Museums increasingly strive to provide exhibit content that is relevant and inclusive, presenting visitors with a range of perspectives and voices in order to spark reflection and dialogue. Many now offer thoughtful interpretation supported by collections and archives while allowing audiences to participate in the process of meaning-making. Given their unique position in the civic landscape, museums are well-equipped to help audiences navigate difficult histories and issues. This is apparent in a recent HNY grant-funded exhibition at the Iroquois Indian Museum, an anthropological museum located in the Mohawk Valley less than an hour west of Albany.
The Museum’s current exhibit, “Tonto, Teepees, and Totem Poles: Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century,” tackles a sensitive subject head on. As described by the Museum, this exhibit “is a multifaceted response to the cultural misconceptions surrounding Native American people that persist in North America today. Through objects from the Museum’s collection, advertising, and film footage, the exhibit examines the origins, repercussions & perpetuation of these stereotypes. The exhibit contrasts these misconceptions with Iroquois and other First Nations art created in response to this complex and divisive issue.”
In June, 2018, Humanities New York spoke with Stephanie Shultes, Director; Colette Lemmon, Curator of Exhibitions; and Karen Ann Hoffman, a contributing artist who belongs to the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, about the development, goals, and impact of the exhibit.
HNY: What motivated the Iroquois Indian Museum to put on an exhibit and public programming about stereotypes?
Colette: A lot of it grew out of the expectations our non-Native visitors bring to the Museum. We are not a living history museum, with costumed characters. Our Native staff does not wear traditional outfits to work. Nor do they always have physical attributes that our visitors expect Native people to have. We were finding that a lot of non-Native visitors come with an expectation that was quite different from the reality of who Indigenous people are today. When those expectations aren’t met, people get very disappointed.
We also noticed more recently that there are totally new stereotypes. Some of the older ones that were really derogatory were seldom brought up. Young Native people had never even heard of them. All of a sudden, though, new stereotypes were developing, like the idea of casino-rich Indians who don’t have to pay taxes and get all kinds of undeserved benefits. We also saw that there were a lot of not only negative stereotypes but positive ones that seem flattering, but they are equally inaccurate. Part of the exhibition idea grew out of, okay, we need to address this.
Steph: I agree. The other part of it is that in 1994 we had also mounted a stereotype exhibit. At that time, most of the exhibition materials were products, things that you could buy in the store that illustrated Native Americans in stereotypical ways: Land O’ Lakes butter or baking soda. We wanted to look at whether things have changed in the twenty-first century. We found that you don’t see as many products using images of Native Americans as we had in our 1994 exhibit.
For this exhibit, we wanted the bulk of it to be Native American artists telling us how they feel about stereotypes in the twenty-first century. There was more artwork, as opposed to the external products that you can buy in the store. That was all part of the process seeing how things changed over the last twenty years.
HNY: What role can a museum play in addressing stereotypes? What is the museum’s responsibility and potential impact?
Steph: Often a museum is non-confrontational; there’s not a protest going on. It’s pointing things out to people in a quiet, calm way–letting them go through the exhibits, read the labels, see the images, and then come to their own conclusions with a little bit of help. That’s what a museum can do. To say, let’s look at it, let’s look at where feelings are coming from on both sides.
Colette: I really like the idea of looking at the museum as a vehicle for initiating some sort of change. Yes, sometimes those changes take a long time. It is our role to initiate change. We are in a position to offer lots of points of view, especially because we do have the artists, and the artists all come in with their own individual points of view. Our bottom line is that there isn’t one voice here. It’s not the museum voice of authority. Museums have gone the direction in contemporary times that there are many voices, all of which are valid. Our visitors may not agree with all of the opinions that are put out there, but we’re going to make sure those voices have a place to be heard.
Karen Ann: One of the outcomes of this wonderful museum is that they create this space for learning. That made me think about my father. My daddy was a teacher for his entire life. One time he said to me as I was taking on apprentices and students, “You know, daughter-of-mine, Karen Ann, you can’t teach anybody anything.” I was stunned by that. I thought, you’re a professional, you’ve been doing this forty-five years. He said, “No, darling girl. The only thing you can ever do is create an atmosphere that’s conducive to learning. And then allow people that come into that environment the choice to reflect and to learn.” That’s what the exhibit does so powerfully. It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.
HNY: What was the exhibit design process like?
Colette: Early on we knew that we wanted to present a well-rounded picture of where the responsibility rests, in terms of who creates and perpetuates stereotypes. It is more complicated than simply outsiders creating these images. Yes, a lot of the media does create these negative and distorted stereotypes, but within Native communities too we were seeing a lot of distorted representation in terms of imagery. A lot of it has to do with product sales. We wanted to be fair in terms of putting it out there that it isn’t coming from one source. That was built into our process from the beginning, which is also where a big part of the challenge was in terms of going out on a limb and turning the mirror around and saying that it isn’t one-sided.
We’re very egalitarian around here about decision-making. We’re a small staff. We bounce ideas off of pretty much everyone who comes through the door. Everything from the narrative text to the physical presentation of materials. The artists are a huge part of that decision-making process. We put out a general call to artists, but we also invited certain artists known for addressing stereotypes and cultural appropriation in their practice. Cannupa Hanska Luger was one of those artists who we sought out. He was a cornerstone. From there, we invited Haudenosaunee and First Nations artists in Canada and the U.S. to submit ideas, including emerging artists who had never heard from us before.
What piece the artist put in was really a dialogue that took place between the artist and ourselves. That’s how things are done around here. It has to be understandable to our visitors because we have that responsibility, but we also have responsibility to the artist, to ensure that they feel like they’re part of this process.
HNY: What allows you to be so nimble and flexible in your process?
Colette: We are an anthropological museum. We have the audacity to suggest that we are interpreting another culture. The only way that is at all valid, if that’s even a good word for it, is to make sure that there is a very strong dialogue and interaction, that Haudenosaunee people feel like they have some control over our interpretation and that they have a lot of input. Without their voices we don’t have any integrity.
HNY: Karen Ann, how did you start working with the Museum, and what motivated you to contribute to this particular exhibit?
Karen Ann: First, thank you so much to the Museum and everybody there who makes a warm and welcoming place for a Native voice. I live way out here in Wisconsin. Our Oneidas were removed from the homeland back in the 1820s. There’s this huge geographic gulf for us. The first time I came to the Iroquois Indian Museum was about fifteen years ago. The minute I walked through those doors at that museum, I felt welcomed and felt like I was with family. That has lasted these fifteen or twenty years as our relationship has warmed and kindled and grown into a bigger fire. I really respect the work the Museum does. I respect that they have hearts and ears to hear what the Native voices have to say. Any time I can interact with this museum, I am tickled pink to do so.
HNY: When you learned about this particular exhibit, what crossed your mind?
Karen Ann: When I first heard about this exhibit, I reflected on my own personal experience. I live in Wisconsin. I have some friends who are very involved in the mascot issue, and they have been for a long time. They’re involved in protests and education and studies that talk about what happens when important institutions in people’s lives model racist behavior.
I thought, holy crows! I am not of that stature. I don’t know what to say. Then I thought, I don’t know what to say, but my community knows what to say. I don’t know who Indians are as a whole, but my friends know who they are. I know who I am. And so I did the modern thing: I put together a Facebook group. I reached out to about fifty, fifty-five of my Native friends across the United States and Canada explaining the project as I understood it. I said, here’s the thing, we’ll say who we are. I asked all of my friends to send me a picture declaring who they are. I got more pictures than I could use. I got pictures of people as scientists, authors, writers, mothers, fathers, children, families. I got so many different representations of people’s core understanding of their own identities. I thought, there, that’s a good start. Then I thought how will I display this idea?
I remembered that in the back of my closet I had been gifted something years ago. A non-Native friend of mine loves antiques. He was always in the antique stores, and so am I. My friend found this coaster for Iroquois beer that must have been from the 1960s or so. My friend bought me that for a present. He gave it to me, and he thought I’d be so excited to see the Iroquois used as product representation! I was like, hey, I’m not. This is problematic. He was almost disappointed that I wasn’t exuberant about his gift, but he was open to the conversation that the gift stimulated. I hid it in the back of my closet for a long time.
When I started thinking about this current project, and all my friends saying who we are, I thought: that’s a perfect contrast. We don’t need someone from the outside–a corporation or anyone else–restricting us, defining us, limiting us. I took that beer coaster and put a “not” symbol through it. I surrounded it with images of living, breathing, exciting Indigenous people. I thought, there, that’s the statement I want to contribute to this larger conversation hosted by the Iroquois Indian Museum.
HNY: The fact that there’s been fewer products using this symbolism over the past several decades is a real, quantitative change. What other changes have you observed, if any, in local or national awareness of stereotypes?
Steph: For me it was social media and what is online. When we started to look on the computer for things that dealt with stereotypes, we were able to find a lot of posts where Native kids were talking about how they feel about stereotypes. Nice little clips that we could use in video presentations. We also found a lot of models and various celebrities dressed up as Native Americans, which I don’t think we saw as much in the nineties as we do now. Social media has an effect on taking people to task a bit more than in the nineties in terms of: What are you doing?
Karen Ann: It seems to me that you’re right. When the Victoria’s Secret models walked down the catwalk with headdresses on, there was an immediate response. What strikes me is that in all of the boardrooms, and all of the meetings, and all of the design discussions that must have preceded that run down the catwalk, the idea never floated to the top that this might be problematic. Social media gives us a platform to say, hey, what a minute! But where the change needs to be is structural and institutional and more deeply rooted so that these mistakes don’t ever make their way to the catwalk, the billboard, the party scene, the Halloween aisle.
Steph: It’d be better if it didn’t happen than if you apologize after the fact.
Karen Ann: I get it that these apologies occurring are probably what needs to happen to stimulate incremental change. But I am disappointed that the change is so slow, that the problem seems to be so deeply rooted. We often say in my neck of the woods that Native Americans are the invisible race. We aren’t thought of in these decision-making processes. Those kind of structural things are where we need to have these deeply uncomfortable conversations. Art provides that conduit to have those uncomfortable conversations. You can talk about the piece and not talk about the person, and gently and calmly discuss these issues.
HNY: What do you hope visitors take away from this exhibit, and what are they taking away in fact?
Colette: In the design process we asked: What do we want people to leave with? What’s that final thought or message? That’s where the idea of the poster with the sticky notes [for visitor input] came in. We wanted visitors to leave feeling a little empowered by the narrative. We’ve gotten very positive feedback.
Steph: At the very end, we have a poster which is sort of the image for this exhibit. We ask people to take a sticky note and write either stereotypes that they’ve encountered within their own lives or with people they know. It’s been really powerful, what people write on those little sticky notes. It’s the simple thing that is an inaccuracy about a person. Whether it’s the color of their hair, or their religion, or whatever. The exhibit is making people think about that.
Colette: That, people have really responded to. Not only do they put the sticky notes up there with their own comments, but they read all the other ones, which enlarges the discussion beyond just Native people to places that we might not think of ourselves. The poster activity offers one little thing you can do if the exhibit leaves you feeling like you want to act. Just put your voice on this sticky note.
We did have one visitor who, when we asked him what he thought of the exhibit, said he didn’t like it. When we pressed him as to why, he said because it bothered him and it was disturbing. Our admissions staff was concerned about that, but I just said, well, this means we’re doing something right. A certain amount of disturbance is not a bad thing.
Karen Ann: To me that is a hallmark of learning, when people do become uncomfortable. You are to be congratulated for making a place where that happens.
Steph: We have to give the artists credit for that as well. One of the artists, Peter Jones, created a ceramic piece that is a mirror back to his own community, as opposed to most of the other artists who are speaking to non-Natives. He is saying, look at this: Is this who we are? We are actually stereotyping ourselves through the expectations of non-Natives, and maybe we should think about that.
Colette: There were also a group of high school students from Massena High school, which is just outside of Akwesasne Reservation. They were largely Mohawk kids with a couple other Iroquois nations mixed in, and they were participants in the exhibition. If I look at our success stories and what we are doing that’s worthwhile around here, it’s to be able to see those young voices stepping up to the plate, speaking so incredibly eloquently, and picking up the torch from those generations before them. We were so pleased that they were willing to participate.
HNY: What’s next for the Museum?
Colette: For the next exhibition, we’re changing it up. Want to make sure we have a lot of variety in terms of what we offer. Next year we’re choosing about six of the Haudenosaunee communities and we’re focusing on the traditional art forms that some of these communities are especially known for. For example, at Akwesasne it’s baskets and quilts. We wanted to look at the art forms that each have maintained from historic times, but we’re also going to be focusing on the restoration of particular art forms within communities where those traditions were broken or lost. We’re going to have individual representatives from those communities provide our narrative voice. They’re going to introduce the visitors to their community and specific art form. They’re also going to choose objects from our collection to be part of the story.
HNY: What do you the humanities mean to you?
Karen Ann: In my formal education I was instructed to think of the humanities as categories. There’s poetry, art, music, and these things are “the humanities.” In my more connected Native life, I was taught to think of humans as part of a much larger system and to remember the idea that we are all meant to be mindful and thankful for everything around us. Part of being mindful and thankful is being responsible. To me, the humanities are any way that an individual–four-footed, two-footed, finned or winged–can express their responsibility to the larger systems that envelop us.
Colette: My first response was so basic: It’s all that’s good about us. It’s the good part of human beings. It’s the expression of the experience of being human in a language that’s understandable almost universally. I lean towards the arts, but I think that applies to all the humanities.
Steph: I agree with all of that!
Interview by Scarlett Rebman, Grants Officer
Photography by Ron Schubin
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The exhibit “Tonto, Teepees, and Totem Poles: Considering Native American Stereotypes in the 21st Century” was sponsored in part by a Humanities New York Action Grant and is on display through November 30, 2018. To plan a visit, start with the Iroquois Indian Museum’s website.
Karen Ann Hoffman: Karen Ann is a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. Her works are in the permanent collections of: the Smithsonian Institution-NMAI; the Wisconsin State Museum; the New York State Museum; and the Indianapolis Children’s’ Museum. Karen Ann’s award-winning beadwork has been displayed at: Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, Evanston, IL; Bergstrom-Mahler Museum, Appleton, WI; Iroquois Indian Museum, Howes Caverns, NY; the Wisconsin History Museum, Madison, WI; the Neville Museum, Green Bay, WI; Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA; and the Castellani Art Museum, Niagara Falls, NY. Karen Ann was a member of the Shanikwat Project, Nakuru, Kenya, Africa. The project, led by Samuel Thomas, used tribal beadwork as a medium to foster peace across languages, races, religions, and continents.
Colette Lemmon: Colette serves as the Curator of Exhibitions at the Iroquois Indian Museum. She holds an MA in Museum Studies, a BA in Anthropology and Art History, and trained in oral history documentation with the Smithsonian Folklife Center and Indiana University. She has curated numerous exhibits, conducted research and written on Haudenosaunee/Iroquois art as a consultant to: the New York State Museum’s ethnology department; the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum (Salamanca, NY); the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (Santa Fe, NM); Rome Art Center (Rome, NY); Ottawa Art Gallery (Ontario, Canada) and other facilities. She also served as a guest curator and project consultant to the NY State Vietnam Memorial & Fine Arts Gallery (Albany) and National Vietnam War Museum (Fort Worth, TX).
Stephanie Shultes: Stephanie is the Director of the Iroquois Indian Museum. She began her association with the Iroquois Indian Museum as a volunteer in 1985. Her interest in the Iroquois grew and she went to graduate school at SUNY Albany to receive her Masters in Anthropology in 1988. From 1991 until 2014 Steph worked as the Museum’s Curator. Notable exhibits that she curated and researched with museum staff include two Native Americans in the Performing Arts exhibits, Native Americans in Baseball, and Indian Ink: The Art of Tattoos. As an avid photographer, she has photographed much of the Museum’s collection as well as its public programs. Many of her photographs have been published in books about the Iroquois.