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Recent Developments in Museums and relations with Indigenous Peoples

“When project developments, environmental assessments, or other activities affect indigenous peoples, the first step must be to bridge the gap between the indigenous and western knowledge forms and culture.”

Alan Emery

The Canadian Museums Association, together with the Assembly of First Nations, published in 1992 a policy entitled “Turning the Page” which contains many provisions similar to those of Previous Possessions, New Obligations.

A commentary on the Canadian policy and progress in its implementation was given by the late Michael Ames (Emeritus Professor at the University of British Columbia and former director of the Museum of Anthropology) in an important article “Are Changing Representations of First Peoples in Canadian Museums and Galleries Challenging the Curatorial Prerogative?”, in the book, The Changing Presentation of the American Indian (Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian, Washington DC, 2000).

Stone of the Sun, National Museum of Anthropology (More)
Ames reviewed progress in implementing the recommendations of the joint (Canadian Museums Association and Assembly of First Nations) Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples of 1992. He wrote also of differences between the ways some Canadian First Peoples approach exhibitions and who should be involved in them and judge them and the way some non-Indigenous Canadian curators approach these issues. He concludes, inter alia, that progress has been modest. He identifies three main problems: structural difficulties, the fact that government funding was needed to implement the recommendations and third, the onus is on museums to initiate change. Government funding available to museums has been reduced by 40%.

Information on the important United States legislation, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act can be found here.

A study of the way in which this legislation is affecting museum practice in the USA has recently been completed and published as “NAGPRA: Effective Repatriation Programs and Cultural Change in Museums (T. J. Sullivan, M. Abraham and D. J. G. Griffin (2001), Curator 43/3, 231-260.2002). The abstract is here. (See also Morris Abraham, Tim Sullivan and Des Griffin (2001), Implementing NAGPRA: the effective management of legislated change in museums. Management Decision 40/1, 35-49)

Substantial work has been done on indigenous knowledge. Dr Alan Emery’s site (KIVU Nature) entitled “Bridging the Gap” provides access to documents on this subject, especially with respect to Canada. He says, “When project developments, environmental assessments, or other activities affect indigenous peoples, the first step must be to bridge the gap between the indigenous and western knowledge forms and culture. For projects to be sustainable or assessments to be credible, the indigenous peoples and the corporate leaders, government managers, and policy makers involved must quickly forge effective links based on trust, respect, and empowerment.”

There has been collaboration in recent years between various parts of the World Bank and various entities in Canada, including the Federal Government and aboriginal organizations, on a number of issues relating both to indigenous peoples (IP) and indigenous knowledge (IK). The June 1997 Global Knowledge Conference (GK97) in Toronto, jointly hosted by the World Bank and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA which is a Canadian non-governmental organization) emphasized the urgent need to learn, to preserve and to exchange knowledge embodied in successful local practices so that they could be replicated elsewhere and applied in the development process… A framework for action on Indigenous Knowledge for Development was articulated in November 1998. Subsequently, Guidelines on Integrating Indigenous Knowledge in Project Planning and Implementation were published jointly by the World Bank, CIDA, the International Labour Organization, and KIVU Nature …” Further information on relevant World Bank projects can be found on the Bank’s websites.

The World Bank’s Development Gateway maintains substantial sites on Indigenous Peoples and on Indigenous Knowledge.

There is also information on Indigenous knowledge at various other sites including the Office of the United Nationas Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and Unesco.

The British Government continues its consideration of the return of human remains from museum collections, the major aspect of which is the report of a special Working Group. Further information is available here.

Procession for the Opening of the National Museum
of the American Indian (More)

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian opened in September 2005. There are a number of sites featuring images of the opening. Museum Director Dr W Richard West, attired in his regalia as a Chief of the Southern Cheyenne, spoke movingly at the opening.

We have lived in these lands and sacred places for thousands of years. We thus are the original part of the cultural heritage of every person hearing these words today, whether you are Native or non-Native. We have felt the cruel and destructive edge of the colonialism that followed contact and lasted for hundreds of years. But, in our minds and in history, we are not its victims. As the Mohawks have counseled us, “It is hard to see the future with tears in your eyes.”

We have survived and, from a cultural standpoint, triumphed against great odds. We are here now -40,000,000 indigenous people throughout the Americas and in hundreds of different cultural communities. And we will insist, as we must, that we remain a part of the cultural future of the Americas, just as we were a part of its past and fought so hard to be a part of its present.

But the National Museum of the American Indian is even more significant as a symbol for this: that, at long last, the culturally different histories, cultures, and peoples of the Americas can come together in new mutual understanding and respect. That understanding and respect make possible the true cultural reconciliation that until now has eluded American history.

This prayerful hope has been stated before with far more eloquence than mine, and I want you to hear those words now. Exactly a century ago, on September 21, 1904, Native America lost one of its most legendary patriot chiefs. He was known in English as Chief Joseph, but to his own people he was Hinmatoowyalahtqit. He made his plea in 1879, just after he had barely failed in his legendary march to seek freedom in Canada from the United States Seventh Cavalry:

“If the white man wants to live in peace with the Indian, there need be no trouble. Treat all men alike . . . . Give them all an even chance to live and grow. All men were made by the same Great Spirit. They are brothers.”

So in the spirit of Hinmatoowyalahtqit and at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, I say, on this September 21st, to those of you within sight and sound of this occasion who descend from those who came, “Welcome to Native America.” And I say to those of you who descend from the Native ancestors who were here, “Welcome home.”

In the different journey through history, together, that the eloquence of Chief Joseph commands, and that the National Museum of the American Indian so powerfully demands, I offer, in conclusion and in hope, these words in Cheyenne:

Naa ma’heo’o
Tseo-aam-e vehe-hahtse

“Maheo, the Great Mystery, walks beside you, and walks beside your work, and touches all the good that you attempt.”

At the opening of the new Musee du Quai Branly in Paris in July 2006, the President of France, Jacques Chirac, spoke strongly of the rights of indigenous peoples. In an earlier speech welcoming an Amerindian delegation visiting the Elysee Palace in 2004, Chirac foreshadowed his comments on Indigenous peoples’ rights two years later.