A Conversation about “Americans”

A Conversation about “Americans”

What you just saw was the orientation film from the Americans Exhibition Gallery and it was fascinating so I hope some of you’ve probably already seen the exhibit, and those who haven’t will be seeing it soon I’m sure. We’re going to learn more about it in just a few minutes. I’m Elizabeth Gische. I’m the manager of the Seminars and Symposium Program here at the National Museum with the American Indian and I’d like to welcome you to this evening’s program— A Conversation about Americans— in which the curators of Americans and the director of the National Museum of the American Indian will share some insider perspectives on the museum’s new exhibition that explores how American Indians have shaped U.S. history, national consciousness, and contemporary life in experience. As we shall see, and not without surprises and profound contradictions. Thank you for being here, and a special welcome to those watching online. I’m honored now to introduce the distinguished Doctor Gerald McMaster, who will moderate our conversation. Dr. McMaster is a Plains Cree and a member of the Siksika First Nation. He’s a curator, artist, author, and Canada research chair in indigenous visual culture and curatorial practice at OCAD University. He has worked at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Some of the many exhibitions he has curated include In the Shadow of the Sun, Indigena, Plains Indian Drawings, Reservation X, First American Art, New Tried New York, Inuit Modern, and Before and After the Horizon. McMaster has also curated two international biennales. He was Canadian Commissioner to the Venice Biennale in 1995 and one of artistic directors of the 18th Biennale of Sydney in 2012. His many honors and recognitions include the 2001 ICOM Canada Prize for contributions to national and international museology, the 2005 National Aboriginal Achievement Award, and Officer of the Order of Canada. Please help me welcome Gerald McMaster. Gerald— Hello… and for those of you… Boujour! [other greetings….] I’d like to acknowledge the ancestral peoples of this territory. I’d like us to acknowledge the ancestral peoples of this area on whose land we stand. Welcome ladies and gentlemen. As was introduced, I am from Canada, and this film on Thanksgiving—well, we celebrate our Thanksgiving when you’re celebrating your Columbus Day— so we’re beat you guys at something at least, right? So tonight I’m gonna introduce Paul Chaat Smith, who’s one of the curators of this remarkable exhibition called Americans. Paul is the lead curator of the Americans exhibition and is author, essayist, associate curator here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. His work focuses on the contemporary landscape of American Indians, politics, and culture. Paul joined the museum when I was here back in 2001, and his exhibitions include such interesting exhibitions such as James Luna’s Emendatio which was done for the 2005 Venice Biennale, Fritz Scholder that some may have seen—it was called Indian/Not Indian— And more recently, Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort. Paul is the author along with Robert Warrior of a book called Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee which was published in 1996. And in 2009, he wrote another text called Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians is Wrong. In 2005, ART PAPERS named him as 1 of the 25 most respected contemporary art curators working today. So it’s quite an esteemed opportunity for him. And in 2017—just recently—he was selected to deliver the 11th Distinguished Critics Lecture by the Association of International Art Critics U.S.A. Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Paul Chaat Smith. Thank you, Gerald. Every museum exhibition is, inevitably, about the people who made it, what they hope to achieve, and the historical moment of its creation. Whether the show is about Persian rugs or the Persian Atomic program, it will always reveal its own history, agendas, limitations, and bias. So it is with Americans. I’m gonna talk for about ten minutes or so about how this exhibition has been organized to address the present moment. When we began our earliest discussions—back when the decade was young— we still marveled at the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency. How extraordinary unlikely this was, given five years earlier, he was an obscure state senator with an absurd and toxic name— also black. Well, the extraordinary and the unlikely has become routine, and it is now commonplace to remark that the country has not felt so divided since 1861. I don’t know about that. I wasn’t alive back then and neither were you, but the fact we can’t dismiss the comparison out of hand is… well, frightening. Into this polarized nation enters the show grandly called Americans— a show with no subtitle— which stands resolutely against cynicism and platitudes… and easy truths. In some ways, it stands against the present moment itself. Put that way, I guess it sounds foolish. We’ll find out soon enough. The show is radical, just not in the ways one might expect. We’ve worked very hard to build a space that’s welcoming and optimistic. We’ve been guided by the words of my boss, Kevin Gover, who wrote in our strategic plan that the National Museum of the American Indian believes in the American people and believes in American institutions. The challenges confronting the NMAI are many. In this nation of 320 million, American Indians are about one percent of the population. Most Americans live in urban areas and rarely encounter native people. Americans don’t know much about Indians and much of what they know is… not exactly accurate. So for us, the question is always “Where do you start?” See the problem isn’t specific inaccuracies or a lack of information. The problem is most Americans feel they have nothing to do with American Indians. The big idea to address that big problem is this: Americans are always thinking about American Indians, even when they think they are not. The evidence we present is a massive installation—100 feet by 30— of centuries of representations of Indians in American life: A Tomahawk missile, a classic Indian motorcycle, album covers and t-shirts from Kanye West, Tim McGraw, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Model helicopters named “Comanche” and fruit boxes and baking powder tins. And Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis Presley. And Karlie Kloss and Chaka Khan and Michelle Obama. On a curved screen at the far end of the central gallery, you’ll see clips from 67 movies and TV shows. Morticia from the Adams Family might greet you when you enter, or the gang from South Park, or John Ford’s Stagecoach, or the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. What may look like familiar kitsch is revealed as spooky and subversive and deep. Take a close look at the Land O’ Lakes butter maiden, whose holding the very box of the butter she illustrates, and thus disappears into infinity. Or the Indian head test pattern— mysteriously beamed into American living rooms for decades— What the hell was that about? We say more than you might think. We say something profound. Because phenomenon Indians everywhere, Behind and beneath these images and objects are the reason they exist. And we offer a new way of understanding the Trail of Tears, the Life of Pocahontas, and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Not as things that happened to Indians, but transformative titanic forces that reshaped national boundaries and national consciousness. We explore the reasons they have such extraordinary staying power, and why they take up real estate in our minds today. It is important I acknowledge the central role played by these four people…. Our Director, Kevin Gover, who charted the new direction the curatorial team endeavored to follow. Mike Piscataway and Navajo sisters Gabrielle Tayac and Kathy Nash Billby, who were part of the original discussions that set in concrete the notion of meeting visitors where they are and treating them with respect, and who helped hammer out the Indians Everywhere construction. And my dear comrade Cecile R. Ganteaume. I think there’re old documents floating around that identify me as the lead curator, but as everyone on the team knows, Cecile has been my equal in every respect. I want everyone to remember her name when the critiques roll in. Just to be helpful, her name is spelled G-A-N-T-E-A-U-M-E. And don’t forget Kevin, that’s G-O-V-E-R. In recent months, the word “reckoning” has been everywhere, referencing a range of furious debates from the Civil War to institutionalized sexism. I’ve been thinking about that famous James Baldwin quote, about American history being more beautiful and terrible than anything that has been written about it. And I wonder that maybe we’ve been hearing what we want to hear instead of what we should. It’s a warning, I think. The recent past history revealed the country’s beautiful and terrifying past: That that beautiful and terrifying past is present and powerful, and no doubt the American past is deeply amused we thought it had gone anywhere. Perhaps it’s time to look again at the deepest root of all. This is what the exhibition is about: A new examination of the oldest contradiction at the very heart of the American National Project. And all that kitsch and naming of sports franchises and streets is perhaps the visual mapping of the country imperfectly and earnestly trying to come to terms with very dark and very hard truths about the United States. And finally, we propose one unexpected outcome from this new way of seeing— just might be a new sense of possibility— that if we understand that all Americans share this entangled past, and American Indians are at the root of the National Project itself, just maybe a new look at our shared past and our confounding present can be a unifying force in a time of division. I know it sounds crazy, but like I said, we’re optimists. Thank you. Thank you very much, Paul, I’m gonna call to the stage Cecile Ganteaume and Kevin Gover—I’m gonna introduce both of them. Cecile is the Associate Curator here at the National Museum of American Indian. She is the co-curator of Americans exhibition and author of the book called Officially Indian: Symbols that Define the United States. The book is published in association with the exhibition and afterwards, after the discusion, there’s gonna be a book siging by Cecile after—just outside in the lobby. Before joining the museum staff in 1990, she worked for the old Museum of the American Indian—if some of you might remember that— the Heye Foundation up on Broadway and 155th Street. I remember going there as a young chap. She is the author of the acclaimed exhibition The Infinity of Nations: The Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian which, I believe, is still on view in New York City. And she’s the general editor of the book of the same name. She conducted—and has conducted—field research with the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Seminole Tribe also—of Florida, sorry— and the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Mescalero Apache Tribe, and the Blackfoot Nation. So she’s done a lot of, lot of work in Indian country. She’s also the recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian Secretary’s Research Prize. Congratulations. Mr. Gover… is Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and I’m sure you’ve seen him quite often here and it’s a pleasure to have him this evening. He has guided the museum through the opening. After the opening, an opening of several acclaimed exhibitions in the last number of years since he began his directorship in 2007, Mr. Gover served as the Assistant Secretary for the Indian Affairs at United States Department of the Interior from 1997 to 2000 under President Bill Clinton where he won praise for his efforts to rebuild long-neglected Indian schools and to expand on the Tribal and Bureau of Indian Affairs police forces throughout the country. His tenure as the Assistant Secretary is perhaps best known for his apology for Native American people for the historical conduct of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After leaving office in 2000, Kevin practiced law at Steptoe and Johnson in Washington, D.C. In 2003, he joined the faculty at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University in Tempe, and served on the faculty of University’s Indian Legal Program— one of the largest programs in the country. So let’s welcome those two as well. Okay, so for the next 45 minutes—I think— we’re gonna be engaged in a conversation and so welcome, Kevin, I just met you today. Also, I think I saw you once in the elevator. So it’s great and it’s good to see Paul and Cecile. This kind of duo, I think I’ve seen in Hollywood movies already, so…. Exhibitions are about ideas and I think this is a really incredibly important idea: Americans. And, of course, the objects within it also support the ideas of the exhibitions. Remember back in—when we opened the museum in 2004— the big idea back then was handing over authority to indigenous peoples of the Americas. Well, the critics had a field day. They thought we were abrogating our authority as museum people. but in this new time, Kevin, this—there’s a new zeitgeist, a new spirit of the times— and I’m wondering as you, as a Director, how are you approaching this new time period as your direct— as being Director of this museum? Well, the first thing I did is ask Paul Chaat Smith what I should do. And then do my best to keep up. We went through a process after the opening. I thought, of course, a lot of the criticism of the opening suite of Exhibition was unfair. People just didn’t get it, and didn’t understand the importance of really giving authority to the Indian Nations themselves to interpret their cultural material. But that point having been made very persuasively by the museum, and that practice having spread to institutions throughout North American, certainly, and even other places in the world, We felt that, we began to think about, well, “What is the next act for the museum?” And one of the things I was hearing a lot was that the museum had not yet told the real story, or the true story, or the truth — you know, the different ways people put it— And what they’re really saying is we want history from a native perspective, or at least from the perspective that is sympathetic to what native people know about history. So I charged Gaby and Kathleen and Paul to come up with a new set of permanent exhibitions. Now a lot has changed since we got their first idea, but one thing that didn’t was actually Americans. And then the idea of doing an exhibition that included at least these three subjects. Now there were others as I recall, Paul, that we were gonna do at first too. We woulda had a more elaborate explanation of Thanksgiving, we might’ve, we were gonna do events in California, and even the Pueblo Revolt, if I recall, and we thought we were gonna juxtapose… Here’s something you know: Thanksgiving. Here’s something you didn’t know: King Philip’s War. Alright, here’s something you know: The Gold Rush. Here’s something you didn’t know: The massacre of California Indians. But as Paul and later Cecile continued to work on it, what was interesting to me was that you could actually do both of those things with the same story… and say: Here’s what you know about Pocahontas. Here’s what you don’t know about Pocahontas. And really and you pack those things into a gallery and really make it work. So this is the other philosophical step was we decided that having the word “national” in our name really mattered. And that we needed to begin telling stories from a more national perspective. Not all the time, but at least some of the time. And so the Treaties exhibition was an example of that. And now Americans is an example of that. So we move from the authority of the Director to curatorial authority. And so… okay, you guys, what was the big idea? Paul, you started to address the big idea of the exhibition. So you said in 2004, the big idea was giving that authority to indigenous peoples. So what’s Americans all about? What’s your big idea? What’s the big idea? Well, the big idea is really an old idea and people of the generation Kevin and I come from. Indian people have wanted to be visible in the United States and want to be seen as significant in history and in the present moment. So when you look at even the opening exhibitions, that really is what they were about as well, that’s what the activism was about, you know? We’re not all dead. We’re not all the same. We are here and our history has not been told in a serious way. So I feel like Americans is a new idea of this moment that’s addressing those long-standing notions of Indian people in a museum as present, as important, as significant. And, you know, the idea of Indians being influential in early American history— those things are not new. I think what we did was come to terms with all this imagery, and it’s kind of a emotional jujitsu to say, “Okay, here’s all this stuff.” People like me writing about it 10 or 20 years ago were dismissive of it. You did shows about stereotypes—we’re been very focused on that. And so what we really figured out a way to do is to… You know, the activists always said this stuff should be in a museum. Well, now it is, right? And we’re providing our analysis of it. And that it actually—when you look at it—it reflects a kind of semi-conscious/subconscious obsession with American Indians by the American people into the present. And it—To us, that opens up a lot of doors. So the ultimate goal hasn’t changed. It’s us trying to figure out a way into it that’s accessible, you know, for our public. Cecile? Well, and… What we learned by working on our Indians Everywhere section of the exhibit that shows about 300 images of the American Indians… What we learned is that American Indians are essential to American identity and American self-conception is bound to American Indians. So, for example, the earliest image that we have in the show was produced in 1766. It was created by Paul Revere. It’s an engraving that was made in response to the repeal of the Stamp Act. And in this engraving, Paul Revere represents the colonists and the patriots as an Indian because the colonists thought of themselves as a new race of man who bowed to no monarch. And that was that… They felt an affinity with American Indians because they saw American Indians as a new race and also as being untainted by, or not having any… Not having despotic or tyrannical rule. They saw American Indians as ruling themselves by consensus, which is what they wanted…. Not to be administered from afar. Right. Right. I’m gonna see if I can look at the audience. Who hasn’t seen the show yet? That’s quite a few. Okay. Now the show… The exhibition is not about Indians. Actually, right? But it’s about the idea of Indians. And I think that you guys have expressed that. Could you expand on that for those who have not seen it ’cause it’s an amazing show? Yeah. We, you know, this… Out of the process that Kevin talked about… You know, when you open brand new museum— you were there you know what it’s like— you don’t really know what you’re gonna be. You don’t know what you’re public is gonna be, right? You don’t know. The Holocaust Museum—when it opened—it blew everyone’s minds ’cause people spent so much time there— much more than museum experts thought. So, by the time Kevin arrived, we had years of understanding who our audience is. You know, what they’re interested in, what their complaints are. And one of the things that’s just really powerful is that you know, people are realy busy. And some people fly into D.C. and they think the Smithsonian is one museum, right? And they get here, right? It’s like a dozen world-class museums—they’re all free. They’re all closed Christmas Day. And so… We had to think about, “Can we make a impactful experience for most of our audience who will spend maybe 20 minutes in our gallery?” You gotta hit our award-winning restaurant, you know, there’s two gift shops. So, you know, that’s, you know, it’s a challenge. Curators like to think people will spend three hours in their show. Some of you will—the show will reward spending three hours. But this… But what we learned was Indian Country sees “Indian” as very important in reaching a broad American public that the most important in newspapers or colleges or media can’t reach. So we take that obligation really seriously how to do that. So the challenge became, “How do we engage that public?” And so when you think about it—meeting visitors where they are— it became this thing that’s provocative which is, actually, you’ve— Indian images have surrounded you from your earliest— from your earliest memories throughout your life. And you don’t really think about them cause it’s normalized— this high-end curatorial term. But that’s what it means: You don’t think about it. Somebody says… They don’t hold a family meeting, “Hey, whadda think? Should we—could put a dreamcatcher, you know, in the minivan?” It just seems right to put a dreamcatcher there, right? So we’re trying to reveal that, you know, and trigger those memories. And it’s the first step, so you’ve connected this phenomenon. And then we try to show, wow, that’s a big phenomenon, unlike anything anywhere else—centuries. And it points to a really interesting history that all Americans should sorta know about and think about. So it’s a way into that. In terms of, you know, real Indians and imaginary Indians… Virtually all exhibits and projects have been first-person native at least one way or another. About—and we’ll always do those kinds of projects. But one of the things, when Kevin arrived, was really embracing the idea of being a national museum about the American Indian experience. Not an ethic museum—not where you go to learn just about culture, per se— but you actually are seeing Indians in this broader view of the country. So we’re not staying in our lane. We’re looking at Trail of Tears in a broader national scope, not simply how it affected certain Indians. So… that’s what we feel like we’ve unlocked for this exhibition. And we’re saying that these images are a tip of an iceberg, and the massive structure that’s underneath the tip of this iceberg is this history that Americans and American Indians share, and that we say have shaped the country and really have made Americans who we are. So when we look at our three historical events— Pocahontas, Removal, and the Battle of Little Bighorn— what we’re looking at these events in their larger historical significance. We wanna understand the historical forces, the national historical forces— and sometimes they’re global historical forces— that led to these events. We’re looking at how Americans were caught up in these events intellectually and emotionally. We’re looking at how these events got lodged in national consciousness and how they continue today, how they emerge and manifest themselves in popular culture. Kevin, I thought that Paul said something interesting about the approach that the National Museum of the American Indian is beginning to do. It’s a new… It’s not just about Indians, right? But there’s a kind of an interest and interface with the public, right? It’s no longer just telling the public what it is, but how do you engage the public? What’s the interface?—to use a, you know, common computer term— What’s the interface that’s going on? And whadda you actually engage in that—under your leadership— that you wanna see occur in reaching out to these new audiences? Well, you know, we… one of the things we’ve done here is do a study of American history texts. And it’s… They’re very predictable. And Indians are ultimately just written out of them, like there are no Indians after 1890. We started thinking about, well… “What is Native American history, actually?” And while there is such a thing prior to contact— from the point that others arrived in the Americans— there really is no such thing. You can’t separate Native American history from everybody else’s history, from world history. And so… It… The way it offended us that Native Americans were writen out of history, we resolved not to do the same thing to others. And say this story is not just about Indians: This story is about all of us. And I think these three stories—it kind of works, you know— but I think… that, really, in a sense, we’re one of the first museums to attempt this, and I think we’re gonna get better at it. But, the bottom line is—and I can’t remember if Paul was the one that said this, or if I made it up, or I stole it from somebody else— we want everybody—I know who it was, it was Lonnie Bunch at the African American Museum— said he wants visitors to come into that museum regardless of who they are, where they’re from, what color they are, and see themselves there. And say, “This is our story.” And so, we’ve chosen these three stories as, really, almost an easy way, to say, “These stories are about us—all of us—Indians and everybody else.” And we want Americans to start thinking about them that way. That there is no… There’s no separating these different kinds of people who are now part of the United States. Leads me to my next question… There’s a growing interest in new, critical, curatorial practice and I think that’s on view here and, certainly, it’s— you’ll see it when you go into a lot of museums around the country. Some scholars of popular memory have written the following phrase— and I think it’s apropos for the kind of work that you guys have done— they say—and I think what you just said Kevin— “We experience the present through the lens of the past and we shape our understanding of the past through the lens of the present.” You’ve talked about these three events— these three historical events that are still with us, right?— that’s why you’ve talked about them. Could you talk about that more? Using that phrase of, you know, “Here we are, everybody in this room is implicated to some degree”—it’s in our consciousness. Well, of course, we can only understand events through our own eyes and through the—what?— the filter of our contemporary culture. And that’s a good thing, by the way. One of the interesting things that we’ve talked about over time is how history changes. And, you know, you hear these people out there screaming, “Oh, you’re revising history!” And go, “What are you talking about?”—you know?— We’re always revising history, we’re constantly refining our understanding, we’re looking at events of the past through our contemporary eyes and saying, “Gosh.. that wasn’t so good what happened in this situation.” And the Trail of Tears is obviously one of those. Nobody regretted—not Indians—did not regret the Trail of Tears. The United States did not regret the Trail of Tears in 1850. But by 1950, they were going, “Gosh, that was kind of a crummy thing we did.” And now, it’s just understood that it was a terrible thing, you know, that was done by the United States. And we’re trying—in this exhibition—to say, “It wasn’t casual, it wasn’t accidental, it wasn’t a few bad guys…. This was something the country decided to do. It was a massive project, they undertook it, they did it.” And so… And now we can say, in 2017, that was a horror. That was an absolute horror that was undertaken by the United States. And so, you know, to me, we’re lucky to live in a time when we can say things like that because there were certinaly times in the past where, you know, this would have been considered some sacrilege against the American gospel. I certainly agree with you on that. I think that most museums of Indians and of history always want to start back at the past somewhere, you know, it’s like—whatever—nobody was there at the beginning. So—and as you say—we’re always revising our view of the past. We’re always looking at the past through the lens of the present. And that’s why I was thinking about looking at these stories that you have—these three major stories. Paul, you talked about earlier today… You talked about the Battle of Little Bighorn and how critical it is. It still seems to come through in daily discourse. What’s your thoughts about that and how do we understand the Battle of Little Bighorn? What does it mean to us today? It’s exact… Those are exactly the questions we wrestled with. There have been thousands of books written about Little Bighorn. There are national bestsellers written about it in the last two years. Same with all these events. So our museum can’t be the place where we just collect all that and try to present a comprehensive history. So our angle is very much about why this is still in our heads, what you may know about it, and what you didn’t know about it. And what we were fascinated with is that these events have such staying power over time. So one of the innovations is, we have these things we call timelines that begin after the event is over. So Pocahontas dies, then we follow her career over time after that. In 1995, she had a pretty big year. It was her 400th birthday. It was a global party sponsored by the Disney Corporation. But she had many other big years in other centuries. So, what we’re interested in is why she fascinates us so much over time. When Little Bighorn happened, it was possibly the first moment of shared national grief and shock because the telegraph systems and newspapers were much more advanced than even during the Lincoln assassination— and it happened a week after—news arrived a week after the centennial. You know… It kinda, you know, blew the candles out of the party. But the sense—the idea that people shared that—there was something. There were all these obsessives doing all this investigation, what actually happened. Very much like the Kennedy assassination. And so, we offer a theory that there was remorse about Manifest Destiny and that in elevating Plains Indians to be heroes and icons in a way is saying it was really hard to win. And we fought the best fighters and they wiped out a great general and all of his men. So we’re trying to figure out a different way to enter the stories and to explain why we all know what it means when Romney won that debate in 2012 against Obama, people wrote “Well, Obama met his Little Bighorn, right?” Everybody knows what that means. So that’s what we’re really interested: We provide the basic history, but we’re really trying to say, “Why is it still with us? What is behind all that?” Some of you may have seen a new film that just came out this year done by the internationally reknown filmmaker Ai Weiwei about the issues of massive human migration and immigration from the Middle East. You know, from the war-torn countries of the Middle East. And I’m wondering in the context of thinking about that what was happening right now. It causes us countries to set up barries and boundaries, right? And I was thinking about this massive migration that’s happening right now in the film and what’s in this exhibition—and that is the Trail of Tears. I know, Kevin, you started to talk about that. Perhaps, Cecile and—Kevin, you may wanna expand on that— just what did that mean? How do we wrap our head around this massive migration of American Indians? Well, in the exhibit… The one of the points that we’re really want to get across to the visitor through focusing on the 1830 Indian Removal Act is that this Act actually envisioned a United States without American Indians because it called for the removal of Indians east of the Mississippi River from within the settled borders of the United States westward. So we’re trying to get… We want our visitors to understand what an incredible concept that is. And so what we do is we contextualize that removal act within the national debate that happened. And we make it clear to visitors that there were people who really were conscious of the fact and believed that the United States had achieved the most perfect form of government—the democracy— and that, to remove Indians from within the settled boarders, from their territory— when the United States had already signed treaties and recognized those native nations’ borders— that this would be a stain on the character of the nation and that the soul of the nation was at stake if this removal act was passed. So we wanna get across to the visitor just how much the country was caught up in this debate over whether the United States would really remove Indians from within the settled borders of the United States as well as their sovereign territories. And I think part of the point of that inquiry is— we look around at different parts of the world— We were outraged when the Russians invaded Crimea. We were outraged when there was ethnic cleansing taking place in Eastern Europe. We intervened. We were the good guys there. And it seems worth pondering how it is we Americans convince ourselves 200 years ago that it was okay to do that on a scale pretty much unknown in human history, and then to work very hard to forget about it and erase Indians from history so we didn’t have to think about it. And, the exhibition points out, it was only through the work of Native American scholars— Cherokees and Choctaws—who restored the Trail of Tears to American History and where it remains to this day and is understood. And we don’t, you know, we don’t provide an answer to that question. If we can just get people to think about that— that’s as much as we can hope for—that’s what we should hope. Paul… You brought up Pocahontas, and we know in the newspapers recently there’s been a lot of remarks made by a certain president about a certain senator which, in effect, is a kind of a bullying tactic, right? It’s a way to… Particular slurs sometimes are quite conscious, right? We might use them every day. Other times they’re a slip of the mind, they’re a Freudian slip. They go, “Where did that come from?” You know? We say these things that… But, you know, we are constructed by the stories. We inherit these stories. We inherit these ideas that we’re ingrained with them every day. And I think that’s what the exhibition tries to talk about, you know, how socially, culturally, politically constructed our institutions— whether it’s the schools, whether it’s the government buildings, or what have you, you know—these things do come up. And so I was kind of interested in that point, you know, where everybody in this room has heard those stories, you know, have probably said something they wish they hadn’t said, you know, they thought themselves. And so I was wondering… Pocahontas, tell me about her. What is it about Pocahontas that we don’t know that we sometimes use her in a very derogatory way? Well… Pocahontas was arguably… She put a human face on the indigenous peoples of the Americans for Europeans. Prior to Pocahontas, Europeans throughout the 1500s thought of American Indians as heathens, as cannibals. When Pocahontas went to London they recognized her as a human person. They recognized that she was the daughter of a powerful leader. They recognized that she had been abducted by the English. They recognized that she converted to Christianity and married an Englishman, that she made a transatlantic voyage, that she was feted in the Court of King James twice. They could relate to her as a human being and so that is hugely part of her importance— that she is the first indigenous person of the Americans that Europeans are conceiving as a human being. It sounds odd, but it’s true. So… We have time for one more question. Kevin… If visitors are to walk away with one thing, what do you want them to walk away from after seeing this show? Oh, I can’t do one thing. I want ’em to do two things. Well, you’re Director, you have the… That’s right. I want them… Success is—let’s call it a “B”— would be for them to walk out of there saying, “I did not know that!” And an “A” grade is if they ask themselves, “I wonder why I didn’t know that?” Because these things have been known for a very long time, and yet— again—they’ve written out of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. If we can… I’ve become fascinated by the idea of American mythology because mythology are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. They make us feel good about ourselves, give ourselves an object lesson. And, as I traveled around country with that in my head, at one point, I started seeing every region’s origin story. So, obviously, New England’s origin story is the first Thanksgiving. This part of the country, the origin story is Jamestown and Pocahontas. In California, it’s the California missions or the Gold Rush depending on who you are. And so for each part of the county they have their story. And I got curious about that because two things that—I wanted to mention this too— In the Little Bighorn story that—as we tell it—Custer isn’t very important, you know, he’s just not… He’s just not that interesting. And we don’t care about the maneuvering of the army and all that stuff, you know, that had been the subject of so many books. The way I got to thinking about it though was that I was fascinated that all these different cities across the country are abandoning Columbus Day and choosing to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day or Native American Day. And I realized that part of the reason for that is Columbus is no part of their regional origin story. You know, Columbus didn’t have anything to do with with the settling of— or the invasion, you know, depending on who you are—of New Mexico. And… So, that’s what we want people to do, is to say, “I wonder what else there is out there that I don’t know that I really should know?” And that they think of this as their duty in being good Americans, that they want to know more about their country’s real history. Very good. Well, sadly ladies and gentlemen I have to stop the conversation. I wanna really express my thanks for the invitation to come and to talk with you, to see this incredibly—I think it’s gonna be a ground-breaking exhibition— Paul, Cecile… I think the audience is gonna enjoy it. They’re gonna come back again and again. I’d say I’ve come back once, but I’m gonna bring back a friend. We’re gonna come back together, you know, and enjoy it. So, could you join me in thanking these… I just wanted to remind everyone that we’re having a book signing and sale outside the theater starting as soon as we empty the theatre right here. And books are for sale at the book shop right across the lobby. It’s a wonderful book. Thank you very much for being here tonight, and thank our speakers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *