(Re)Inventing the Indians: Native American Voices in Contemporary Museum Practice
Recent decades have seen concerted attempts within the North American mainstream to reconcile the shameful history of terrorizing and dehumanizing Indigenous persons. Many of these efforts have been informed by concurrent surveys of heritage within Native communities. These inquiries have interrogated the ways “culture” can contribute to a shared identity, may be appropriated to harmful ends, and might be reclaimed. Spreading across aesthetic forms, these explorations confront the toll that centuries of misrepresentation have had on Indigenous communities, which have long been mythologized by anthropologists, ethnographers, the tourist industry, the art world, and Hollywood. Native identities have been impugned by portrayals of savages and half-breeds, each malignant image perpetuating justification for extinction. But just as early depictions of Indigenous cultures helped to shape colonial attitudes, modern representations have worked to decolonize American consciousness and contribute to struggles for social, economic, and political equality. This essay specifically considers contemporary attempts to revise the portrayal of Native cultures within North American museum practices by highlighting autonomous Indigenous histories of art practice and theory. Such initiatives work to establish an image of Native identities that are not tethered to anthropology or ethnography and instead confront a representational system that continues to link Indigenous persons to the artistic category of “primitivism.” In this paper, I consider these approaches as indicative of a broader shift away from institutional appropriation toward subjective representation while also overviewing some of the adjacent complications of these efforts.