Opening Keynote: heather ahtone: Decolonizing the Museum: what does it mean to serve the community?

Hear from heather ahtone, Senior Curator at the First Americans Museum (FAM) in Oklahoma. Decolonizing the Museum: what does it mean to serve the community? This keynote will share Dr. ahtone's reflections on how media enacts the First Americans Museum's curatorial methodology working with Respect, Reciprocity, Relationships, and Responsibility. As a new museum, just opened in September 2021, FAM serves the 39 tribal nations in Oklahoma telling a national story of resilience, resistance, and survival. Track:Plenary/Keynote


Unknown Speaker 06:46
I would like to welcome Dr. heather ahtone here to MCN. My name is Max Evjen, and I come from Olympus Michigan, which resides on the ancestral traditional and contemporary lands of the Anishinabeg three fires confederacy of Ojibwe, Ottawa and Pottawatomie peoples on land seated in the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw.

Unknown Speaker 07:13

Unknown Speaker 07:15
I would like to introduce Dr. Heather ahtone, C. Heather ahtone is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and descendant of strong, strong Choctaw woman. She is the Senior Curator at the first American museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, she has worked in the native arts community since 1993 and has established a career as the curator arts writer and crucial cultural researcher. ahtone has worked at the Institute of American Indian and Indian Arts Museum now Moke Naam, the southwestern association of Indian Arts Santa Fe, New Mexico on contract with Ralph Appelbaum associates in New York, and then several positions of the University of Oklahoma, where he served as the curator of Native American art at Oh use Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art for over six years. Her current research explores the intersection between indigenous cultural knowledge and contemporary arts, she continues to seek opportunities to broaden discourse on global contemporary indigenous arts, especially as it fosters an understanding of the diverse tribes in Oklahoma. She earned an associates degree in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts bachelor's degree in printmaking at the University of Oklahoma a master's degree in art history and a doctoral degree in Interdisciplinary Studies art history, anthropology and Native American studies. She has published numerous essays for journals and exhibition catalogs published by the Eiteljorg museum coat pro Chateau is, to the arts, Peabody Essex Museum Crystal Bridges Museum and the Minneapolis Institute, Institute of Art. Her exhibitions have received positive scholarly reviews and publications awards including art from Indian Territory dozen seven h2o K native perspectives on water issues in 2010 habotai hobby art from the permanent collections 2013 Enter the Matrix indigenous printmakers in 2015 intertwined stories of splintered pasts Shango Sean and Sarah since 2015 From the Belly of our being, art by and about new to creation for 2016 and photosynthesis 2017 Her most recent projects are Oklahoma tribal nations gallery and when you go life of an object selections from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian open in 2021. It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Dr. Heather ahtone for her presentation decolonizing the museum, what does it serve as it means to serve our community. Thank you.

Unknown Speaker 09:46
Thank you to max up Jen. I'm very glad to be here. I also want to thank Jessica Warchall and Eric Longo for inviting me to join you today as a virtual guest of the MC N conference. I'm grateful for their generous and kind hospitality. Max has been a fantastic and patient host as my schedule has been quite restrictive lately. I also want to extend my gratitude to Adrian Lally Hills my battle comrade in arms, who recommended me as a speaker, Adrian is a special human being a friend, and I'm honored to share the work with her. As you heard, the in the introduction, my name is Heather ahtone, I'm a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, located in Oklahoma. I'm also Choctaw by descent from a long line of beautiful and strong women that you can see here, I mentioned these relationships because I believe that relationships are at the center of all the good that any of us can do, and my visit here today is an example of what can come from good relationships. I also want to mention that I'm visiting with you today from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the city was settled on the ancient territories of the Wichita, and cattle communities and located along the on the Oklahoma River, which has been used for centuries as a conduit for traffic and tribal exchange by our communities, continuing today to serve the same purpose as I 40 runs parallel to this river. I live in Norman, Oklahoma, which is just south of here, and we're in my home we are just north of the contemporary Chickasaw Nation reservation. It's on this land that my ancestors have established a robust and vital tribal presence. We have been here since the Indian Removal forced us to migrate from our ancestral territory in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama. We live here with 38 other tribal nations and I enjoy living in Oklahoma, and I am honored to be here now serving our indigenous community. I know for a fact that there is a rich body of language, philosophy, science and a legacy of literature, for which our communities continue to serve as stewards on behalf of all of humanity. This vessel made by Jerry redcorn serves as an example of this type of knowledge, it shows in the way that the organization of the design is circular and crosshatch lines actually formed both the hydrologic and meteorologic map of the world. It's my privilege to serve the community here, indigenous and non Indigenous the local, national and global communities. I believe I've been asked today to speak to how this privilege intersects with my work in museums, specifically as the head of the curatorial department at First Americans museum. And while the MC and conferences focuses on the digital world of museums, this is a good moment to remind all of us that technology is only a tool, one that is ever changing and that like the technology of firing and pottery was an innovation at one time, and all of the work we do is subject to shifts and how these tools can affect our lives, and leave a legacy for the future. Since 2018 When I assumed the leadership position of man, it was my ambition and remains my ambition in fact to explore how I can bring my cultural toolbox to play on behalf of my ancestors, and the future generations who are to come. This question emerges out of our indigenous cultural teachings, but I stated here because we are all cultural people, we are all given gifts by our ancestors tools to find our way in our contemporary experience to uphold the very philosophical and epistemological tenants, with which we have been raised as cultural values, guiding us to be good human beings. One of the core teachings that is common within indigenous communities, is to think of the seven generations. I have learned that this is not a universal value but one that I believe is actually a significant strength of indigenous thinking and teaching. You see, we do not have to feel alone in our work alone, and carrying the weight of our tasks, that's pretty common I find in museum work to feel isolated in our offices in our belief of how best to get the work accomplished and what is the most important focus of our energies, what I've been taught culturally is that I'm a link to my mother, my grandmother and so forth all the way back to the very moment of creation. And likewise, I am a link to the future of my children, my grandchildren, and so forth. For as long as the earth mother can support us. This textile work by ReWalk visualizes this responsibility as a relationship between generations between bellybuttons between the past and the future, our teachings, give me great strength, courage, even to do the work that we have at hand, because I am not alone in what I do matters beyond myself. It's really not even about me at that point. In fact, our work is critical to what we can set forward as a path to our future.

Unknown Speaker 14:37
And for you to understand my work I'd like to share a little about First Americans Museum. What you're looking at as a 175,000 square foot facility with 80,000 square foot of indoor and outdoor programmable space. Our team's immediate focus has been to prepare the two signature galleries in the South Main which is the horizontal building you see there. Those two galleries comprise a total of 26,000 square feet. And each of these galleries speak to our collective tribal history, when is graphic and story heavy that's Oklahoma, and that's the one I'm going to speak about more today. The other is object, heavy, and that is the Winokur life of an object Gallery, and I'll have to be asked back to speak about that one. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with Oklahoma's tribal landscape, I'd like to, I'd like to introduce you. Oklahoma is currently home to 39 tribal communities from 12 linguistic families that represent cultures from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, including people dispossessed of the land east of the Mississippi River. I have no idea how far and wide the audience today is distributed, but perhaps, you see that you are on a landscape over which we have prayed, and under which our ancestors are buried. For comparison's sake, there are states with more times than Oklahoma, but now with more tribal diversity. We have more languages spoken in Oklahoma than all of Europe, and the story of our tribes is epic, the story of our tribes is the story of the founding of the United States, the story of our tribes is one of divine sovereignty resistance and cultural survival, and we cannot tell our story without the tribal participation. Without their support and without their collaboration. It's important to recognize that the 39 tribes located on the geographical site of Oklahoma is comparable to relocating Europe's 44 countries to an island roughly the size of England, but in a manner of thinking we are creating our own island. Our museum is located on a site that includes 300 acres located near downtown Oklahoma City at the intersection of i 40 And I 35, often referred to as the crossroads of America. This site is formed from a series of circles. You can see the circles dance through the architecture of the building and extend to the mount promontory, the architecture was the product of many listening sessions held with the local tribal community over several years of what the museum should represent and look like it's my honor to say that now that we have opened they've told us that we have done our work well, and we are grateful for the opportunity to build this for our community. And you might ask how we got such a large parcel of land in the downtown area. Well, the site has a history, much like our Indian people. The site is available to our tribal people now for this museum to tell our stories because it's actually a former Superfund site recovered from the 160 Plus oil wells that formerly scarred the land, the site serves as a metaphor for our tribal community. Despite historical abuses beauty and healing can be seated and bloom. We have survived both our mother the earth and our tribal people.

Unknown Speaker 17:51
And it is our survival that has made me want to make museums, a place for us in the future. They have not been a place for us in the past, they have been a place for our themes for the display of the Native American his idea, but not the Native Americans as people in the museum's, we were not guests. We were not visitors or staff, and this is something that I believe can change the term often associated with this work is decolonizing, and sometimes we also say indigenizing, these terms are the language that many of us are exploring because the colonial allistic history of museums simply will not be the future of museums. The vision for the first Americans Museum extends beyond its walls. We're building an institution that prioritizes indigenous thought and philosophy as we speak to the art history and culture of the 39 tribes that call the land, now known as Oklahoma home. We have built a facility that houses to signature exhibitions, and that also has additional luxury amenities, a place we can, we believe, will draw people from across the globe to share in the experience that we've prepared. But even so, our work is actually about a bigger vision. We believe that we can teach people about the often invisible but critical role of our indigenous communities, and the development of the United States that we can create a space within which indigenous communities can be affirmed as cultural people where they can share their knowledge and engage in respectful conversations about our life ways, our practices, and even fostering respect from non natives, for all of it. And through these collective efforts we're creating a bold and bright future for our future generations. And we believe that we will contribute to the economies of all of our tribes, by serving as a gateway to foster new economic opportunities. We believe that we can create business relationships that are mutually beneficial. Imagine, for instance, that our full service restaurant is actually sourcing food from tribally operated farms and ranches to supply the delicious indigenous flavors that we are now serving to audiences. This economic benefit will no doubt also have significant impact to our local and state economies. We are, we will all benefit from the success of our work and that's actually intentional, but beyond offering good food in our galleries, we can work with tribes to offer unique programming through our educational department, and this will also benefit all Oklahomans. What I'd like to explore with you today is how our museum has used media to fulfill our indigenous community institutional commitment to the indigenous community. When indigenous people are so often positioned as historic relics, when we are even seen at all. What role does media play in promoting our present. What, how can media help us to emphasize the dynamic vital and present realities of First Americans and Oklahoma. Well this has been a key concern for my curatorial work since I began. And in fact, these questions are part of why I became a curator. I brought to Pham a curatorial methodology that I have been cultivating for a dozen years plus of curating however Pham is the first place where we've embraced this as an institutional approach, using the four R's found in the emerging methodologies of indigenous research, we are working with tenants guided by our indigenous cultures and philosophies. These are critical because they teach us how to be in the world, not just as tribal citizens, not just as cultural people, but as humans, and even as professionals using these feet up for ours we have decolonize the museum from the top down, developing our institutional plans with the majority native staff. We are all needed on the curatorial team, but please understand that does not mean that we all agree on everything, and have the same priorities that diversity I told you about in the earlier slides is not just different languages and tribal histories. It's also brought to us and philosophical priorities. We're not a body of homogenized indigenous folks who all work in the same in some illusion of balance and harmony. We have to work really hard through the challenges that emerge when you have matrilineal and patrilineal cultures, when you have people who come from the stars and people who come from the earth. When you have histories of tribes that have not been kind to one another. We each carry our individual and cultural histories into play in everything we do. So you can imagine the challenge of drawing a consensus for the emotionally and culturally sensitive tasks that we manage. We have had an amazing curatorial team, they have worked every day to create something special. We all feel the burden of how our work because it is personal, we will know we want to be judged by our communities, our families, our grandparents.

Unknown Speaker 22:40
We are telling some of the most important stories of our community, and that is not the common pursuit for curators to have such an emotional and personal obligation. So we've carried this project very closely to our hearts. And please know that the pressure has been immense and sometimes suffocating.

Unknown Speaker 22:59

Unknown Speaker 23:00
we share a commitment to each of our diverse communities as part of a collective, We recognize that the only failure we risk was not to finish the work to the best of our abilities. As you can see from the images that I've shown we have a strong commitment to provide a counter narrative to what has been done before. And what has been done. And each of our tribes shares this commitment to honor ancestors and to work to the benefit of the future generations. I have referred, I have heard this referred to as many things, including indigenous futurism. And like many ideas that may have many names but the concept and the commitment is shared, and this is the root of our work as indigenous curators, we all collectively individually and culturally recognize how our communities have been represented over the last 100 years or so in museums in the Americas. Some of you may not know it actually I'm going to go back, because this is in reference to the image on the left. This image by peel is an LS self portrait of the curator at the first museum in the United States, which was actually hosted in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. This museum displayed a host of taxidermy DAM, animals and cultural materials that were more trophies taken from our indigenous communities. This practice of collecting our indigenous cultural materials as war trophies is an extension from the imperialist expansion of the European nations as they sought out new resources and territories to claim, and in the US it is the foundation upon which museums have been built here. No doubt this is why our Native people have not been invited. This knowledge and bolded us as Native people to count KU and a matter of speaking to claim the colonial space of a museum, on behalf of our communities and holds it as a space to prepare for indigenous future within the space of First Americans Museum, our common goals for the gallery are to represent the diversity of the 39 Tribal nations in Oklahoma, including our stories, our language. Languages and our cultures that we might effectively include all 39 tribes in the collective story of our experiences, while not allowing any one time to become the Paramount representative, maintaining some measure of Tribal Equity as we move through the gallery plans, and finally that we speak to the full range of our histories, including the points of pride and power, and the moments of significant historical trauma, and to do through effort do so through a first person indigenous voice, where we shared our authority as the museum with the tribes and using our labels to enact rhetorical sovereignty, so to meet our visitors where they are at, and to help them gain some vocabulary in the process of where we are going. What we are affecting is an indigenized approach to a colonial project. The museum has been a site of historical trauma for Indian people, we recognize that and in fact, we have been reliving and reactivating the historical trauma for our team members, as we have wrestled with the selection of which stories would be in contained in the galleries, but we have done so with the shared commitment to make something beautiful, for our community. It's become clear to me that we have prepared a love letter to our community. And the media please placement was key to how we compose this letter. I'd like to point out that what you're looking at on the left. This is our ancient roots zone. This is our warriors, and this is our uprooted. This is the ancient root zone, this is uprooted in this area back here as warriors. In this map of the gallery, you can see how we filled the space with the digital presence of our community members speaking to our lives, our histories our cultures, our philosophies, our ethos and working with three production companies we developed the flow of information that dances between fixed

Unknown Speaker 27:08
interpretive panels and the digitally mediated voices and faces of our community members often presented at slightly larger than life size scale. And what you can see in this map is that you actually cannot walk through this gallery, Oklahoma, without hearing the voice of an indigenous person guiding you. I'd like to share some glimpses into how we use media effectively within the gallery, and how we did so working with our four R's to inform this effort. We have four types of media plays throughout the gallery. Each type has its own intention and I've got some links here to share a glimpse into the content. The first that I want to talk about is our immersive video content, shown on this diagram with the yellow circles or partial circles, which is employed, we employ the immersive video where we wanted the visitor to fully absorb the emotion of the content. We worked with our creative partners at about one and Robin in New York City to prepare this layer, and the Origins theater we collaborated with four tribes to speak to their generous Genesis stories. We have people who come from the stars people who come from the earth, who come from the water and a few that actually emerge out of chaos, each tribal nation has their own story, and this makes it impossible for us to expect the visitor will sit still at the beginning of their visit for all 39 So we collaboratively worked with for selected tribes to cultivate a written version of the moment in their genesis when specifically humans emerge onto the Earth's surface. We worked with the tribes to identify the visual artists who could provide artwork that called out to the customary tribal aesthetic, and to identify the talent for the writing, the narrator and the music we similarly used immersive experiences to address the most dramatic parts of our history, including removal allotment assimilation and termination, and I have a link here that's going to give you just a very brief glimpse into it, there is some audio it's kind of quiet at the beginning so don't be worried. It's gonna play.

Unknown Speaker 29:25
Wish there was nothing. I loved all the creatures gathered together and made a song. And only then, was there substance and light. This light illuminating the straining backs at the origin creatures, hard work, delivering the song, our existence.

Unknown Speaker 29:59
We know, yo, yo, hey, hi. Hey, guy way.

Unknown Speaker 30:18
This time, touching the wolf to help guide us and gave our kadhi our chiefs, the drove and songs or people would follow.

Unknown Speaker 30:34
they thought the Indian people were devils or animals in the we didn't know nothing, the loss of land the loss of culture, the loss of language, the loss of identity, all of that loss created an intergenerational PTSD may be no jus Bay, I was raised by my great grandmother. My grandmother, she told me that her grandmother was on the Trail of Tears. And she said that when they were marching us over that, when nighttime felt that they would put the creeks in a tight circle, and that they would start moving the howitzers to surround them and that the soldiers were setting up camp, and that at certain point in the evening, they began to play this one beautiful tune. And Grandma said that, let's say, one of the mothers would pick up the children. And when they heard that tune. They began to sing maybe notice every tribe I've ever talked to so we don't have a word for goodbye, and so the Greeks, they say D Tonka V's. We will see each other again. to be slideshow.

Unknown Speaker 32:02
I'll see you later. DAM G jackasses. That means, Again, we will see.

Unknown Speaker 32:25
So that last bit is actually in our main space in the main gallery space that has it's outside of. It's a different theater. But you heard, just briefly, the introduction of the origin stories the value circle to stories, and then the exit experience which is located down here. And while we wanted to share our stories. We wanted to provide visitors with a deeper dive in five searchable databases, and to have fun. So we built his history database we built a crossroads database. That is an introduction to our tribes, and we built to connect games based on traditional games that have been played in our communities for at least a millennium, and working with our partners at unified field in New York. Our research team and creative natives contributed to the construction of projects that implemented in the galleries, fostering that we've implemented in the galleries, and out of these projects we actually are fostering further research that we're going to carry forward to develop some additional products from our museum to offer to the community. So I'm going to give you just a brief look at their work this is unified field. And what you're looking at here there's no audio for this one I'm going to just go ahead and visit. We're looking at the, if I could see my mouse I could start it. Um, the Crossroads table which is located at the entrance to the gallery where members of our community can actually it's a table that looks like a pool of water, you can select one of these seals and drag it here. And when doing so you can see here, it gives you information about the tribe, what languages they speak. And then, our ancient roots we built this, an economy of relationships trade interactive to help provide people an understanding of the extensive trade networks that existed within our communities prior to contact. We used a window of around the late latter part of the 15th and early 16th century as a target for that map. And then the here's the two game interactives one is chunky, which is a game that continues to be played, we actually plaid people playing this during our opening weekend on our Festival Plaza. And in this, we kind of wanted to really imagine that we could be playing this into the 22nd century. And so you see that there's this moment where we actually slip into a Tron world and think about what is it to be playing listen to the 22nd century. And then we also have our braided nation's searchable history timeline, we worked with six, I'm sorry, we worked with three historians to build the body of this. And our plan is to have fellowships where we can expand to include other researchers. And then we also worked with our tribal communities to build the foundation of a searchable database for our veterans. This is critical because in the native community. One in three native people serve in the military and are the highest racial group service ratio in the country. And then, this is our other Gallery, which has a Smithsonian loan, and we searched to create a searchable database for that. It's going to come to an end and then I think we'll be looking maybe at hand game, and this is the other connect game that we built for downstairs. We actually worked hand game is played in teams and so we worked with a team that was local, and you can see all of them everybody in this image is part of the same team. There had part of the Comanche spur, and you, the visitors get an opportunity to play take turns trying to guess where the bones are buried, which is how that game is played. And going back to here.

Unknown Speaker 36:40
I mentioned those two. So this is a good point in the story. Me telling the story to share that all of our media work was done during the pandemic. We shot 75 interviews generating 1200 hours of footage, producing 11 Three to five minute video documentary interpretive films, placed throughout the gallery, they're represented here by the red squares. These films were critical to our goals for the gallery, and we also wanted to intentionally place that larger than life Faces and Voices of our community members within the gallery spaces. These films, serve as a constant indigenous presence and our galleries, provide a direct placement of the diverse community voices and faces there for our visitor. This was critical to our vision for an indigenous futurism as indigenous people have been largely absent silent and visible expect except for the display of our cultural materials. We did not want for anyone to be able to move through the space and wonder who we are. While the labels are written in a first person indigenous voice, because the authority of museums, often assumes the voice of the gallery didactics we could not rely on labels to do the work, combatting our absence. These videos are placed on the visitor path and balanced within the gallery, such that as you move from space to space there are no dead audio spots, while carefully preserving the quality of the local experience. And in addition to these faces the voices are critical because telling a story. My story is profoundly emotional and impactful and personal. So I'd like to just briefly play for you. One of the stories that we put in the gallery

Unknown Speaker 38:24
here can people deeply tied to the land around them. And when I started thinking about what removal means. I think that now that I'm a mother. I have three children, thinking about trying to keep them safe and not just for my own children but for other children in the community. So during a time like the Trail of Tears, which really was an ethnic cleansing of the southeast. How in the world do you keep your baby safe.

Unknown Speaker 39:05
As a curator, I'm well aware that visitors will rarely remember a date or a factual number or some brilliant piece of knowledge presented on a golden platter. What I do know that visitors remember what they feel sorry. Visitors will remember what they feel, and we could not have prepared this gallery without the digital presence of the tribal members from the 39 communities. My voice is not the voice that people want to hear I'm placing my ego as a side as I asked all of our curatorial team to do. We worked with a commitment to building an experience that can foster the future that we want for all of our communities that we can reckon with this historic trauma that our ancestors survive on or those who did not. And concretely lay a path for how we will move into the next century and beyond. This is the kind of thinking that informed our work. And as I mentioned, we've been working on this since 2018 So my final comment is to just share that in a reality. Half of the time we've been working on the museum's exhibition we were working during the pandemic. I mentioned this again because, while our team carried the burden and responsibility to do this on behalf of our families and our communities. We have to work through the fear, the personal losses, and the imposition of a world that have literally grown to a halt. It's important for me to mention this because I've often heard from museums, that they are afraid of what it will take to assume their responsibilities that they are called upon to do during this time of social unrest political division and racial tensions. And to that, I can only say that if you truly want the future to be better, that it can be done and it must be done. I'd like to thank you today for the time to share our work. There's always more that can be said. And I just want to advise you to think about how tools can help us hold on to what is most important to us, culturally, as humans, and what's critical to our future. I invite you to come visit us at First Americans museum which is now open. We welcome you to visit and even if it means you have to travel to the center of our universe to do so. We look forward to seeing you here, Chuck muskie.

Unknown Speaker 41:31
Thank you so much, Dr. ahtone for a wonderful and inspiring presentation. I wanted to just remind you of everybody in the chat saying how wonderful this is and Nikhil Trivedi saying specifically about how, thank you for bringing your whole self to this work. If I think we have might have time for one question if anybody has one to put in the q&a, but you're all obviously getting a lot of positive feedback in the, in the chat. Otherwise, it wouldn't even be just my thank you for being our initial keynote for nCn 2021 virtual, and thank you for sharing your work with with this audience, we are all exceptionally grateful.

Unknown Speaker 42:25
Thank you, Max, I appreciate it and I look forward to having you guys scared someday.

Unknown Speaker 42:30
And I believe we killed that road trip.