Category Archives: cultural sovereignty

Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.

Amadeo García García fishing near Intuto. The Peruvian Amazon was once a vast linguistic repository, but in the last century at least 37 languages have disappeared in Peru alone. Credit Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times


The Taushiro tribe vanished into the jungles of the Amazon basin in Peru generations ago. Amadeo García García is now the last native speaker of their language.

Source: Thousands Once Spoke His Language in the Amazon. Now, He’s the Only One.

UI’s Iowa Native Spaces project works with Meskwaki, Ioway to bring historical perspectives to more Iowans


The Iowa Native Spaces project, led by graduate students and faculty from UI’s History Corps, works closely with tribal partners to help prevent the erasure of Meskwaki and Ioway history and bring Native perspectives to more Iowans.

Source: UI’s Iowa Native Spaces project works with Meskwaki, Ioway to bring historical perspectives to more Iowans

The women of Waru: ‘We get shit done’


Filmmaker Kath Akuhata-Brown looks at the unique challenges of making Waru, a film directed by eight Māori women. Beneath the yelling and screaming of our recent general election, as child poverty was being turned into a political platform, a group of Māori filmmakers quietly went about the task

Source: The women of Waru: ‘We get shit done’

A Lakota Archive

During American Indian Heritage Month, it is good to remember all of the excellent Native-run museums, archives, and galleries across the country that work hard to preserve cultural heritage and to educate the general public. The Heritage Center at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a great example.

In October of this year, The Heritage Center announced the acquisition of new work by Bobby C Martin (Creek), an artist, curator, and educator from Oklahoma, the Lakota artist James Star Comes Out, Tasha Abourzek (Mandan/Hidatsa), and Aloysius Dreaming Bear (Lakota), of Pine Ridge.

For those who love Native art, discovering The Heritage Center is like discovering a hidden gem. Located in the rolling hills of the Pine Ridge Reservation on Red Cloud’s historic campus—more than 100 miles from any major urban center.

From The Heritage Center’s website:

The Heritage Center collection began with the purchase of three prize-winning pieces from the Red Cloud Indian Art Show in 1969, and has grown today to include nearly 10,000 pieces of the Native American contemporary and historical Lakota art (all recently catalogued thanks to generous funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and the Bush Foundation). The collection includes paintings, textiles, traditional art, historical items, pottery and sculpture, as well as a library and historical archives.

The Heritage Center is one of the oldest such archives located on a U.S. reservation. It is a model of Native-centered cultural sovereignty, promoting contemporary Indian artists and crafts people, and providing a space for visitors to discover the connections between time-honored Lakota creative traditions and their 21st-century forms.

James Star Comes Out “Buffalo Doll,” Northern Plains Indian Art Market, 2015.

Directions: The Heritage Center is located on the campus of Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

The Heritage Center at Red Cloud Indian School 100 Mission Drive 
Pine Ridge, South Dakota 57770

RE: Appropriation

For First Nations writers in Canada, the past two years have been bruising ones. In 2016, serious questions emerged about Joseph Boyden, a Canadian writer who has long claimed indigenous roots, but in reality has none. Then early this year, an editorial in Write, the flagship journal of  the Writers Union of Canada published an editorial that flippantly suggested the establishment of an Appropriation Prize to encourage writers of all backgrounds to “imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.”


Hal Niedzviecki

The editorial, by Hal Niedzviecki, quickly became a lightning rod for years of pent-up anger in the First Nations literary community over what they perceive as an attitude toward appropriation of indigenous materials by non-Native writers that blithely ignores their communities’ rights to intellectual property of the kind involved in traditional storytelling, iconography, and indeed the persona of the author him- or herself.

I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so — the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him

Hal Niedzviecki

On CBC radio, Jesse Wente (Ojibwe) reminded listeners  that stunts like this merely cloud the issue by employing “rhetorical arguments that conflate notions of free speech with cultural appropriation while disguising the very distinct histories of these two things.” Those histories are no joke for First Nations people, who know all too well the truth of Wente’s words: “We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on.”

Niedzviecki’s “joke” went over especially badly because it seemed part and parcel of the non-indigenous writing community’s rush to Boyden’s defense.

Many went so far as to argue that geneology is not as important as Boyden’s “enthusiasm” for Native issues. But, as Alicia Elliott observes in a recent article on the controversy, this sort of argument misses the point. For Elliott, as well as many other indigenous writers, the question is “why do these columnists and so many other non-Indigenous people care about blood quantum in Boyden’s case, but not in any other Indigenous person’s case? Why aren’t they lobbying for non-status Indians to finally be recognized by the Canadian government?”

For Elliott, the answer is simple. Boyden is a “good Indian.” Sure, he’s a wannabe, but he is the darling of the non-indigenous media and literary communities precisely because he doesn’t rock the boat. He speaks in generalities about reconciliation, a concept he reduces to a simple apology “we’ve made mistakes in the past.”

“We have to understand that cultural appropriation is institutionalized, it is the very foundation of what Canada is built on.”

Jesse Wente

Boyden’s defenders also seem not to understand that the concept of “Indian Blood” that they are so quick to dismiss as insignificant in this case is really at the center of cultural appropriation. It is an idea that has its roots in a governmental policy of dispossession (blood quantum rules established in Canada’s Indian Act of 1876) with genuine membership in an indigenous community and all that it entails. With the Indian Act, indigenous women and their children had their status taken away for marrying non-indigenous men. Boyden’s detractors wonder why his supporters are so quick to excuse his lack of status and yet blind to the fate of some many First Nations people who have been denied their cultural heritage. Why should a well-intentioned fabricator of indigenous culture have more right to cultural property than a tribal member stripped of her status by arbitrary statute?

Then there is the issue of market share. Boyden’s fake traditionalism, supported by public acclaim and lots of press coverage, took away potential readers from indigenous writers rooted in their communities and cultural traditions.

The time has come to leave Joseph Boyden and Hal Niedzviecki to their own devices and to concentrate instead on the many more writers from First Nations backgrounds who have great literature to share.

Jesse  Wente has offered a list of indigenous writers who readers ought to be reading instead of Boyden. Here are few.

Left to Right: Alicia Elliott, Richard Van Camp, Gord Grisenthwaite, Tanya Roach, Joshua Whitehead, and Louise Bernice Halfe.


Adoption is not a passport to an Indigenous community


New Yale Partner Faulted for Handling of Tribal Artifacts

A fishhook from the early half of the 19th century from the Newton Andover collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Credit Peabody Essex Museum, Deposit of the Andover Newton Theological School, 1976

Native American tribes are waiting for the return of their sacred items from the collection of a Massachusetts seminary.

Source: New Yale Partner Faulted for Handling of Tribal Artifacts

The Art of Sovereignty

Incised Tablet. Date: ca.1450–1700 Medium: Catlinite (red pipestone). Sanford Museum and Planetarium, Cherokee, Iowa (521-69-m)

Even as questionable auctions of indigenous art continue unabated in Paris, some American museums have begun to make an effort to “mainstream” similar (but responsibly collected) objects into their exhibits. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has led the charge, making it a top priority “to display art from the first Americans within its appropriate geographical context” alongside artworks by non-Natives (NYTimes, 4/6/17).

In the fall of 2018, the Met will debut a major exhibition of indigenous art that will be shown in conjunction with its Euro-American counterparts in the museum’s American Wing. The show was made possible by a generous gift of some 91 Native American works by Charles and Valerie Diker, New Yorkers who have been collecting American art—both Native and non-Native—since the 1960s. This year they loaned a few pieces of their collection to be arranged among the more typical works found in the American Wing as a preview to this fall’s unveiling of the whole exhibit.

19th-century Iroquois/Haudenosaunee pouch donated by the Dikers and displayed in the Met’s American Wing. Credit Joshua Bright for The New York Times

The Dikers’ generous gift is part of a trend that really got underway in 2015, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky. The New York Times’ reviewer, Holland Cotter, called it “an exhibition that has to be one of the most completely beautiful sights in New York right now.”

But the exhibition also raised many questions about the ethics of displaying uprooted objects (the show was comprised of items collected from mostly European institutions) without proper context. In her review for Hyperallergic, Ellen Pearlman traced this flaw to what she called “the cult of the aesthetic object.”

Patricia Marroquin Norby, Director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History and Indigenous Studies, and C. Joseph Genetin-Pilawa, assistant professor of history at George Mason University wrote an in-depth analysis of the Plains exhibit’s reviews and concluded, “taken together, these reviews show the persistence and power of that language. They tell us that as a society, we’ve made little progress in moving beyond worn out stereotypes bequeathed from centuries past.” Their essay, “How We Still Look At and Talk About Indians and Their Art,” explores the language of romanticism that still pervades how such works of art are discussed by reviewers and the public at large. Time and again, Marroquin Norby and Genetin-Pilawa uncover phrases that could have appeared in 19th-century dime novels of the American West, leading them to conclude: “To accept outdated language is historical laziness that does broad damage. It’s a cavalier attitude, one that helps explain prevalent cultural appropriations like hipster headdresses, Hollywood Indians, and the dogged support for racist professional sports mascots.”

To accept outdated language is historical laziness that does broad damage. It’s a cavalier attitude, one that helps explain prevalent cultural appropriations like hipster headdresses, Hollywood Indians, and the dogged support for racist professional sports mascots.

Robe with Mythic Bird, ca. 1700–40. Mid-Mississippi River Basin, probably Illinois Confederacy. Eastern Plains. Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France (71.1878.32.134)










To be clear, neither writer is taking to task the museum’s efforts to display Native material culture and fine arts in conjunction with other work produced in the United States. They recognize that we are in an early stage of a process that will take some time to develop. After all, offering indigenous artifacts, easel painting, performance art, and digital imagery to the public view carries with it an ethical imperative. The display of indigenous arts with a clear and forceful assertion of the simple fact that underlies all efforts at repatriation— Native peoples are still here.



The Laissez Faire Ethics of Global Culture Brokers

Investors in indigenous art anxiously awaited last week’s auction of the Rainer Werner Bock collection of Native Hawaiian materials. Gathered over a twenty-year period, it numbers some 1000 items, ranging from pounding stones to medicine bundles.

A visit to the online auction catalog of the esteemed French auction house Aguttes yields page after page of objects, each within its own little well-lit, immaculately photographed rectangle. Here, a huge run of grinding stones dating to the 18th century; there, a “stone medicine bowl,” its dating and method of “collection,” uncertain. The sale last week contained items of great historic interest as well, including a spear said to have been collected by Captain Cook during his third expedition in 1779/80, and a flag from the Hawaiian monarchic period.

Hawaiian flag, Monarchy Period (c. 1795-1893).

But where the avid collector of “antiquities” sees bargains and objet d’art to decorate a home, others find evidence of a forced diaspora of the stuff of Kanaka Maoli life.

One item in particular caught my eye, a “ceremonial bundle” from the nineteenth century. Is a religious utensil art? How was it acquired? If one community wishes to treat their religious objects as museum pieces, must all others?

Needless to say, not everyone was happy with the proposed sale. Native Hawaiian Edward Halealoha Ayau took a day off from sightseeing with his family on a European vacation to picket the auction house. When reached by phone on Hawaii’s KITV Island News, Ayau explained, “All we are asking is for the sellers to provide us with documentation that demonstrated that these were legitimate Hawaiian objects that were collected lawfully.  . . . All we asked them to do was to prove the provenance of these items, ‘prove that you had informed consent to collect them, and if you have then you are free to do with them as you please.’”

All we are asking is for the sellers to provide us with documentation that demonstrated that these were legitimate Hawaiian objects that were collected lawfully

Edward Halealoha Ayau





This is not the first time that a prestigious Paris auction house has been embroiled in controversy over trafficking in indigenous cultural objects.

Back in 2013, the Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house in Paris put into bidding a collection of rare Hopi and Navajo ceremonial masks whose provenance was unclear. When concerned tribal members tried to take the auctioneers to court, French legal authorities held that the Hopi tribe had no legal standing in France. From the point of view of some outside observers, this ruling meant that the Paris market in antiquities had become “a safe haven for any indigenous cultural property.” The auction netted $1.2 million. 70 of these masks remain in private hands.

Later that year, another Paris dealer offered yet another set of masks, but this time, as the LA Times reported, “the L.A.-based Annenberg Foundation phoned in anonymous bids, landing 21 Hopi masks and three sacred Apache headdresses for $530,000, in order to return them to the tribes.”

In 2016, Indian Country Today featured an interview with Tlingit Athabascan artist Crystal Worl, who was in Paris for an exhibition of her work. Once again, art dealers in the French capital were auctioning off Hopi masks. Among the lots were also a set of Haida and Tlingit ceremonials items. Worl joined other protesters outside the auction house, explaining to ICT reporter Dominique Godrèche,

My grandmother wanted me to be there; she knew what the Tlingit items meant. So I joined the protest, standing outside, holding signs. Hoping that this protest would reach the buyers, and they would give back the pieces to the community. We want them, because we are striving, as a culture . . . . [S]tanding there, at the auction, and seeing my ancestors was frustrating . . . I went to the Northwest coast room to see the objects, and they saw me: I wanted them to know that we are there for them, and we will wait for them. Their cultural value is essential to us: stories are related to each object, passed on to the next generation. All the pieces contain the spirits of the ancestors who created them. There is no Tlingit word for art, as our ceremonial objects are living beings. So this event was unfair; the items are our ancestors, they belong to our communities.

I went to the Northwest coast room to see the objects, and they saw me: I wanted them to know that we are there for them, and we will wait for them.

Crystal Worl

Chrystal Worl (second from left) and others protesting in Paris. (Indian Country Today, Csia-Nitassin)








Yet amidst this seemly wholesale disregard for indigenous cultural sovereignty, there is still some good news to report. The April 5-7 auction did not go well for Aguttes. As Thomas Admanson of the Associated Press reported last week, “only two of the least valuable lots sold for 10,455 euros ($11,134). The auctioneers believe “buyers apparently were scared off by a protest . . .”

Because the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) does not cover items in private collections, and is not recognized outside the U.S., Article 31 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People offers guidance on how these issues should be handled in the global art marketplace:

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, as well as the manifestations of their sciences, technologies and cultures, including human and genetic resources, seeds, medicines, knowledge of the properties of fauna and flora, oral traditions, literatures, designs, sports and traditional games and visual and performing arts. They also have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their intellectual property over such cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, and traditional cultural expressions. 2. In conjunction with indigenous peoples, States shall take effective measures to recognize and protect the exercise of these rights.

When courts and ethnics guidelines fail, it becomes the work of everyday people like Edward Halealoha Ayau and Crystal Worlreally all of us—to remind others of their responsibilities to the living cultures of the indigenous world.