I remember going on a field trip when I was in preschool in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
An instructor had one of my classmates try on a traditional Pueblo dress. While explaining when and where Indigenous people would wear a dress like this, the instructor gave me and my classmates a history lesson — when, in reality, I had a dress just like this at home and often wore it for traditional ceremonies.
In history books, at historical sites, and in museums, Native people are often framed as a people who participated in the making of America but who no longer exist in modern American society. This rhetoric is harmful to the way we view the history of this country and this land, but it is incredibly common at many museums, historical sites, and interactive exhibits — many that wish to serve the purpose of educating children.
My lens as a Native person has always been unique. I don’t really look white, but I don’t really look Pueblo, either. Once, when I was 5, a friend’s mother asked me if I was a “feather or dot Indian,” meaning she wanted to know whether I was Native American or East Indian, asking me to choose to identify myself through one of two reductive symbols of two very different groups of people. It took me a long time to identify things like this as micro-aggressions, but they did make me hyper-aware of when I was the only Native person in the room.
On the day that my mother, Deb Haaland, was sworn in as one of the first two Native American congresswomen in history, alongside Sharice Davids, this became more apparent to me than ever. The significance of her winning this election reached far beyond our New Mexico congressional district, and even beyond Indian Country as a whole. As we walked through the underground tunnels of the Capitol and made our way to the U.S. House floor, people literally stepped aside to watch my family and me in our traditional regalia. I realized that this could have been the first time people on Capitol Hill had really seen that we are still here.
After decades of oppression, my mother blazed a trail from New Mexico all the way to Washington, D.C. Her grandmother had been taken from her home when she was 8 and put in a boarding school to be assimilated into white Christian culture. Now my mom has the chance to make laws that protect children.
Being the small-town millennial that I am, I was obliged to share the excitement of the week on my Instagram. I invited folks to follow me as I attended a tea hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, snapped a selfie with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and even met actor Mark Ruffalo at a beautiful reception thrown in honor of my mom and Sharice.
Then, over the next three days, came an enormous speed bump. All of the freshman members of Congress, along with their families, were invited to Williamsburg, Virginia, for a New Member Seminar. While members attended workshops, family members were given options for activities, including historical tours of the area. One was at Jamestown Settlement, a “living history” museum near the site of America’s first permanent English colony.
I saw several signs with information that claimed, “Africans were brought to Virginia...this process helped shape African-American culture,” and that read, “The founding of Jamestown sparked...cultural encounters that helped shape our nation and the world.” I came upon an exhibit that showed figures of Powhatan people in a glass case, seen hunting, gathering, carrying babies on their backs, living their lives as they would have before Europeans arrived.
I stood at the back of my group and fought the urge to correct our guide, demanding that they speak the truth about atrocities committed against Natives and Africans. I was suddenly brought to tears, both by the thought of pre-colonization and by the concept that this is how Indian people are still showcased: as primal, exotic attractions. These people, my people, continue to be talked about like far-off legends who lived in the past and no longer exist.
Walking outside, I saw a sign pointing toward an “Indian Village.” I braced myself behind a group of excited children as we proceeded, and then I was shocked to see multiple employees, several of whom appeared to be white, dressed as Indians in buckskin robes, rattlesnake tails, and red face paint.
I stood in disbelief at this bizarre display — it occurred to me that curations like this may be common near the East Coast, but I had never seen anything like this in New Mexico, where people of color are a huge part of the culture and are often given avenues to tell their own stories.
There are many reasons why this type of display isn’t okay. First, it promotes the idea that Native people are extinct. By employing people who appear to be white and having them dress up in traditional Native attire, some museums have blatantly disrespected the significance that these things once held for Indigenous people. If European settlers hadn’t attempted genocide on tribes like the Powhatan, then maybe any living descendants would have a strong enough sense of community to take ownership over their own history. So many children grow up learning this Eurocentric, masculine, biased version of history, and they have to wonder where they fit in if they are not shown that their identity is valid.
Similar to blackface, these types of exhibits make a mockery of Indigenous identities. The reason we wore our traditional clothes to the swearing-in was to honor our ancestors. It’s not okay to dress up, using another culture as a costume. It’s not okay on Halloween. It’s not okay at Coachella. It’s not okay in a history museum.
Finally, it’s just unnecessary. There was already a plethora of things in this museum that framed the history of Virginia as though the three cultures of Africans, Natives, and Europeans miraculously came together to form America, thus willfully ignoring the enslavement and brutality that was committed. I don’t expect many places to be as honest and as tactfully curated as I found the National Civil Rights Museum to be, but it’s still perfectly achievable to narrate a people’s history while wearing regular clothes.
I realize that the whitewashing of history is due to centuries of biased accounts being passed down through generations, and it takes a lot of work to destroy such widely accepted versions of "truth." Throughout my mother’s campaign, I saw many comments from people on the Internet that alluded to the question of why her ethnicity matters. Many passed it off as “identity politics.” It matters because so much of America still sees us as savages in glass cases and our traditional dress as costumes to be worn. My mother, standing on the floor of the U.S. Congress in moccasins and turquoise jewelry, is a tangible symbol that we have survived. It’s past time for us to take ownership of our history, and the beginning of the 116th Congress is the perfect place to start.
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