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Museums need new models for exhibiting indigenous art. Yale starts by thanking the objects

A new show contends with the ugly history behind so many North American museums, including the university’s own institutions.

A view of Yale University Art Gallery's "Place, Nations, Generations, Beings" exhibition.Jessica Smolinski

NEW HAVEN — “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings,” a somber and moving display of two centuries’ worth of Native American artworks at the Yale University Art Gallery, comes with a conventional list of acknowledgments plus an unconventional headliner: Its three curators, two of them indigenous, took care to thank the show’s 92 objects first: “Thank you," they write, in an accompanying book, "for allowing us to visit with you, hold you, and speak to you. Thank you for teaching us.”

Unconventional, that is, to anyone but an indigenous person, for whom the pieces are infused with a spirit of creation, conferring on them a life as real as our own. Museum makers — white, settler, European-descended — always saw art as something to be admired and protected, not to be touched. They — native, constant, deeply tied to the land — make art to be used, handled, and held, every object with a purpose, honored as living things. Being locked away in museums, as so many have been since indigenous production became European fetish a couple of centuries ago, is something like being imprisoned. One artist I know, who is Omaskeko Cree from the Moose Cree First Nation in northern Ontario, ends every visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum with a promise to his people’s works, and a plea: “Patience, grandfathers,” he tells them. “We are coming for you.”


“Place, Nations, Generations, Beings” is far from a liberation, though it is thorough, thoughtful redress. The great majority of the works were borrowed from Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, where time all but stood still for decades: Its Hall of Native American Cultures was for many years strung along a path that included dinosaurs and mammalian evolution. (The Peabody de-installed its long-standing Native American display in 2017, replacing it with a fluid study gallery where objects from its collection change semester to semester on request from academic departments from across the school’s disciplines.)

Richard Hunt's "Sea Monster Mask," on loan from Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History.Alexander Harding/Yale University Art Gallery

The show’s honored guests have only temporary reprieve — it closes June 21. But “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings” also is meant as a model for more permanently recalibrating a long-fraught relationship. It’s significant that the exhibition features works from the Peabody, not to mention the school’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the gallery itself. Curators Katherine Nova McCleary, who is Little Shell Chippewa-Cree, and Leah Tamar Shrestinian write in the catalog that Yale’s scattershot indigenous collections are joining a broader movement “at a promising moment.” Models for collaboration between indigenous culture and settler museums are in progress, though far from complete. (The exhibition’s third curator is Joseph Zordan, who is Bad River Ojibwe).


Yale may be late to this burgeoning shift — “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings” evolved from a student project, started when the curators were interns in 2015, and blossomed from there. But the school’s willingness to open up and listen is heartening. Models for how colonial museums can work with indigenous culture from a position of equality and respect are still evolving. “Place," with its broad consultation and indigenous-led thinking, will surely inform that evolution.

The curators describe the works here as “emissaries” — still belonging to the various nations whose members created them, resting here as emblems of colonial violence and the resilient people who made them. Repatriation, the practice of returning indigenous objects to their people when requested, is longstanding but only recently widespread. The timing here is key: The Peabody returned some 300 objects to the Mohegan nation just last year; a Mohegan splint basket sits at the exhibition’s entrance, its purpose, the wall text reads, is to “acknowledge the Mohegan people and other Algonquian speakers as the rightful custodians of the land Yale occupies.”


The show’s commingling of works across history, right up to the present, is a simple, powerful gesture, gently infusing typical museum practice — which favors timelines straight as arrows, era to era, year to year — with an indigenous view of a holistic continuum: Clarence Cruz’s 2017 bowl of micaceous clay, inscribed with the motifs of his Ohkay Owingeh ancestors alongside a Zuni piece from the early 20th century; Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn’s 2012 basket woven from an early colonial map and a photograph of the Smoky Mountains alongside an intricate 19th-century Cherokee basket, braided from white oak.

Shan Goshorn's "Our Lands Are not Lines on Paper."Alexander Harding/Yale University Art Gallery

Cruz and Goshorn share their stages with “Artists Once Known,” a category devised for this show specifically, designed to excise the convention of anonymity among the hundreds upon hundreds of objects bought, traded, or simply stolen over the years. It resets those objects from artifact to art — the work of an individual, lost to the ages like so many in colonialism’s merciless churn.

The product of three years of consultation — with indigenous students, scholars, artists, and museum staff — “Place, Nations, Generations, Beings” is a strategic reset for Yale, and an acknowledgment of its own historically spotty, often shameful interaction with indigenous cultures and peoples.


The school is far from alone — it’s a big club; virtually every institution in the country is a member — though its history has some particularly ugly distinctions: Yale alumnus John Calhoun established the US government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824. As vice president to Andrew Jackson, he helped draft the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forcibly displaced Native Americans from their lands by the tens of thousands.

The years following those removals — and the massacres they begat — were particularly rich for collectors and scavengers of indigenous objects. They could be gathered by the armload from peoples quick to sell whatever they could to survive, or who had simply left things behind — burial sites among them, which were swiftly excavated and their contents preserved as “natural history.”

This dubious embarrassment of riches brought the 19th-century fad of collecting indigenous objects with little regard for origin, let alone artist. It’s no coincidence that natural history museums — a byproduct of colonialism at its most brutal and efficient — experienced a boom in the decades following the removals. The Peabody was established in 1866; New York’s massive American Museum of Natural History followed a few years later, in 1869. From 1870 to 1930, indigenous removals and massacres peaked; vast storehouses in big cities and universities stood ready to receive the remnants of cultures pushed to the brink.


Try, then, to imagine being a Native American student sifting Yale’s collections, haunted by ghosts. That might be why every object here feels supercharged, bursting with stories they‘ve held silent for decades. Look at a Nlaka’pamux cradle of woven cedar (Artist Once Known) or a set of moccasins whose eager collector never bothered to catalog the artist or even their nation a century or more ago. They’re both extravagantly beautiful things; the mystery of their lives in the world, before coming to rest in a vault somewhere on campus, sets the mind spinning.

A pair of moccasins, on loan from the Peabody Museum of Natural History.Alexander Harding/Yale University Art Gallery

Some objects were used by the people who made them; others were sold as tourist objects for a burgeoning economy that shifted indigenous work from cultural object to market commodity. By the late 19th century, it was hard to know one from the other, even within what was left of North America’s indigenous nations themselves. In some places, ceremonial objects (often used as gifts to neighboring nations) were outlawed by both the US and Canadian governments for evading the conventional cash-for-goods economy. On the Northwest Coast, the potlatch ceremony, a coming together of nations marked by the exchange of art and ritual, was banned right up to 1951.

The show’s organizing rubrics are quietly defiant, reclaiming what was violently taken, broken, defiled. But they’re loose, linking past to present as one. Marie Watt’s “First Teachers Balance the Universe” is a pair of wings made from stitched-together plaid blankets and embroidered with fine narrative detail (one wing is called “Things That Fly (Predator)," the other “Things That Fly (Prey)"). It draws on Watt’s Seneca heritage and the legend of Sky Woman, who falls to earth and learns its ways by the woodland creatures there. Watts’s blankets, embroidered by the artist, and in several community sewing circles, are filled with images of flying things — birds and insects, drones and fighter jets, hot air balloons and UFOs.

A visitor interacts with Marie Watt’s “First Teachers Balance the Universe.”Jessica Smolinski/Yale University Art Gallery

Contemporary artists here work along a theme of take-back: Will Wilson, who is Diné (Navajo), uses the same photographic technique as Edward Curtis — the American photographer who famously exoticized and distorted scenes of indigenous life — to give agency back to his subjects, photographed as they wish to be seen. Fritz Scholder, who is Luiseno and American, made “Bicentennial Indian” in 1974, a cheeky image of a Native American swathed in a US flag.

Maybe the most compelling object is a bowl, carved in 2017 from a heavy burl of maple, that sits at the show’s far end. Justin Scott, who is Mohegan, made it with a polished quahog shell embedded for this very moment. He gave it to Yale on the occasion of the Mohegan objects’ return last year. The Mohegans always used quahog in wampum, a traditional indigenous version of a contract — a treaty, a marriage, a truce. Maybe we can think of the bowl as all three, and one thing more: like the show itself, a way forward.

PLACE, NATIONS, GENERATIONS, BEINGS: 200 Years of Indigenous North American Art

At Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through June 20. 203-432-0600,

A maple bowl by Justin Scott.Richard House/Yale University Art Gallery

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.