Laura Marti – November 30, 2023
During a recent appointment with my long-time hair stylist Amy, our casual conversation steered toward a trip I took to Washington DC with my husband. While he was tied up in work meetings, I had the opportunity to explore several museums along the National Mall. They were all very eye-opening in some way. Intrigued, my stylist asked which museums I visited, and the first one that popped into my mind was the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).
Amy perked up when I mentioned it. She inquired about my thoughts on the museum, sparking a great conversation, and she soon shared that her husband is of Native American descent. That had never come up in our conversations before, so it was an opportunity to connect with her on a more personal level. I shared some insights from my visit, especially how importantly narratives played into the exhibit, and that it had shifted my perspective. I could tell that was important to her, as told me that her husband often encounters misconceptions about Native Americans that many people fail to comprehend.
WHAT ARE NARRATIVES?
Narratives are cultural ideas or stories that dominate and affect how we view or understand the world. Narratives are often described simply as “the stories we tell,” but narratives are actually more complex than that. Narratives consist of overarching stories that tell us how things came to be. More than chronological history, yet less than careful explanation, narratives give cohesion to groups and events, tying them together, giving a sense of how things happened and why people find themselves in the place that they are. How and where power is held and exercised is embedded in and supported by a society’s dominant narratives.
As persuasive as narratives may be, they are not “factual,” although they selectively draw on facts. They may seem “truthful,” yet are consistently found to tell truths that benefit the interests of some groups over others. Anytime we examine narratives in relation to marginalized people, most of the time crucial perspectives are lost and voices are silenced. Exercising caution about the narratives we hear about such groups becomes critical, because often the narrative does not really tell “their” story. Instead, the ones we come to hear reflect the interests of the most dominant and powerful groups, given their extensive platforms and resources to disseminate these stories widely and loudly.
WALKING THROUGH THE TREATY EXHIBIT
The exhibit that particularly caught my attention in the museum was Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Treaties lie at the heart of the relationship between Indian Nations and the United States, and the Nation to Nation exhibit is the story of that relationship, including the history and legacy of US–American Indian diplomacy from the colonial period through the present.
This NMAI video gives a brief intro:
The exhibit sets up a walkthrough of this history as side-by-side comparisons of how Native Nations saw an historical event or issue vs. how European Nations or the United States saw those same events or issues. The two viewpoints provide competing narratives. I found this especially helpful in my learning journey. Understanding the Native perspective helps me move away from the narratives I was taught in school about the colonization of our country being “good” as the only way to view our history. It helps me move toward a more holistic, inclusive, and truthful history that doesn’t idealize the traditional American perspective. Although my teachers never explicitly stated this, I absorbed the belief that Western society’s governmental structure was superior, while the Native way of life was deemed inferior and not worthy of our respect.
Anita Foeman, professor emeritus of intercultural and organizational communication from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, said this about the dominant narratives in our history:
The invention of the “white” narrative was so powerful that the narrative of a “mainstream American culture” supplanted all others, and all other narratives, when not silenced completely, were framed by that master narrative. The black experience was defined by slavery, the Native American by reservations, Wounded Knee, the Trail of Tears and the like, Latinos by bandits and outlaws, and Asians by railroads and concentration camps. Other independent self-defining stories were eclipsed.
The exhibit’s conflicting narratives revealed a new perspective on Native culture compared to what I was taught growing up. It challenged the notion that Western societal norms were inherently superior. The traditional narrative depicting Native peoples as savages obstructing progress and land acquisition (“The Indian Problem”) perpetuated the myth of white supremacy. considering the viewpoints of Native Nations highlighted the validity of diverse ways of life. Embracing this paradigm shift allows us to recognize that our own cultural practices are not the sole or superior options. By opening ourselves to different perspectives, we acknowledge the inherent dignity shared by all humanity.
THE HEAVY HISTORY
As I walked through the exhibit, the significance of the treaties in shaping our history weighed heavily on me. There were approximately 374 treaties that were ratified between the United States and Native Nations. In the early days of the republic, treaties were considered by both sides to be serious, diplomatic agreements based on the recognition of each nation’s sovereignty. As “Nation to Nation” documents the history of treaty-making, it was clear that there was a sacredness with which Native Nations regarded treaties. Unfortunately that same view did carry through for the U.S. as the U.S. moved into the 19th century.
It was a gut punch to stand in the quiet of the museum and read how many treaties were signed and then broken by the U.S. government. As settlers wanted more and more land, Indian tribal leaders often were forced to sign under threat. Sometimes the U.S. appointed an American to represent a Native Nation so they could get what they wanted. Whatever the tactics, the U.S. used coercive treaties to dispossess Native Americans of their lands. But throughout the 20th century Indian Nations successfully fought court and legislative battles for federal recognition of their treaty rights. Treaties still define the mutual obligations between the United States and Indian Nations today, and Native Americans continue to work hard to hold the U.S. government to their agreements.
A NATIVE PERSPECTIVE
The United States is built on a series of master narratives that are pervasive across all aspects of our society, from the “discovery” of America through “manifest destiny” to ideas about American exceptionalism and the primacy of “market freedom” at almost any cost. But this country is just as much constructed out of the narratives that aren’t told, stories about stolen Native American lands and stolen Black bodies and labor that get swept under the rug or dismissed. For more than 500 years, this worldview has portrayed Native peoples and Black peoples as less than human and has justified their genocide, forced removal, enslavement, and criminalization for the higher good, “safety,” and progress of this country.
HOW CAN WE HELP?
Crystal EchoHawk goes on to describe how research has shown the scope of the problem, and has also shown the path forward to changing the narrative about Native Nations. She proposes that the path forward toward changing the dominant narrative for Native peoples is to increase their visibility, amplify accurate representations, and build their presence in key sectors of society and institutions.
We need contemporary stories by and about Native peoples. We have to increase the representation of Native peoples in popular culture. We need to elect Native representatives to local, state, and federal government so that Native people can be included. We need K-12 schools to provide quality and culturally competent education that teaches both an accurate history of Native Americans in this country but also educates students about tribal sovereignty, contemporary issues, and the contributions of Native peoples.
If you are a non-Native like me, we can also help by learning the truthful Native history as American history, teaching our children the true stories of Thanksgiving, Columbus, and the harm that colonialism has done. We can learn about and support their movements for water rights, reclaiming land, Reclaiming Native Truth, and others. We can listen to Native voices, read Native authors, and elevate their stories.
I am so grateful for the visit to the NMAI and the conversation it allowed me to have with Amy. The persistent and false narratives about Native people like her husband only serve to cause them harm, make them feel invisible, reduce them to stereotypes, and deny their humanity. They keep the larger society from benefiting from the wisdom, perspectives, and leadership that Native Americans can bring to find solutions to our country’s most critical issues, such as how to care for our environment.
Native peoples want to change the narratives – they want to write their own stories. But replacing the old story will take ALL of us working together, helping to elevate Native peoples and their voices.
If we are to build a more diverse, inclusive society where the dignity of all people is realized, then we must be more discerning of the narratives we hear and believe, and diligently seek out the full and honest truth. When people begin to believe false narratives, it changes their opinions and feelings about others who may be different, and can quickly lead to prejudice, discrimination, and hatred. But we can build a society where all people are valued and all voices are heard.
The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History (The Henry Roe Cloud Series on American Indians and Modernity) | Ned Blackhawk | Yale University Press | April 25, 2023
Science and Magic: DNA and the Racial Narratives that Shape the Social Construction of Race in the USA | Anita Foeman | Digital Commons @ West Chester University of Pennsylvania (2009)
Rethinking Race: The Sociology of American Indian Identity Enid Logan, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota
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