Episode 68

68. The Akomawt Educational Initiative Forges a Snowshoe Path to Indigenize Museums

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About this Episode

Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word for the snowshoe path. At the beginning of winter, the snowshoe path is hard to find. But the more people pass along and carve out this path through the snow during the season, the easier it becomes for everyone to walk it together.

endawnis Spears (Diné/ Ojibwe/ Chickasaw/ Choctaw) is director of programming and outreach for the Akomawt Educational Initiative. She saw a need to supply regional educators with the tools to implement competent education on Native history and Native contemporary issues. She co-founded the Initiative with Chris Newell (Passamaquoddy) and Dr. Jason Mancini to make those tools.

In this episode, Spears talks about the different between living culture and sterile museum artifacts, her discussion at Untold Stories 2019: Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation about how Native narratives are violently presented through a white lens in museums, and the potential for museums to disrupt that for many visitors.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 68. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


endawnis Spears: “For many indigenous people, we are looking for ways to engage our culture at all places at all times. And for me and for many other Native people, it happens to be in the realm of museums.”

endawnis Spears focuses on engaging with her culture within the realm of museums precisely because museums violently separate her culture from a living context.

endawnis Spears: [Introduction in Diné]

endawnis Spears: [Translation] Hello, I’m endawnis Spears, and I am Yucca-fruit-strung-out-in-a-line clan.
I’m born from the Ojibwe people. My maternal grandfather’s from the Tangleclan, and my paternal grandfather is from the Choctaw/Chickasaw people. I’m the director of programming and outreach for the Akomawt Educational Initiative.

endawnis Spears co founded the Akomawt Educational Initiative in 2018 with Chris Newell and Dr. Jason Mancini. The Initiative was born out of their experiences in museum and classroom education across present-day New England. They saw a need to supply regional educators with the tools to implement competent education on Native history and Native contemporary issues. They created the Initiative to build those tools.

endawnis Spears: The word Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word for the snowshoe path. One of our co-founders, Chris Newell, is a Passamaquoddy, and he recommended this term as a defining a part of our Initiative. In [the] Passamaquoddy world, snowshoe pass at the beginning of the wintery season is hard to find. It’s hard to walk on, but the more people pass along this path and carve out this path through the snow during the season, the easier it becomes for everyone to walk it together. And we see that as part of our mission and part of the work that we’re trying to do, part of the guiding principles for our work, that we are looking to add to that educational experience for people we are living with and amongst here in what is present day New England because we are all going on the same direction, and the more information and the more culturally accurate and respectful and historically accurate information we are working with, then the easier it is for our children, for our grandchildren. And when I say our, I mean native people, but I also mean non-native people, and so I mean our neighbors and our allies that we live and make lives with here in the present day United States.

The Initiative focuses on what is called Sites of Knowledge. These include K-12 schools, universities, and museums. But as Speares describes, the notion of slioed sites of knowledge is a western idea, poorly suited to the work that they do.

Instead, The Akomawt Educational Initiative seeks to employ knowledge at all places at all times—something that museums as they exist today fail to do.

endawnis Spears: In our traditional communities, in our native communities, there was no place that you would go to learn and to gain the authority on one particular place and then leave that place and not employ that knowledge someplace else or not see the connection between one place and another, so to go to a museum, and this is the authority, and this is where you learn about this, and then you exit the museum, and that knowledge is no longer useful to you as you go about your daily life, that concept of siloing knowledge and siloing our understandings of the world is a foreign one to this continent.

Spears shared a striking example of this at Untold Stories 2019: Indigenous Futures and Collaborative Conservation, the closing session of the American Institute for Conservation’s annual conference.

She showed an image of a Haudenosaunee cradleboard, as presented in the Detroit Art Institute. It is completely divorced from context and certainly doesn’t feel lived in, in typical museum conservation fashion.

She compares this with an image of the cradleboard that held her as a child and has securely held all four of her children. The ties on the cradleboard are ceremonially re-tied for each child — representing a continuity in the material world, that is nowhere to be found in the museum.

endawnis Spears: If you came into my house right now, you would see all of the cradleboards from when I was a baby that were made for me, which I have a few. And then the cradleboards that we had made for our children, my husband and I’s children. They are placed up on the wall. They’re displayed on our wall as beautiful art, as part of our family and part of our heritage. The difference between that and a museum is that we keep pieces of that baby’s experience within the cradleboard, so we keep a blanket in one of them. We put them up on the wall to remind us of that time, that special time with our son or our daughter. And so these are instances where the cradleboard is referring back to a specific child in a specific place in a specific emotional life of our family.

Spears uses The difference between her cradleboards in her own home and how they would be treated in a museum collection to illustrate the difference between living collections and ethnographic objects.

And I think when we look at cradleboards within museum collections, all of that is ripped away. All of that is stripped, and that stripping of those experiences and the spiritual and emotional life of that piece is a violent one, and it’s a very apt representation of what colonialism is, that we are going to take this, and we are going to rip it away from its relationship with you and make it only relevant in its relationship to us, the colonizers, and that’s the story that gets honored. That’s the story that’s more important, and that is a violent story, and it’s one of domination, and so when we go into museums, and we see items that have a lived relationship with us, within our communities, within our homes, we see them on display as ethnographic objects. That is a reminder that our understanding of our own material culture is not the one that is important.

To prevent the continued violent ripping of the emotional life that object collections represent, the Initiative offers a range of educational support services and educational programming across present-day New England. And part of that is making sure certain words remain problematized.

endawnis Spears: We don’t like to use the term New England unproblematized. This is not problematic. Everyone calls it New England. This is OK. We sanction this term. We don’t want to use any terms that place American western understandings of our places and our culture and our communities in reference to Europe, in this case England.

Some of the services offered by the Initiative take the form of outreach programming like, “Understanding Cultural Appropriation”, or guided tours like, ​”Lessons in Radical Feminism From the Fourteenth Century” at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. The Initiative also offers consulting services, providing museums, historical societies, and cultural institutions with socially just and accurate historic information and the means with which to interpret Native collections and themes with and for Native communities.

endawnis Spears: We get to go to museums across southern present day New England and, again, look at exhibits critically. There are many museums in the area that are starting to form Native American advisory panels, and who sits on those panels is so important. I think one thing that Akomawt really is very good at is we are also part of the native communities here in the northeast, so I’m from these other tribes, but I married a Narragansett and all of my children are also Narragansett, which is a federally recognized tribe here in Rhode Island. And so I do have buy-in into this community, into the wellbeing or the representation of my children’s community.

Knowing how inaccurately museums portray your own culture, or cultures you’re familiar or interment with, how does that change how you visit museums where you don’t know much about the culture being presented?

endawnis Spears: I think that for me to say that I’m always aware of that when I go into a museum is not completely accurate, that native people, even though we know that this has been done to us, we still look to some of these institutions as places of knowledge. And I think that when I go into a museum to learn about something, there is always that question of, how did this get here? Whose was it? Who made it, but really why did they make it? What is this object’s life outside of here? And I think that I’m not always asking that question all the time, but that is a question that’s there at the back of my mind. And I think that the more that museums can bring these disembodied pieces back to a body, the better I would relate to it as a native person and as an indigenous person. I think that there’s definitely a duality at play for me when I go into a museum. It’s conflictual.

There are some newer museums that deliberately define their primary audience as members of a Native Nation. An example that just opened in Minnesota is the Hoċokata Ti (the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community’s new cultural center). There’s a touchscreen interactive media piece there that protects some information behind a code that only Nation-members know. How can practices like these change how museums have presented themselves for centuries?

endawnis Spears: That is so interesting because it asks the question, who is the primary recipient of what we’re giving in this space? Who are we pointing this space towards? Who is the orientation point? And that doesn’t mean that there can’t be other people in the space learning from that or watching that process. I think that as museums grapple with their colonizing past and the role that they played in colonizing Turtle Island, the world, being in bed with imperialism, I think that as the museum field grapples with that history, we are going to start to see museums as places where practice can be on display, so in the sense that there is an orientation towards this tribal nation. This is who we are speaking to, but the museum can point out or put on display the fact that this practice is being followed and people are in a museum using the actual practice.

The museum is speaking very directly to the practice, very blatantly using language and terminology and saying, “We have a certain group that we are prioritizing here. We want you to learn in this space, but you are not the thing that this museum revolves around,” and that in and of itself is an educational experience.

Sometimes it’s good to be disruptive in that way and that museums can be a disruptive force in that process by saying that their orientation is towards this particular community and not towards the over-culture. And I think it’s really important for white visitors to museums in a very comfortable space. They know how to interact with museums. They know how to interact with exhibits that reaffirm what they were already thinking before they went into the building. I think to disrupt that experience can be really interesting and really important, and I think that museums have an opportunity to be a really interesting disruptive tool in that process.

The Akomawt Educational Initiative lives at https://www.akomawt.org/. There, you can find a list of resources from a “guide to indigenous terminology” to readings and books organized by grade level. You can also see a list of classes and services that the initiative offers across present-day New England.

You can watch Spears in the complete proceedings of Untold Stories 2019 at untold stories dot live. Information is also available for the 2020 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah called, PRESERVING CULTURAL LANDSCAPES.

This has been Museum Archipelago.