Interview By Elayne Janiak
Dr. Dartt-Newton began her tenure as Curator of Native American Art with the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum on January 2, 2012. She received her bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Oregon. She previously served as Curator of Native American Ethnology at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. She was also an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University. She and her husband have one daughter.
Elayne Janiak: I understand that your doctoral dissertation examined the “take home” messages left with museum visitors regarding Native Americans and how these messages differed from the lived experiences and alternative histories told by Native people themselves. What are some of those “take home” messages? How are they imparted by museums? How can those messages be corrected?
Deana Dartt-Newton: Some of the most prevalent messages are that Native people are gone—at least the “real” or “pure” ones. The historic materials reflect the uncontaminated Native culture that was “replaced” by the dominant, mainstream American one. Many venues portray this in a chronological trajectory where the Indians are only at the beginning of the story—literally placed at the entry of the exhibit spaces, but left behind in every way. One way to disrupt this narrative is through multimedia presentations— of living Native peoples. Some look “Native,” others don’t. Some do “traditional” cultural practices, some don’t. I say, show it all. Talk about the actual history of place in text panels. Show maps of displacement of local people and discuss what this meant for identity and cultural knowledge for the people.
A new narrative doesn’t HAVE to be imparted in new exhibits. In fact, I argue that older museums can use outdated exhibits to discuss outdated narratives and how these narratives shaped the current perceptions of Native people.
Integrate contemporary, political, edgy, thought-provoking art by Native artists.
Ultimately, what my dissertation argues is that for museums to adequately tell Native histories they must be engaged with local Native communities.
EJ: The Oregon Historical Society, across the street from the Portland Art Museum (PAM), holds many Native American artifacts and currently has a travelling exhibit entitled “Oregon Is Indian Country” which is described as follows: ”Oregon’s Indian traditions will be illuminated by many art forms including native voices, historical artifacts, photographs and more, producing a powerful exhibition.” Should the interpretation of traditional Native American artifacts in an art museum, such as PAM, differ from the interpretation of such artifacts in an historical or ethnological museum? If so, how ?
DD-N: Coming from the perspective of Native woman and anthropologist, I think that Art museums should provide a little more context than they do—through various media. It pains me to see historic materials without contemporary works, photos, video, etc. that demonstrate the rest of the story—the continuation, innovation, preservation of cultural lifeways. The focus is different in an art museum, as it should be—on the art. But what many museum visitors do not realize is that for Native artists (many, not all), art is rooted in culture, community and place. Ideas that add dimension to a work of art (from the perspective of the artist or the artist’s culture) are important to include. Should the art museum replicate what the history museum does? No. But with an emphasis on the art form, tell a more complete story of materials, motifs, uses and continuation of the practice (even if that includes WHY some practices were discontinued or changed to adapt to an art market, etc.).
I also think that Native art collecting is a highly political act and relates to social issues that beg transparency. How did these materials come to be in the Art museum?? What influences have Native people had on collections, collecting, and the art market itself.
So—with a focus more clearly on the form rather than the function of historic materials and a discussion of continuity and change, that provides the visitor with a clear picture of “living” traditions which are often innovative and changing—Art museums have a different story to tell, but one that is equally contextualized.
EJ: You have noted the reliance of teachers on museums to cover school curriculum on Native American life. This is certainly the case with Portland area teachers utilizing the PAM. The Portland Public Schools has published “Indians In Oregon Today” which gives guidelines for teaching about Indian Culture (this document was reviewed by Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes, the Oregon Government-to-Government Education Center and the Oregon Indian Education Association). Briefly, the guidelines recommend: “(a). concentrating on the contemporary Indian community rather than historical facts, (b) focusing on the Tribal group nearest the school, since an understanding of the local Indian community will give a better perspective on generalizations made about Indians regionally and nationally (c) attempting to deal with real life, including controversial issues and (d) concentrating more on the processes of Indian life, rather than the products.” What are your thoughts on the ideas in these guidelines, i.e. contemporary, local, real life, processes, and how PAM’s gallery teaching could or should interface with these ideas? (Note: The easiest way to find the document on-line is to Google “Indians In Oregon Today”.)
DD-N: I love that Oregon has such a document. California does not and the teaching of Native life is centered in an ethnographic snapshot in time that probably never actually existed, and erases the presence of Native people today. I have only just begun to work with the education staff, but have some ideas about bringing life and contemporary local histories into the gallery spaces (which currently are rather dead and unengaging). My vision for the PAM is that it begin to work in tandem with Native communities. For instance, an Oregon Indian internship program, where Native people work with education staff in the development of tours and education materials would help us get up to speed in terms of curriculum goals while providing community members with professional development for Tribal museum or museum/art related careers. In the coming months I intend to assemble a Native American Advisory Council to address the needs of the communities in terms of access, NAGPRA, art education, and professional development. This is something I believe ALL museums with Native American holdings should do.
EJ: Gallery teaching is an important program at the PAM, as it is at most museums. What do you see the role of docents being in Native American gallery teaching, both for students and adults? What curatorial guidance do you hope to provide to docents? What feedback do you hope to seek from docents? Who else, other than docents, do you think should do gallery teaching? What role do you think music or multimedia installations could play in gallery teaching?
DD-N: The role of docents is an extremely important one. In all museums, the volunteer staff is charged with being the front-line interpreters. This means that they are extremely valuable (yet underpaid). My research in CA demonstrated that those people are rarely exposed to living Indian people and that their perspective of modern Indian life is often quite skewed. My goal is to get our docents in touch with living people, resources such as books and film, and my own experience and guidance, to help them to “get current” so that they can better convey a local, modern approach to Native art and cultures. It would be fun to do a youth docent program in the summer, involving organizations such as NAYA and NARA as well as local non-Native youth to spend time in the galleries and develop a program that appeals to their age group.
I’d love to hear from the docents about anything they think might be useful for me to know. I’d like to have an open-door policy so that they are comfortable communicating with me.
People are learning on their own through conversations they have in the galleries and at lunch afterward. Research suggests that we offer them a buffet of information and allow them to take what they want/can assimilate and hopefully they will come back for more. We should be providing media to engage all types of learners including musical, tactile, academic, visual, kinesthetic (I know there are more). Docents should serve as a guide to these experiences, not as a lecturer. Multimedia quickly brings living voices to old materials. I highly recommend it. Even if it’s in an adjacent space—it allows the visitor to experience and relate to living people/cultures.
EJ: What museum-sponsored non-gallery public education programs do you feel are appropriate for Native American art, i.e. speakers? documentaries? field trips?. What would be your objective in presenting these programs?
DD-N: All of the above… Disrupt pervasive ideas and provide a meaningful alternative that more closely reflects Native life and contemporary issues.
EJ: I read that you entered your field after being asked by your tribe in 1998 to accompany a large archeological collection to the University of Oregon and participate in its analysis. You said that, while there, you became aware of a dire need for Native representation in museums. Could you talk in more detail about that experience and also about your path from that point, including your sources of guidance and inspiration and support?
DD-N: You did your homework!
A couple of things happened. The more involved I became in archaeology and academia overall, the more I was exposed to bad anthropological work. Not just the old-school archies, but living, practicing, anthros that were doing really harmful things in and around our communities. As I explored this phenomenon I realized that museums were often the physical manifestations, venues for presenting this bad scholarship. The very places which stored our precious ancestral things were complicit in erasing us from the modern landscape. At that same time, I was researching NAGPRA compliance among the federal agencies in the Chumash region for my master’s thesis and found that consultation practices were little more than informal conversations between agency officials and individual Indian people. There was (and still is) no system of consulting with the Bands/Tribes in the area and therefore no real accountability. This research led me to examine the museums and how and with what “experts,” they develop their exhibits and programs.
I struggled with the decision to leave archaeology and the field of Cultural Resource Management (CRM) because there are very few skilled and conscientious people doing that work and there is definitely a need. My three elder relatives whom I rely upon for guidance in big life decisions encouraged me to stay in school (and in the PNW where I had started my own family) and all three assured me that my work would eventually bring me (and my family) back home.
I found great friends at the University of Oregon—Oregon Indian people such as Diane Teeman (Burns Piaute), David Lewis (Grand Ronde) and Jason Younker (Coquille), together with whom I began to find my voice as a Native scholar. Later, I found mentors in the Pacific Northwest like Rebecca Dobkins at the Hallie Ford, Robin Wright at the Burke, and Barbara Brotherton at the Seattle Art Museum. These women continue to offer so much support and guidance.
My daughter, Allukoy is my greatest inspiration. It is vital that she and other Native children are able to relate to portrayals of Native people when they visit museums in the third and fourth grades—not alienated by them. I have a hand in how that future is shaped and I am humbled—but also motivated—by that truth.
EJ: In a Native American art museum, what should be the balance between traditional pieces and contemporary pieces? How do you think they should be linked?
DD-N: I think that all of it should complement the whole. There is no defined distinction between the two. Older scholars and artists say “contemporary” is 1960 or newer. Young artists and scholars say 1980… Some argue that edgy and political art is the “contemporary” and traditional forms are not—even if they are recently made. The text at the entry to the Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art at PAM says we collect and display “traditional” Native American art. What’s that? Who defines traditional? Some young artists argue (vehemently) against narrow definitions that restrict their creativity and voice as Native people.
I know that the new galleries here at PAM will mix it up. I had a thought the other day that I would like to have an equal number of new/contemporary works, both those that use customary materials and form and those that incorporate new media and ideas—with the historic material. Again—my main objective is to convey life and resilience as the take home messages. I’d also like to continue to expand the incorporation of Native perspectives in the galleries—Native film and photography, spoken word and music.
EJ: You have said that continuing the NAGPRA process will be one of your first priorities in your new job at the PAM. Given the breadth and extent of the Museum’s Native American collection (i.e. over 5000 articles representing over 200 cultural groups), how will you go about tackling this job?
DD-N: Much of the work has been done. Inventories went out in 1995 and there are currently 16 active claims. My goal is first to address those claims, next will be to send out inventories of objects that have been accessioned since 1995, and then to resend original inventories—knowing that a lot has changed in Indian Country since then. Ultimately, it’s all about relationships—creating them one at a time—with the people AND with the ancestral objects in the vault.
EJ: You have also mentioned that your greatest joy as a curator has been working closely with the Native American community’s different tribes. Can you mention some of the ways you’ve gone about doing this in the past and how you hope to proceed in the future?
DD-N: As a displaced Native person myself, of course I am happiest when I’m surrounded by extended family and Tribal culture. The joy in my work as a curator comes from facilitating connection between communities and the vital cultural knowledge held in museums. Watching pain and loss transformed through revitalization efforts heals my spirit, too. Here is an example: The first little exhibit I curated at the University of Oregon showcased “master and apprentice” weavers from the nine Oregon tribes. The story that emerged was one that encompassed Termination, loss of knowledge, displacement and suffering—as well as resilience, intertribal cultural sharing and mentoring, love and healing. It was intense. There was even a facet that honored the ancestral baskets held in museum collections as the “masters”—and the museum people as the vital bridges enabling relationships between those baskets and the “apprentices” (the living weavers). The stories are much more complex, personal and beautiful than we anticipate at the start—when we (museum geeks) think of a great “theme” for an exhibit. It is through these kinds of stories that the public learns (through relating and caring) about Native histories, struggles, and contemporary lives and can then become our allies in revitalization and healing.
I think it’s vital for museums with Native American holdings to have a Native American Advisory Council. Ideally a council made up of a representative sample—with an emphasis on representation from the local Tribes/community. Setting goals with the advisors as well as goals that are aligned with goals of the local people are key. I learned early in life that when you are a visitor in a place, you always ask permission of the local people. If I am charged with exhibiting, interpreting, and collecting Native American Art, it would be bad manners to assume I know what’s best on my own. I know many people in the Pacific Northwest and have great friends in the Native community. I’ll build upon these relationships and together we will set the course for the NA collection at the Portland Art Museum.
EJ: I understand that you set up the “Truth vs Twilight” blog to counter the many cultural misrepresentations about Native Americans in the Twilight movies. This seems like an effective way to reach “new demographics,” as they say. Do you intend to set up other blogs to counter stereotypes and misrepresentations related to Native American art? (Note: Our instructor, Wendy Red Star, showed our class a short video on YouTube that I’m sure you will appreciate: in YouTube enter Ryan Red Corn New Moon Wolf Pack Auditions)
DD-N: Yes. I think that the internet is an inexpensive and effective way to reach new audiences and can provide an alternative narrative. This “venue” can be used in lieu of an exhibition (the California Indian Narrative Project) or to complement one, such as the Truth vs. Twilight site.
EJ: I noticed that you were the Project Manager for the “Carrying Traditions Across The Waters of Time: Ainu and Northwest Cultural Collaborations” Project. I’m struck by how common wide-ranging cultural exchange was in traditional Native American culture. For example, here in the Pacific Northwest there were two major vibrant continental trade centers at Celilo Falls and, further up the Columbia, at Kettle Falls. Even in modern days, the forced mix of Native cultures in urban areas resulted in great artistic and political energy (such as AIM). How do you think those historic trade relationships influenced traditional Native American arts? Do you see that historic quality of openness to new ideas and products and cultures evident in Native American art today? Do you see that quality in professional interactions among Native American curators?
DD-N: People have been sharing traditions since the beginning of time. Whether forced together or brought together through trade, ideas and inspiration are part of human interaction. So, yes — absolutely. I find it especially fulfilling to be around other Native professionals and though my experience with other Native curators is rather limited I think this blog that Wendy has initiated will help me hear their views and connect with them on a more intimate level—so, THANKS Wendy!
EJ: I understand that you are finishing up a book on Native American culture. Could you tell us something about the scope and purpose of the book?
DD-N: It’s more about museums and their impacts on Native communities than it is on Native culture, per se. It’s based on my dissertation research which analyzed California museum narratives juxtaposed with lived experiences and testimonies of California Indian people. I have been working with University of Nebraska Press and hope to have a draft to them by next year at this time.
EJ: I’ve read that you are a Bioneer. How do you integrate the Bioneer concepts with your curatorial philosophy?
DD-N: I think that we all need to be thinking about sustainable ways to live on this planet. Bioneers are doing that, through work with practitioners of traditional ecological knowledge. I believe that we can address respect for the stewardship of the land in our work, whether it be in a Natural History institution or Art Museum. An NSF funded initiative called the “Cosmic Serpent” (which I am involved) brought together western science folks and Native knowledge holders with museum professionals to develop ways to integrate earth knowledge and care into the informal learning environment. It was extremely powerful to learn that we actually all have the same goal—to continue to inhabit this beautiful home we inherited. My goal for the PAM Native American galleries and programs is one of integration. We can easily speak of the natural world and cultural knowledge through Native American Art. I think it’s our responsibility to do so.
EJ: How do you define Contemporary Native American/First Nations art? Does Contemporary Native art need to be defined differently from mainstream art?
DD-N: Rooted in Native American culture and identity, whether it’s evident in the art itself or the artist alone. Does it need to be defined differently? No, not necessarily. Some Native people choose to work in mainstream media and theoretical frames. It is still Native American Art if the artist identifies as Native American. However, it is unique in that it is influenced by Native American cultures, languages, traditional knowledge, community, and spiritual understandings. Much Native American art is embedded in a milieu of identity and history. However, an artist from any culture and background should have the prerogative to show her work free of any context and identity—Native Americans should not be an exception to that rule.
EJ: There are many museums, galleries, grants and residencies that require documentation of ancestry or tribal enrollment in order to apply or show in their programs. What are your thoughts on using the blood quantum system as a means to determine indigenous identity? Do you think there is a better system that could be used? What are some of the pros and cons when using the government standards for tribal enrollment?
DD-N: Whoa. Big question…
I think culture and community connections should be considered more closely than biology. Blood Quantum may render us extinct eventually, whereas our cultures are strong. Artists infuse our cultures with life and to exclude some of them from needed support and encouragement of their craft due to a definition created by outsiders, is ludicrous. In California, Tribal members are being dis-enrolled at an alarming rate. Should they be excluded from an opportunity because of a political (possibly economic) decision? While granting agencies and museums don’t have the time or resources to conduct research on every applicant, there are ways to “document” community connections and culture. We need to become more creative.
EJ: Can you recommend another curator that we should interview for this blog in the future?
DD-N: Lisa Watt (Seneca, Portland resident)
http://www.coastalartbeat.ca/?tag=deana-dartt-newton Announces PAM appointment and her plans to focus first on NAGPRA and development of a Native American Advisory Board.
http://uoalumni.com/s/1202/blank.aspx?sid=1202&gid=1&pgid=1456 Announces PAM appointment. Chumash ancestry. Her greatest joy as a curator has been working closely with the Native American community’s different tribes.
http://blog.oregonlive.com/ent_impact_arts/print.html?entry=/2011/10/portland-art-museum-appoints-d.html Announces PAM appointment. Will oversee the Museum’s Native American collection, assemble collection and finish writing a book on Native American culture. Received BA MA and PhD from UofO. PAM ready for new look and new approach…it’s a blank canvas.
http://www.bizjournals.com/seattle/potm/2009-02-16/ Got into field when enlisted by her tribe(in1998) to accompany a large archeological collection to the University of Oregon and participate in its analysis. While there,became aware of a dire need fo native representation in museums; dissertation addresses this issue in the area of the Central Coast of California.
http://depts.washington.edu/native/people/ddartt.html Announcement of earlier appointment to U. of Washington Dept of American Indian Studies. Research examines issues of Native American representation in museums and the role museums play in public or collective memory about Native peoples. Dissertation examines the dominant “take home” messages in museums.
https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/handle/1794/9926 Synopsis of dissertation: “Negotiating the Master Narrative: Museums and the Indian/Californio Community of California’s Central Coast.”
http://www.washington.edu/students/icd/S/ais/475ddartt.html U of Washington class description for “Special Topics In Indian Studies”
http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/quileute?before=1323404673 Click on Truth Vs. Twilight. Refers to website set up by DD-N to correct misrepresentations of Quileutes in Twilight movies.
http://www.burkemuseum.org/static/truth_vs_twilight/quileutes.php As above.
http://www.burkemuseum.org/ethnology/research Carrying Traditions Across The Waters of Time: Ainu and Pacific Northwest Cultural Collaborations. DD-N Project Manager of this Project.
http://www.bioneers.org/presenters/dr.-deana-dartt-newton-ph.d and http://www.bioneers.org/about DD-N Presenter with Bioneers