Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices

In line with an earlier post about the repatriation of First Nation remains held in museums, I am happy to tell readers of the recent publication of a new book, by AltaMira Press, titled Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices. The publisher’s synopsis reads as follows (with minor edits): “During the twentieth century, dozens of protests, large and small, occurred across North America as American Indians asserted their anger and displayed their disappointment regarding traditional museum behaviors. In response, due to public embarrassment and an awakening of sensitivities, museums began to change their methods and laws were enacted in support of American Indian requests for change. Spirited Encounters provides a foundation for understanding museums and looks at their development to present time, examines how museums collect Native materials, and explores protest as a fully American process of addressing grievances. Now that museums and American Indians are working together in the processes of repatriation, this book can help each side understand the other more fully.”

The author, Karen Coody Cooper, is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and has occupied positions in museums such as the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Karen has just begun working as a historical interpreter at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, south of Tahlequah. She was born in Tulsa, and graduated from Collinsville High School. She will be a keynote speaker at the Oklahoma Museums Association annual meeting in September in Bartlesville and will be teaching a course on American Indians and museums at Northeastern State University this fall. To obtain the book Spirited Encounters (available in soft cover or hardback), visit the Web site of Altamira Press or Barnes & Noble, or contact your local book dealer.

Karen sent me the following press release as well, discussing the key issues pertaining to her work for this volume:


TAHLEQUAH – American Indian corpses taken from nineteenth-century battlefields often wound up in museum collections, and museum agents commonly dug up skeletal remains from Native burial sites. During the first part of the twentieth century, major museum exhibitions were created from grave goods and war trophies, along with confiscated ceremonial items. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1960s, that agencies and institutions were forced to reconsider their treatment of minority groups. In the 1970s the American Indian Movement, American Indians Against Desecration, and other Native social action groups launched protests across the nation.

American Indian protests caught the attention of the U.S. Congress in 1987 when hearings disclosed that the Smithsonian Institution alone possessed 34,000 American Indian remains. Native activists pushed for passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The enactment of NAGPRA in 1990 served to transform museums by requiring them to release information about their holdings to pertinent federally-recognized tribes and to return Native remains, burial goods, and ceremonial objects to their homeland governments. Museum inventories received by the National Park Service, which manages NAGPRA, finds that as many as 600,000 Native human remains have been held by museums across the United States. Today, museums no longer collect Native remains, burial items, or ceremonial materials. As a result of the repatriation act, museums and American Indians have had to engage in an exchange of information which has helped the two entities better understand each other. Through interactions with Native spokespeople, museums have learned more about Native communities, leading to improved exhibitions and programs.

During the 1980s American Indians protested major exhibitions that were ignoring American Indian concerns about accuracy and appropriateness. Two major protested exhibitions were The Spirit Sings in Calgary, during the 1988 winter Olympics, and First Encounters, originating in Florida during the quincentennial of the 1492 voyage of Columbus. The latter exhibit traveled to museums in Albuquerque and St. Paul, Minnesota with protestors taking action at each location. Those museums sought to address the concerns of protestors by enhancing the exhibit with additional exhibit panels, program presentations, and visitor handouts. Prior to organized protests exhibits in natural history museums and in historical societies often contained distorted information about American Indians and created poorly informed scenarios. Some exhibits had labeled garden and woodworking tools as weapons. Today, most museums consult with Native advisors to assure that descriptions of practices, materials, and activities in museum exhibits are accurate.

American Indian artists experienced problems with art museums, which generally wanted to relegate Native art to ethnographic status. In the 1950s and 1960s, Tulsa’s Philbrook Art Center was host to one of the nation’s premier Native art shows. But, they accepted only art that conformed to the museum’s definition of Native art, serving to severely restrict American Indian artists who were seeking to create new, dynamic art forms and who wanted to make a living as artists. Innovative Native artists struggled to open their own galleries while resenting their exclusion from museums.

The book also discusses protests at state and national parks containing Native sacred sites, where ongoing battles concern access and propriety. Also, chapters are devoted to museums or national parks that have long celebrated “heroes” deleterious to American Indians, such as the Pilgrims of Plimoth Plantation and the former Custer Battlefield National Monument, now the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument. Plimoth Plantation has instituted a Wampanoag presence at their living history site, now conforming to historical knowledge that Wampanoag people and Pilgrims were in constant interaction. Colonial Williamsburg, which once included a school for the sons of area Native chiefs, is also beginning to incorporate a Native presence there to conform to historical evidence of repeated visits by Native contingents and individuals.

Following a chapter discussing the development of museums managed by Native governments, the book’s summary chapter reviews the changes invoked by the protests and suggests that improved communication between museums and Native communities has led to better exhibitions and to more lively programs. Many museums are now friendlier to community researchers, having opened their doors to Native emissaries inviting them to view archives, photographs and collections from generations past. Forty years ago Native researchers were not welcome at many museums, which often restricted museum holdings to visits by credentialed academic researchers.

This is a list of the contents of the volume:

Introduction: American Indians, Museums and Protest
Part I: Protesting Exhibitions
Chapter One: Politics and Sponsorship
Chapter Two: Display of Sacred Objects
Chapter Three: Display of Human Remains
Chapter Four: Art Confined to a Reservation of its Own
Part II: The Long Road to Repatriation
Chapter Five: Demands for Return of Material Objects
Chapter Six: Demands for Return of Human Remains
Part III: Whose Heroes and Holidays
Chapter Seven: No Celebration for Columbus
Chapter Eight: Thanksgiving Mourned
Chapter Nine: The Custer Chronicles
Part IV: Claiming Our Own Places
Chapter Ten: Native Cultural Sites
Chapter Eleven: Transforming Museums
Conclusion: Achievements Gained by Protests

For more information, see the publisher website linked to above, or contact Karen Coody Cooper at:

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