A current exhibit, “Savages And Princesses: The Persistence of Native American Stereotypes” at The Museum at Warm Springs explores stereotypes about Native Americans and what they have meant to indigenous folks over the years. It will be on display through May 25.
OPB’s Paul Marshall recently spoke with Liz Woody, the executive director of the Museum at Warm Springs, about the exhibit.
Marshall: Can you give an overview of the exhibit?
Woody: The exhibit basically is comprised of several artists out of Oklahoma. The person who curated it, America Meredith, wanted to present work that brought issue with the stereotypes of American Indians in the United States. I think that there’s a lot of stereotypes of American Indians that are kind of globally known, but there were some common ones that I think are really important to address.
The museum has contemporary pieces. When most people think of traditional, they’re thinking of beaver dance outfits or drums, that sort of thing. These are contemporary mediums.
Marshall: Pop culture has a long history of maintaining inaccurate stereotypes. How does this exhibit counteract that imagery?
Woody: It brings about a kind of an observation point for viewers to start thinking about what they’ve experienced in popular culture. They also have an opportunity to get their hands on more materials that are capable of giving them a deeper background.
American Indians in most Americans’ mind has to do with conflict. There was a colonial empire to be made, and in order for that colonial empire to succeed, oftentimes they had to kind of caricature or lesser-than-human ideas of the people that they were encountering. Westerns and movies perpetuate - back in the 50s and 60s, most people thought American Indians had died or had been assimilated ... and we’re just like every other American. Most of the people who were here in the United States lived on reservations so they could have gone through their whole life and not experienced or encountered an Indian person.
During the 60s and 70s, there began population movement from reservations to cities and then it became an urban Indian movement. They had to begin to think about Indian people within the context of their own community. These conflicts that came about from having that romantic notion that Indian people were of nature. They were people who had a fantastic way of life that was peaceful and for the most part, which was not necessarily part of the popular Westernized western movie concept of the Indian as a warrior and that is a peacekeeper.
Marshall: What can people get wrong about the distinct and different cultures of Native Americans? What do you hope people take away from this exhibit?
Woody: People tend to think of American Indian people as monocultural. People don’t realize the diversity that’s in North America. Five Hundred and Sixty tribes have treaties with the United States government. Most of those tribes have independent and distinct governments. They have independent and distinct languages and cultural practices and belief systems.
People have a constant impression in their minds that in that monocultural view that there is a certain way to dress and to speak. The only thing that makes us monocultural is the fact that we’ve been colonized and educated in the United States system. People say Indians were given this and Indians were given that and we weren’t given anything. We retained our rights, we retained our responsibilities. We were independent nations in the Americas.
Marshall: The art and this exhibit isn’t afraid to confront some of these stereotypes. Can you talk a bit about the piece that examines the term “Redskin” and what kind of harm can come out of these stereotypes?
Woody: “Redskin” does have an impact. Most often, individuals don’t think of the kind of turmoil and violence. It had to happen in order for Indian people to be removed from their homelands. One of them was a taking of scalps that each scalp had a bounty. It was a practice to eradicate populations of native people. This dynamic, I think it’s probably prevalent the world over because scalp taking was all over the world. It wasn’t just in the United States and it wasn’t just enacted by the United States government, but it happened all over the world. The term Redskin, like other terms that are really derogatory, are equivalent to other words that are used against people of color to denigrate them to kind of signify that they’re lesser than human.