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Indigenous Artist To Artist, Part 2: We Choose Power


ADRIENNE KEENE: Welcome back to another episode of all my relations, we love you all so much and are so glad you've come to listen and learn with us again. So today we're talking to three badass Indigenous women in the art museum world. And we wanted to have this conversation to build off of our artist conversations from the last few episodes. We got the artist's perspective from our amazing guests in the last few episodes. But there's another important piece to the art world where historically a lot of gatekeeping, but also a lot of amazing things have happened, and that is museums. So I'm someone who studied Indigenous contemporary art as an undergrad. And I spent my campus job and summers interning in museums and trying to learn how to transform curatorial practices and museum spaces to be more welcoming and representative of Native cultures. And I'm definitely someone who still loves curating and I've curated two small exhibits at Brown. And I think there's like a ton of potential to create needed dialog and educate through museum spaces. But I also realized that we have a long way to go and a lot of ways

MATIKA WILBUR: today we have three different perspectives of the museum world. We have Jami Powell, who's Osage and the first Indigenous curator at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, Kristen Dorsey, a Chickasaw fine arts jeweler and metal worker artist who is transitioning her career to become a curator. I don't know if that's public yet. And we also have Jaclyn Rossel, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who recently transitioned away from the Heard and is getting to an entirely new work and arts practice that we're excited to hear about today. So I just want to say welcome, relatives, sisters, thank you so much for being here. It feels like a real honor to get to spend time with you. And even though we're in the middle of a pandemic, this virtual space feels uplifting to me. So thank you for being here. [speaking Native language] I love you and appreciate you. And thank you for taking the time.

ADRIENNE: So I think we wanted to just start off by hearing from each of you, like, why were you or are you interested in the type of work that you do in museum and cultural spaces? And then what do you see as the challenges from your position where you are in your career, the challenges of these museum spaces? And in that sense, too, like we also since our our podcast is called All My Relations, kind of thinking about the ways that museums and curation fit into this idea of being in good relation. So that's like a multi-parter. But basically, why are you interested in this work? What do you see as the challenges? And then like any sort of thoughts around these ideas of museums and curation, fitting into the idea of being a good relation?

JAMI POWELL: Well, I'll go first, so I this is Jami and I grew up with my father being in the Navy, and so my mom is Osage. My dad's non Native. And he was in the Navy. So we moved around a lot, but spent summers at home in Oklahoma participating in our [] and being, you know, with family and relatives there. But when I was in elementary school, we lived north of Chicago and Chicago has some incredible museums. And so, you know, I would go to museums on the weekend with my families or we would go for field trips. And I loved museums. The Museum of Science and Industry was a place that really sparked my interest and curiosity. I loved the Field Museum where you could go and, like, go into a pyramid and, you know, be Indiana Jones, which is problematic in a lot of ways, too. But, you know, and so and I think it was fourth grade was like the one year where learning about Native Americans was part of the, you know, Illinois state curriculum. And so we went to the Field Museum, to the Native American Cultures Hall. And I was really excited because I had told my friends that I was Native American and they were like, no, you're not. You don't live in a teepee. You know, you don't look like a, you know, Pocahontas or like have a like a friend raccoon. And so we go to the museum and they have a case about Osage people and it's like Osage men's costumes and there's no representation of women. And the clothes that are on view are not the kinds of clothes that my that we wear today, even in, you know, our dances. And, you know, it was just like a really sad experience. And then my friends, where these kids in my class told me, like, well, it's because you're not a real Indian anyway. We don’t believe you. And it was just like this really kind of damaging experience for me. And so a lot of the reason, you know, the reason I got into museums is because I want kids to go into museums and feel like they're represented in meaningful and respectful ways and to like experience the kind of joy and curiosity, you know, that that can happen in museums and that should happen in museums and not those kind of negative feelings. So there's a lot of work to be done. Things are getting better, you know, but there's still like a lot of a lot of space for for growth.

MATIKA: I had the same experience at the Field Museum, but that was like three or four years ago when I was asked to do a show there and I walked in and there's those totem poles that are in the in the center house and, you know, they’re like still unnamed poles, you know, like some Haida artists or some Tsimshian artist. And then I went and, you know, walked into the Native area and they had these what we call []. We run [] for ceremony there, these paddleboards, and we don't really talk about it. It's not even something I would publicly talk about here and say this is why are we doing what it's for? Because it's super sacred and it's quiet. You know, it's something we do quietly. And those when you run [], those boards are taken there, put it back inside their box and they're putting it put away for good reason. And then those were just sitting there at the front of the exhibit. And I was like, oh, no, I cannot go. I cannot walk in here, you know, like, I literally turned around and walked in the other direction. And the person giving me a tour was like, Where are you going? I said, this is I can't go in here. This isn't appropriate. But, you know, that was a couple of years ago, so I can completely relate to that, Jami.

JAMI: Yeah, well, and I will say about the Field Museum, they, you know, have taken down the old Native American cultures hall, not the northwest coast, but the Native American, you know, the other part of the hall and have been working with, you know, a collaborative team and a Native or an Indigenous advisory group to reinstall that. And so, you know, there is, you know, some conversation happening there and some there's a great show there curated by Nina Sanders, Apsaalooke Women and Warriors that, you know, [] supported by Meranda Roberts, who's a curatorial fellow there. And so, you know, they're I don't want to just, like, bash the Field museum, you know, like super easy to do.

MATIKA: Right? Yeah. I actually really want to see that show. It looks really cool.

JACLYN ROSSEL: Yeah. My heart goes out to Nina and the team because it opened just like literally a week before everybody needed to be at home and shelter in place. So but it's such a feat in terms of just that, that monumental of an exhibit with contemporary Indigenous artists. Is there a a real like, world renowned institution? So big props to Nina and the team. So I can go ahead and jump in. [speaking Navajo] I am connecting in from the [], the lands of the [] people in Santa Ana Pueblo, its my partner's home in north central New Mexico. And it's where we raise our son and our family. And so I, I think listening to Jami's story, going back to where I found the magic and the interest in museums, I was a young kid in the interactive galleries of the Heard museum and waiting for my dad to finish up some consulting that he was doing as a photographer with the museum so I would just wait and play at all different museums all over the Southwest and all over the country as he would have these meetings. And so it was always a really exciting place to be to explore. I when I filled out my application for college, I knew that I liked, I knew that I liked art and I knew that I liked history. And so I just put the two together. I didn't know that art history was a thing I grew up in, like a rural rez kayenta. Shout out to all the, you know, [] Mustangs. And and my application came back with my major having been declared art history. And I was like, wow, it didn't get returned. I guess it's a thing. In college I loved sitting in the dark room, like watching slides drop, like on the old slide kodak carousels and just being like so taken by seeing the world through like through like the art of other cultures. And so I really loved art history and went into it because like my grandparents had actually helped build the new Navajo Nation Museum and library and archives on my rez. And so I grew up in a family that always like prided itself on the power of culture and like understanding. And like that there was value in like being proud of who we are as Native people, as a Dine person. And to me, there seemed to be such a direct correlation to like that and like museums. And so of all the things I wanted to do from like museums, like a magazine editor to like museum director to like astronomer, which I don't know who wants to be astronomer like that, all like math and like digits. And I realized it wasn't looking at the stars, but I realized that, like, the museums were like this really interesting place. And then I, like, begged for an internship at the Heard museum and got it. And it was like unpaid. I don't recommend this. But then it led to a paid position. And that just in itself was the way that, like, I was able to, like, grow with the help of another Dine woman who is really like a mentor to me in those early days because she really, like, created a pathway for me and like other I think, like Indigenous people who begin to like come into this space. And and so I really felt there was such this like beauty in museums of being able to work at an institution that in a lot of ways did things right in working with communities. Definitely had room to improve, as I learned over the course of my career there. But it was really I think the thing that attracted, attracted me to museums was the way that there was such an opportunity for learning because of this proximity and like a like proximity of privilege of people coming in with, like, no recollection or not even recollection, but also just not understanding Indigenous people at all. And I felt like that was such an interesting place to be. I like being a translator between institution and like my culture and people, not a spokesperson, but a translator. And I really found that place to be really interesting. And over the course of my time in museums, working on the inside also found them to be very problematic, filled with institutional racism, a lot of just white supremacy culture that was at work. And I transitioned out of museums to consult really because of that, because I was so burnt out. And so I think we also have to acknowledge how, yes, beautiful museums are, but how harmful they can be and taxing to Indigenous, black and POC community members.