Stephanie Craig, citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, runs her own business, Kalapuya Weaving & Consulting. Besides teaching traditional basket weaving, she consults museums and galleries on basket designs and materials. That includes helping with exhibits and identifying woven pieces. She wants to see the British Museum. Not so much to explore its exhibit halls or visit its shops, but to set a few things straight with its Indigenous collection.

“I would love to go to the British Museum and look at everything that they have from Oregon and Northern California and Southern Washington because a lot of things are misidentified,” said Craig. “It's not until you look at the actual belonging itself and doing research where you can really determine where the belonging comes from.”

Living items

Historically, museums and galleries have taken a detached, outdated, and Eurocentric view of Indigenous peoples. Many Indigenous communities have been wary of outside scholars, due to a history of anthropologists and historians' portrayal of them as primitive, defeated and extinct people. Over the past decade there has been a push by Native advocates and their supporters to decolonize or Indigenize museums and galleries.

Craig has been a major part of that movement. Recently, she co-authored an article with Yoli Ngandali, a member of the Ngbaka Tribe from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for the Society for American Archaeology’s latest journal. Their piece challenges institutions to rethink how they interpret and handle items from Indigenous communities.

“All of our belongings are made from the land,” Craig said. “They’re made from living items: plants, trees, animals, and there’s an exchange that happens in the natural world when we are gathering the materials. We are full of good energy, there’s no negative energy because the plant is giving its life for us, or the animal is giving its life for us.”

Stephanie Craig, a traditional basket weaver and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, stands next to a collection of her family heirlooms and weaving projects on Nov. 16, 2023 at the powwow grounds in Grand Ronde, Ore. Photo by Brian Bull / Underscore News

Offerings are traditionally provided in exchange and the item itself – whether it’s a baby’s rattle, or a carved canoe – needs to be utilized for its purpose, by the people who made it, or it was made for. The concept of keeping things locked up in a glass case or secured in a curator’s drawer runs contrary to those Native beliefs.

“It’s important for these belongings to still be handled and touched, because of the exchange of energy,” said Craig. “They once were living and we’re living and in order to keep the energy flowing and the good energy going, they need to be touched. They need to be appreciated.”

Indigenous insights 

It’s insights like these that make Indigenous voices so critical to intentional care and the movement for a decolonial lens in museums.

Roughly 200 miles away in Bend, Ore., Phil Cash Cash, Nez Perce and Cayuse, plays one of two hand-carved elderberry flutes he made for an exhibit at the High Desert Museum, called Creations of Spirit. Cash Cash has been a consultant with the High Desert Museum for five years, providing interpretive services and cultural context.

“I will actually address the elderberry tree as a living being and talk with it,” explained Cash Cash. “I’ll say ‘Look how beautiful you are,’ and then I’ll request to the elderberry, ‘Now you’re going to come with me.” This reverent communication continues as the flute is carved and painted.

Cash Cash’s two finished flutes have their upper halves painted blue and red, respectively, with leather straps and adornments including deer hooves. According to Cash Cash, the greenish-yellow tinge to his flutes indicates when the wood was harvested.

“These are spring flutes, and they will carry that attribute through the wood,” Cash Cash said. “Sometimes flute makers prefer to harvest during the fully ripened August to September timeframe, when the elderberries are ripe.”

During his time as a consultant, Cash Cash has examined some of the older items in the museum’s collection, including a Cayuse buckskin shirt adorned with ermine skins.

“It’s a well-known, small, but very fierce creature, and the white also makes reference to a kind of purity,” Cash Cash said. He noted that a yellow pigment was generously applied to the shirt, suggesting the wearer wore the garment to commemorate a vision quest. When worn for warfare or ceremony the shirt spiritually empowered its owner.

“And when they put on the shirt, this came alive for them and they can engage in warfare or other ceremonial life and people would see that the person is an empowered spiritual person as well,” Cash Cash said.

A beaded white vest with symmetrical design elements including bald eagles, stars, flowers and deer. It’s part of the High Desert Museum’s collection, and a Plateau Indian item dating back to the early 1900s. Photo by Brian Bull / Underscore News

The shirt’s pigment had also been reapplied, likely by a descendant of the shirt-wearer, who wanted to preserve and honor the garment’s attributes.

“All of this really points to the idea that we are part of a larger continuum of life that is full of energy and power that we can link to,” Cash Cash said.

There are ten Native consultants, including Cash Cash, who work with the High Desert Museum according to executive director, Dana Whitelaw.

“There’s been a real shift in the entire field to incorporate Indigenous voices and perspectives and it’s long overdue,” Whitelaw said.

The High Desert Museum is a Smithsonian affiliate, and has worked to build trust and partnerships with Native American tribes and individuals, according to Whitelaw. For example, administrators are planning for a renovation of the By Hand Through Memory exhibit which opened 24 years ago and was curated by Vivian Adams of the Yakama Nation. Cash Cash is part of the lead exhibit team and will help select objects for the new space that begins construction in 2025 or 2026.

“So there’s a movement in museums where object care is more culturally responsive, more culturally relevant, and embedding that into museum practice,” said Whitelaw.  “We know more than we did in 1999 how visitors learn in formal learning spaces, so we have that depth of knowledge and content from that research to help support the Indigenous voices and perspectives.”

Many Native American items were essentially plundered from villages, gravesites, and burial mounds by “collectors”. Now, these items are in a number of museum collections across the globe, including some of the most prominent, like the Smithsonian Institution which  accumulated over 13,000 items between 1860 and 1873.

Dana Whitelaw, executive director of the High Desert Museum in Bend, Ore., stands outside the entrance of the exhibit “By Hand Through Memory” on Oct. 18, 2023. Museum staff plan to renovate the space with regional tribes. Photo by Brian Bull / Underscore News

Hits and misses

The National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 have spurred a lot of reform, empowering Native nations to demand the return of ancestral remains and possessions. Unfortunately, in the 30 years since these landmark regulations were enacted, many institutions have failed to return stolen items and ancestral remains. A January 2023 ProPublica report found that there were over 110,000 remains that had yet to be returned by many prominent museums.

There’s also the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, which was intended to be a bicultural re-enactment program that featured both the early histories of the Mayflower Pilgrims and the region’s Indigenous peoples, but in 2022, the Wampanoag community called for a boycott of the site, calling the presentation and lack of maintenance “tone deaf.”

Institutions like Portland’s Five Oaks Museum have also incorporated exhibits curated by Native Americans, or have invited them to consult on programming but Native advocates say there’s still room for improvement, and they continue to monitor progress. While the Smithsonian says it’s repatriated roughly 5,000 human remains since 1989, there are still roughly 2,000 more in its collection.

Others, like Chicago’s Field Museum, recently unveiled an overhaul of its interpretive displays and programming, in an effort to rectify decades of inaccurate and Eurocentric presentations. The five-year effort involved 105 tribes, working to improve on exhibit work that hadn’t been updated since the 1950s, and was deemed “racist” and “insensitive.”

Not gone, not dead, not silent

At the Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene, Ann Craig, director of public programs, recalls ways harmful narratives were perpetuated even while working with Native nations and Native consultants. It highlights why continued conversation and consultation are so important.

“And at the time, that was really progressive,” said Craig. “But the hall had previously been all sepia tone. Even if there was a historic image and a contemporary image, they were both sepia tone, so it made Indigenous people in the exhibit all look historical.”

In 2014, a Cow Creek tribal member said some objects on display were inappropriate, prompting staff to remove them. MNCH’s executive director, Todd Braje, said they continue to be receptive to Native concerns, and work to portray them in the present tense as well as past historical tense.

“Rather than museums being set up to be sort of mausoleums where we put artifacts from the deep past into a case and we talk about deep history, what you see in this case, are weavings that are thousands of years old, next to contemporary baskets,” Braje said. “It shows this connection between present people and deep tradition in Oregon.”

He added that they don’t pretend to have all the answers, and that humility and openness makes the MNCH a better and more welcoming museum. Staff also have a special arrangement with nations over the museum’s cultural materials. Visitors can watch short clips of Native nations in Oregon discussing their history, or practicing traditions near exhibit areas. One showed members of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians taking their ornately-carved canoes out on the waters as a part of the “Oregon - Where Past is Present” exhibit.

“For us, it was also about not just asking for collaboration, but asking ‘What can we do that is in support of your goals?’” said Craig.

The smallest changes can make a biggest difference

During the last 200 years as colleges, universities, and historical societies took in baskets, pottery, and human remains, it was commonly believed that these were relics of a dying people. Famous photographers like Edward S. Curtis perpetuated this fallacy in his staged photos of Natives, making sure they removed modern appliances and items like wristwatches during shoots.

 Stephanie Craig, a traditional basket weaver and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, holds a baby basket made of hazel and spruce root and adorned with elk hide, rabbit fur and beadwork on Nov. 16, 2023 at the pow-wow grounds in Grand Ronde, Ore. Photo by Brian Bull / Underscore News

Back in the 1870s, Reverend Robert Summers, the First Episcopal Priest of McMinnville, Oregon was a major contributor of Indigenous items to local institutions. He acquired more than 600 items from the area’s Native nations. Most of those pieces were from the Grand Ronde Reservation, which made it more personal for Stephanie Craig. While the British Museum has loaned out pieces of its Indigenous collection called, Summers Collection of Indian Artifacts, in the past, it would take action by England’s governing body, the Parliament, to do a full repatriation of the pieces.

For Craig, it’s as much a personal mission as a professional one to be able to consult for the British Museum. She hopes to one day be invited to consult for it in order to finally correctly identify the items in the museum.

Stephanie Craig also wants people to understand that decolonizing museums means changing the language we use.

“I hope people will start looking at things more as belongings,” explained Craig. “You don’t call your family’s items ‘artifacts' or ‘relics.' They're family heirlooms, and that’s the same for us.”

Lead Image:  Phil Cash Cash, a consultant for the High Desert Museum (and of Nez Perce and Cayuse heritage,) shows two hand-carved elderberry flutes he made for “Creations of Spirit,” an exhibition of contemporary Native artists. Photo by Brian Bull / Underscore News

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ContributorBrian Bull has been involved in journalism for 25 years and has filed for National Public Radio, the BBC, and other broadcast outlets. A proud citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe, Bull mentors up...