Decentering Whiteness in the Museum

By: Stephanie Littlebird | @artnerdforever

6/30/2020

Decentering Whiteness in the Museum

Q: Do you have to acknowledge a mistake to fix it? Or is it easier to erase an error and start from scratch? Should we examine our missteps before we take another? Asking for a friend…

A: Those are not the kind of existential questions a curator necessarily has to ponder. But, in my unique role as Five Oaks Museum’s first Guest Curator, I was tasked with reframing a preexisting exhibition on the Kalapuyan people of Oregon. In May 2019, museum co-directors Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini invited me to view the original exhibition. At the time, they were considering junking the entire thing… and wondering — was the exhibition outdated, or too problematic?

As a lifelong Oregon resident and descendant of the Kalapuyan people, I grew up in a state that exalted pioneer and Oregon Trail mythology. Even as an elementary student, I realized my tribal history was absent from school textbooks and regional remembrance. I vividly recall being told my tribe was “extinct” in a high school history class once, and while I knew that wasn’t true, that belief is still pervasive amongst non-natives and shapes the way outsiders view Indigenous culture. We are seen as existing only “in the past.”

Looking over each massive, depressingly-sepia-toned panel, I was not surprised by the biases that emerged. But, I assured the co-directors there was still much to be learned from the exhibition, so we agreed to keep the existing panels and I would devise a way to show viewers where the errors were.

I then convinced the co-directors to let me take the exhibition home in my Subaru, so I could sit with the work and examine the texts closely. I lived with the panels in my home for the next two months, reading them over and over, researching what I did not know, and noting the obvious changes that I needed to make.

The preexisting exhibition, created over 15 years ago, was riddled with errors, erasures, stereotypes, and scientific misinformation. It was fascinating to see what non-natives prioritized from our history, what events “experts” thought were important to demarcate. Because I am not a historian, it was imperative for me to work with someone who is an expert in our tribal history. I was incredibly lucky to collaborate with tribal scholar and Grand Ronde Confederation member, Dr. David Lewis. With his generous assistance and online collection of academic articles, I eliminated inaccuracies, and reframed biased narratives.

One of the first changes I made was to the show title. Originally named “This Kalapuyan Land,” the language felt disembodied, as a writer I noticed the verb “is” was missing. The specific function of the word “is” is to express existence or a state of being or “to be.” By removing this word, the creators of the original panels were actively dehumanizing their subjects, a subtle but powerful shift in language — “this isn’t Kalapuyan land anymore” is how it reads.

This IS Kalapuyan Land acts as both a museum exhibition title and land acknowledgment. It is also a declaration of perpetual stewardship by the Kalapuyan people. “We have always been here, we will always be here.”

I used red sharpies to correct and strike language throughout the exhibition. Every red mark became an act of reclamation over our histories as Indigenous people. My hand-made corrections — act like a teacher’s red pen on your first draft — it calls out to the audience for more attention. “Check your sources”… These manual marks turn the exhibition into a scavenger hunt, as viewers scour each panel, searching for more corrections. The updates I made reflect the absence of information too, the original panels make no mention of intergenerational trauma, state-sanctioned assimilation, Indian schools, nor our unique triumphs post-colonization.

To a normal museum-goer, the juxtaposition of professionally printed panels with my handwriting might seem blasphemous at first. “Did the museum REALLY let you draw on their exhibition?!” This unique mixed-media presentation is precisely what makes the exhibition so powerful. You can see the mistakes for yourself and discover exactly what the museum got wrong, some sort of beautiful defacement.

Along with those edits, I curated 17 different contemporary Indigenous artist’s work into the exhibition. By introducing artwork made by living Native creators I could demonstrate the vibrance and abundance of Indigenous culture that thrives today. Art featured in the show runs the gamut from traditional beadwork and regalia to printmaking, sculpture and painting. These objects combined with the historical text panels create a unique and diverse experience that is rare to find in institutional spaces.

When an institution like a historical museum opens itself up for critique, there will inevitably be some painful and maybe shameful revelations. White supremacy permeates much of higher learning and institutional thought, and most of us have yet to fully realize this. However, through critical dialog the institution can start to rectify past transgressions, model progressive behavior for other institutions, and begin the process of decentering whiteness as an authority. If a museum is brave enough to withstand the criticism, the potential for real structural change is much greater. When a museum makes honest attempts to reform, by sharing its perceived cultural authority withmarginalized groups, a richer more holistic conversation can be had.

As a society, we imbue institutions with “authority” without questioning whether they got the facts right. This IS Kalapuyan Land is meant to remind viewers to think critically about all institutions of authority and the information they tell us, whether it’s a museum, president, or a textbook.

To view “This IS Kalapuyan Land” online visit: https://fiveoaksmuseum.org/exhibit/this-is-kalapuyan-land/

Indigenous writer and fine artist from Portland, Oregon. 💎 See my visual work on Instagram @artnerdforever