Smithsonian and the widening interest in their display prompted the movement of exhibitions to a separate space within the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). This completed an otherizing, dehistoricizing perspective that separated Indians from American history. While this expansion of exhibits was the result of the growing public interest in Native American material culture, the placement of the exhibits within the NMNH clearly located them within the broader imperial discourse. The choice to display Indian people alongside taxidermically preserved animals and paleontological specimens rather than in the nascent museums of American Art or Industry and Technology (which would become the Smithsonian Museum of American History) reflected a view that they were somehow distinct from, if not less than, contemporary Americans. The exhibits were very similar to those presented in Chicago and Buffalo and cemented this exhibitionary approach as the dominant model. These exhibits remained in place until the 1950s, when, under the curatorial management of John Ewers, the exhibits in the NMNH were repainted and redesigned. The dioramic elements of backgrounds, environments, and buildings were removed and family groups were represented in modern, clean cases with monochrome backgrounds in a "logical geographical and cultural progression."

At the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Arts and Crafts, under the direction of Rene D'Harnoncourt, presented a significant aesthetic exhibit of American Indians of the Pacific Rim that contextualized them with other peoples of the Pacific. The exhibit utilized archaeological and contemporary material culture, focusing on objects that were recognizable within the Western aesthetic cannon. D'Harnon court and the curators declared themselves to be free from ethnology and utilizing the "quality" techniques of the art gallery rather than those of the anthropologist. In 1940 D'Harnoncourt became the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and created the exhibit "Indian Art of the United States." His exhibit examined and presented Indian art from an aesthetic viewpoint, once again utilizing objects across time. The exhibit was structured in three basic groups: pre-Columbian objects, art of existing tribes, and Indian art "adapted" to modern, white culture. The exhibition viewed Indian art from the Western aesthetic perspectives of naturalism, design, and abstraction. "Had it not been for the pioneering efforts of the Museum during the last decade in teaching the pub lic to appreciate Cubism and Surrealism, the Indian art today would be as aesthetically inaccessible to the vast majority of us as it was 50 years ago. In short: we are impressed with the exhibition because we look at Indian art with the eyes of Picasso, Klee, and Miro."

In the 1940s and 1950s, anthropologists who had been students of Boas and those influenced by British social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown moved away from the collecting of cultural traits (and associated objects) to a functionalist perspective that sought to understand cultures holistically and psychologically. The emphasis on material culture in collection and in fieldwork therefore lessened. This led to a stagnation of contemporary anthropological theory within the museum exhibitionary complex. Anthropologists saw cultures less as collections of objects and traits than as clusters of symbols and codes of behaviors.

Likewise, the museum profession and new museum exhibits moved away from considering American Indians as subjects. Existing exhibits remained largely unchanged. The Field Museum would not change any of its exhibits until, in 1981, they reinstalled Boas's Northwest Coast Exhibit. Into the twenty-first century their exhibits of peoples of the Northern Plains remained largely unchanged from their original installation as part of the Columbian Exposition. The Native American exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History likewise remained unchanged for many decades, leading curator emeritus John Ewers to make a plea in 1985 to the secretary of the Smithsonian to remove and reinstall the North American galleries. Before the expansion of the African, Asian, and Native American museums in the 1990s, the overall organization of the Smithsonian museums reproduced a classificatory scheme in which indigenous communities were defined within exhibits dedicated to describing the order of nature. On the other hand, white, middle-class Americans were honored in museums that follow stories of technological advancement and American history or in art museums dedicated to the progression of Western aesthetics. Even the 1987 National Museum of African Art failed to incorporate a non-Western community diachronic history, deciding instead to display cultural objects as aesthetic items largely devoid of historic change.

In the late 1950s, with the possibility of a John F. Kennedy administration sympathetic to a new, workable approach to solving the problems Indian people faced, Sol Tax and other anthropologists working on effective community development instigated a concept of community action they called Action Anthropology. Working to facilitate meetings among Native American communities to identify problems, propose solutions, and develop policy, Action Anthropologists instigated a method for self-determination of tribal communities that would contribute to the Red Power social movements and substantive changes in federal policy. By the 1970s Indian historians began examining U.S. attitudes toward Native Americans and the invalidity of traditional histories to describe an Indian perspective. These scholars rejected the authority of history and anthropology to define communities that had been decimated by their contingent methodologies. Chronology, truth, myth, verification, descendency, and objectivity were not values these indigenous scholars utilized in creating their own histories and narratives. This intellectual activism shared leaders and inspiration with the social environment of the 1960s that produced various Red Power movements in the 1970s. While writers such as Vine Deloria Jr. would rightly fault "Anthros" for their abuse of Indian communities, he wrongly failed to recognize Tax and the many other anthropologists who would play an instrumental role in overturning federal assimilationist policies.

From another angle, however, the treatment of indigenous peoples by anthropology was more humane than that of history—a discipline that largely ignored American Indian communities. Steven Conn, in his text History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century, argues that the historical profession developed in response to the prominence of the Indian question in nineteenth-century America. In the United States,

the practice of history developed its own methodology during the nineteenth century, based on a set of rules that governed what historical questions should be asked, what constituted historical evidence and in what form history should be written. On the other hand, Americans developed a new historical consciousness during the nineteenth century—a rough consensus shared by many about the flow of history and a sense, both reassuring and disquieting that the distance that separated the present from the past grew almost daily. Method and consciousness reinforced each other thereby drawing the boundaries of what constituted history.


Excerpted from "Building a Nation: Chickasaw Museums and the Construction of History and Heritage (Contemporary American Indian Studies)" by Joshua M. Gorman. Copyright © 0 by Joshua M. Gorman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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