COLLABORATIVE STRATEGIES FOR THE PRESERVATION OF NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN MATERIAL CULTURE
It is always surprising to me to meet people who don't realize that Native cultures are living and ongoing. I know curators who are uncomfortable speaking directly to Indian people or perhaps, more critically, unwilling to talk to them because, as they suggest, “they have lost their culture.” A tribal member recognizing one object and not recognizing another tribal object is information. Certainly cultures are not the same as they were when the objects in museums were collected. Regardless of what is known of these past traditions today, museum collections represent cultural heritage. There are Indian communities and people throughout North America in all states of being, and in those cases in which Indian people are struggling to retain their identity or are attempting to reidentify their roots it particularly behooves museums to work for them. Museums are entering a new era for which we are just beginning to write the rule books. Anyone who believes repatriation will simply “go away” is wrong, because it is but the first pitch of this new ballgame. We cannot sit and wait to be approached by Indian communities; we must seek them out. Otherwise we are re-creating the circumstances that have led us to the current repatriation climate. Museum curators are supposed to know their collections; paradoxically, this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the objects our museums house; and, most important, their cultural context.
We should welcome the opportunity to consider more voices in our preservation and interpretive programs. We may in this manner be able to broaden our appeal and our audiences while bettering our work. It is our responsibility as museum professionals to invite Indian people as collaborators in everything we do, creating partnerships and opening every possible door for them, including training, employment opportunities, and advisory panels. We can also encourage Indian visitation through networking with our colleagues. The best approach to repatriation is one which acknowledges that museums gain both the respect of Indian communities and increased knowledge about their collections when curators actively solicit consultation and consensus. It is time to open ourselves and our institutions, to listen, and to let the information flow both ways.