Donna Chrisjohn began visiting the Denver Museum of Nature & Science at age 6 with her history-loving parents. The North American Indian Cultures Hall, which has been there for 45 years, was of particular interest since Chrisjohn has Sicangu Lakota and Diné ancestry.
“There were photographs of my family’s tipi in this space,” she said this week, as she walked through the exhibit. “But I didn’t realize that until I was older and my mom told me about it.”
But not anymore. In May, the museum announced that it would permanently close the 10,000-square-foot exhibit to assess, restore and, in some cases, repatriate items. “We understand that the Hall reinforces harmful stereotypes and white, dominant culture,” museum vice president Liz Davis wrote in a recent letter to members.
That includes misnaming tribes; painting over historic artifacts; “Disney-fying” dwellings and textiles; creating stereotypical dioramas; and mashing together diverse cultures and languages as seen through the eyes of the federal government. The exhibit’s last day was Friday.
“These collections first came together at a time when people thought Indigenous tribes were going extinct,” said Chrisjohn, who is now a consultant to the museum and member of the Denver American Indian Commission, which along with tribal input will help guide the museum forward. “But we survived, and we deserve to be seen as who we are today, not just who we were then.”
Whether the exhibit returns at all is still unknown, and what will make the process more difficult is that it’s not all bad. The North American Indian Cultures Hall has survived years of consultations with Indigenous representatives, updates and changes meant to improve displays. In addition, there is a nostalgic attachment to the exhibit — including by Indigenous people, Chrisjohn said.
Fixing things will be more complex than simply mothballing artifacts from a dated and inflexible setting. The 1,000 or so pieces that were on display represent the larger Crane Collection, most of which is in storage. Many items are deeply significant or sacred to Indigenous peoples. That includes not only Colorado’s Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute — the state’s only officially recognized tribes — but the 46 other tribes that lived in Colorado.
During a walkthrough of the exhibit this week with The Denver Post, Chrisjohn and DMNS anthropology curator Chris Patrello singled out items that are representative of its problems, things that the majority of visitors to the museum wouldn’t have known.
- “The Buffalo Hunters” window is exemplary of overall problems. Everyday items are shown as objectified art pieces, Chrisjohn said, and delicate hides and textiles are fading from decades of direct, unmoving light. There’s hardly any attribution or information about individual pieces, or the artists who made them. “I grew up doing beadwork, parfleche (making items from rawhide), quill-work and tanning,” Chrisjohn said as she surveyed the moccasins and other items. “It’s no joke.”
- A pair of room-sized dioramas depicting Plains Indigenous people as romanticized stereotypes are painfully frozen in the past, Chrisjohn said. “We’re not actually people, we’re belongings behind glass who can’t step out into the real, modern world. … And it’s not that some of this isn’t beautiful. It’s that I want people to learn about me and my culture outside of these spaces, not just as history. These terms were forced upon us.”
- The door of the exhibit’s signature, life-sized hogan, the traditional dwelling of Diné (Navajo) people, is facing the wrong way (it should be looking east, Patrello said). The handsome, rough-hewn structure is fun to take pictures against, but there’s zero mention of federal policies that actively suppressed their construction in favor of settler-style homes. “It’s an erasure of our artistry,” Chrisjohn said.
- Re-creations of full-sized Hopi dwellings, which seemed “immersive and progressive” in 1978, Patrello said, now look like cheap theme park exhibits, with items crammed against walls behind fake windows and presented as undifferentiated, brightly lit tchotchkes. “What little information there is isn’t accessible to the visitor. It’s got this overstuffed, treasure-box vibe.”
- A pair of Tsimshian totem poles were painted over, likely by the museum, before they were displayed and need to be restored. The 100-plus-year-old items sit, incongruently, next to a contemporary artwork that mimics their design, made by a self-identified Cherokee artist. “This is not how they should or would have looked when they were made,” Patrello said of the first two. “And we’ve been asked to store the (third piece) separate from the other collections, as there are concerns about the artist’s adoption.”
Patrello and others at the museum will work with a wide swath of Indigenous consultants and public input to decide what happens next. But what that is will all depend on pending future meetings about the most respectful ways to make up for decades of misrepresentation. “Maybe the best way is to sprinkle items through the museum,” he said. “Or maybe it’s to remove the exhibit altogether.”
“We can’t forecast too much what’s going to happen, because that undermines the dialogue we’re having with Indigenous leaders and people in the community,” he added, noting that other repatriation efforts are underway at the museum, and in Denver in general. “Not everything happens in the gallery space. We need to rethink programming, the way we connect with communities, and engage people on their own terms.”
“There’s a lot of conversation around this nationwide,” Chrisjohn said. “Giving the original people of this land our respect and acknowledgment is long overdue. But it’s not as simple as changing a few labels or updating the language. These are pervasive issues that need to be addressed. We’re at the beginning of something amazing.”
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