In March, just as an exhibition of work by Native American artists was coming together at the Fruitlands Museum, questions cropped up about the ancestry of the show’s co-curator.
A debate about authenticity ensued — who’s Native American and who isn’t — and now the show’s opening has been delayed, giving museum officials a chance to address concerns expressed by Native American artists about co-curator Gina Adams’s claim to be of Indigenous descent.
Originally scheduled to open two weeks ago, the exhibition titled “Echoes in Time” will instead debut Saturday.
“This has been an opportunity for us to learn,” said Jessica May, managing director of art and exhibitions at the Fruitlands Museum. “While I was aware there is a distinction between [Native American] individuals who are enrolled and unenrolled, I was not aware of the extent to which it is a profoundly divisive issue.”
Claims of Indigenous ancestry, or tribal lineage, are indeed taken seriously by many Native Americans. Tribes are sovereign and have their own specific rules regarding enrollment or membership. Without records documenting ancestry, they say, anyone can assume a Native American identity — becoming “pretendians” — for profit, fame, or career advancement.
Senator Elizabeth Warren angered some in the Indigenous community, and later apologized, for identifying as Native American for two decades based on family lore that she was of Cherokee and Delaware descent. In the art world, a 2017 retrospective of work by artist Jimmie Durham sparked controversy at the Whitney Museum of American Art due to Durham’s past, unsupported claims of being of Cherokee descent.
The problem of artists, in particular, posing as Native American has been significant enough over time that in 1990 Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it illegal “to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced.”
The artwork in the Fruitlands show is not for sale, but scrutiny of its creators’ ancestry should nonetheless be rigorous, says Leah Hopkins, an administrator at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University and a citizen of the Narragansett tribe.
“I think they totally dropped the ball,” said Hopkins, who serves on the Fruitlands Museum’s Native American Advisory Team. “I’ve seen this happen so many times. It’s 2021. We’ve got to get with it.”
Located in Harvard, the Fruitlands Museum’s five buildings include the Native American Gallery. The “Echoes in Time” exhibition, featuring pieces by 16 contemporary artists of Indigenous descent, has been in the works for several months. In addition to new paintings, prints, baskets, and sculptures, the show assembled by Adams and Fruitlands curator Shana Dumont Garr includes objects from the museum’s own collection, many of them more than a century old.
In March, Native American artists Elizabeth James Perry, an enrolled member of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, and Erin Genia, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate of the Dakota tribe, asked museum officials about Adams’s ancestry. Genia says the questions were prompted in part by “grumblings” about Adams on social media among skeptical Native Americans and genealogists.
“I asked Shana if she’d done any due diligence, if she’d followed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and checked what [Adams’s] tribal enrollment or status is, and she said she had not,” said Genia.
That was not the answer Genia and Perry were hoping for.
“What seems to be happening is individuals are relying on institutions, state governments, colleges, etc. not knowing anything about sovereign nations and protocols ... and not reaching out to learn,” Perry wrote in an e-mail. “There are laws potentially being broken — laws against appropriation, pretending, and discrimination against real Natives and Native nations.”
Adams, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and Maine, is an established and respected artist, with degrees from the Maine College of Art and the University of Kansas. On her website, she identifies herself as “a descendant of both Indigenous (Ojibwe) and colonial Americans.” Her work, some of which makes use of antique quilts and broken treaties between the United States and Native American tribes, is in several museum collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum, the Great Plains Museum in Nebraska, and the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in New Mexico.
Adams did not respond to an interview request, but Kristen Accola, a New York art dealer who represents her, did.
“The attacks on Gina [Adams] have been relentless, toxic, unfounded, and actually contain quite a few outright lies,” Accola wrote in an e-mail.
Adams’s own account of her ancestry, provided by Accola, begins this way: “When I was a young girl, my grandfather told me that he was of Chippewa: Ojibwe-Lakota descent and that he was born and raised as a young boy on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. He related to me that when he was eight years old, he was removed from White Earth by a man named Charles Wright and sent to the Carlisle Indian School.”
Such stories are not uncommon in the Indigenous community, but they’re not necessarily accepted as fact without documentation, which could include birth, death, or marriage records, school directories, or tribes’ membership rolls.
“You can claim a community until the cows come home, but until a community claims you, you might as well be a stranger,” said Hopkins.
May started working at the Fruitlands in mid-April, newly hired by the Trustees of Reservations to oversee not only the museum in Central Massachusetts but also the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln. May, who previously was chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, says Adams did not misrepresent her Native American ancestry.
“I’ve worked with Gina in the past and she has always been straightforward, candid, and transparent about her identity,” May said. “She’s not enrolled in a tribe and she’s never said she was enrolled.”
Amid the questions about her ancestry, Adams has decided to remove her work from the Fruitlands exhibition, though she is still credited as the co-curator. Artist Merritt Johnson, whose claims of Indigenous ancestry have likewise been challenged, also took herself out of the show.
Maine artist Theresa Secord, whose traditional ash and sweet grass baskets will be in the Fruitlands show, says she first encountered Adams’s work at the Portland Museum of Art Biennial in 2018. Secord, a member of the Penobscot Nation, was impressed by Adams’s art and curious about her ancestry.
“In the world that I mostly work in, which is Indian art markets, you have to show proof of descendancy,” she said. “I do find it curious that you don’t in the museum world.”
But, Secord says, she accepts Adams’s claim of Indigenous ancestry.
“It’s not for me to be the identity police,” she said. “What if she’s authentic, which I believe her to be? But, yes, it’s tough. There are pretendians who are using Native American status to get ahead in their careers and taking up valuable real estate.”
Jacqueline Keeler, a Navajo/Yankton Dakota journalist who researches and writes about bogus ancestry claims, said it’s a bigger problem than many realize.
“Thirty percent of white Americans think they’re of Native descent, which is 70 million people,” Keeler said. “How many of them are willing to check a box or live-action role play based on ‘family stories?’ ”
It’s possible the controversy at the Fruitlands could have been avoided, or at least addressed sooner. In 2019, the museum formed a Native American Advisory Team to review its collection of Indigenous artifacts and to “implement partnerships with Indigenous communities.” But Hopkins, a member of the four-person group, says the team was never told about the “Echoes in Time” exhibition or about Adams’s involvement.
“We were completely in the dark about this,” she said.
Going forward, it’s not clear what, if anything, will change at Fruitlands. May says the debate about ancestry has been enlightening, but “I personally would not, nor would I recommend a curator call the tribe to verify” an artist’s claim of Indigenous ancestry.
“I expect that if they claim that identity as their own, they are doing so truthfully,” May said.
That doesn’t satisfy many in the Native American community, who say institutions like Fruitlands have a responsibility to authenticate claims of Indigenous ancestry.
“If you have someone claiming Native space and identity, I’d think you’d do your homework,” said Hopkins. “If you’re not doing what Native American people are telling you to do, why even bother?”
Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.