Big Brains podcst

Correcting History: Native Americans Tell Their Own Stories (Ep. 55)

How scholars helped a Chicago museum rethink its representation of Indigenous peoples

Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Since their inception, natural history museums have struggled with how to represent Native Americans and their culture. People from these communities are often not included in the conversation, and their artifacts can be mishandled. But the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, in partnership with the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago, is trying to change that.

A historic exhibition, Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, is the first large-scale show to be curated by an Indigenous person. Along with an overhaul of its Native North American Hall, the Field Museum is trying to address the racially insensitive past of many natural history museums by including Native Americans in the process.

We talk with the people involved in these projects, and how museums need to change for the future.

Subscribe to Big Brains on Apple PodcastsStitcher and Spotify.
(Episode published October 1, 2020)



Paul Rand: There’s an unsettling experience that only particular groups of people have likely ever had. Walking into a natural history museum and seeing your people, and your culture displayed behind a glass case. Displayed in ways that your people had no input in.

Jonathan Lear: Over time, it has become more and more evident that our culture’s manner of displaying the collections of indigenous peoples have become more and more problematic.

Paul Rand: That’s Jonathan Lear, the faculty director of the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago.

Jonathan Lear: We fund collaborative research on projects where we feel we need to bring together people from all different perspectives, and realms of life, and expertise to solve what we take to be very important problems facing the world today.

Paul Rand: One of those important problems is one we’ve been ignoring for a long time. The way Native American people are presented in museums, and whether current native populations are represented in that process. Lear is one of the people at the center of a project that is trying to correct the issue. Another is Alaka Wali.

Alaka Wali: Native communities have been insisting on being at the table in making these decisions for quite awhile.

Paul Rand: Wali is the curator of North American anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. In collaboration with the Collegium, Wali has been overhauling the Field’s Great Hall of the Americas, where indigenous populations are displayed. That massive undertaking will be preceded by one single exhibition that embodies how to address this historical problem.

Alaka Wali: This exhibition with Nina is the first major show at the Field Museum curated by a Native American curator artist.

Paul Rand: Nina Sanders is the curator of the Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, a historic exhibition at the Field Museum, put on in collaboration with the Neubauer Collegium.

Nina Sanders: I was planning this exhibition since I was a child. When we go to school, when we’re in elementary school, you never see anything in history books about indigenous people as they see themselves, or their own experiences.

Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about the pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. On this episode, we meet people trying to correct the mistakes of the past by helping create the natural history museums of the future. I’m your host, Paul Rand.

Paul Rand: We start this episode with Jonathan Lear. And the problem; how did we get here, and what can we do about the representation of indigenous peoples in museums?

Jonathan Lear: The very idea of a natural history museum is an idea that was thought up in the 19th century, at a time when the kinds of questioning we’re now doing were just not on anybody’s mind. So when you start to think about it now, it becomes incredibly puzzling, and for many Native American peoples insulting that the things they made should be collected together with dinosaurs, and dinosaur bones, and stuffed gorillas.

Paul Rand: Like “Wait, we’re alive.”

Jonathan Lear: Yes. And as my Native American friends have said to me, unlike the dinosaurs, they can talk. So the very idea of a natural history museum collecting Native American artifacts there was the idea that they were being consigned to history. That this was going to be part of the past, and that Indians were going to go away. And we wanted to capture and preserve what we thought of as a history. Something in the past, along with the dinosaurs. And so what’s at issue is not only what should a modern exhibition or a contemporary exhibition now look like, but it’s a much deeper question of; what should a natural history museum any longer be?

Paul Rand: The Field Museum is completely overhauling all of its indigenous people’s exhibits, with the explicit goal of involving indigenous voices in that process. The particular exhibition by Native American curator Nina Sanders is the first step in that process.

Jonathan Lear: The show is called Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. It’s centering around the work of the Apsáalooke Nation, also known as the Crow Indians.

Paul Rand: And familiar with the Crow Nation is not new to you, is it?

Jonathan Lear: No. I first went up to the reservation in 2004, and have been going there usually several times a year, ever since. And I wrote a book that came out in 2006 called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. And I worked through this figure of the last great chief of the Crow people was a man named Chief Plenty Coups. He was asked about this move onto the reservation. And he said “After the Buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground. They could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” And I wrote a book about that phrase, “After this, nothing happened.” I am a philosopher. I am not an anthropologist. I am not a sociologist. But in my philosophical work, I wanted to take Plenty Coups’ statement seriously, and try and imagine what it would be for things to stop happening.

Jonathan Lear: I wanted to pay him the respect of treating him as trying to say something true. It turns out that the Apsáalooke people, the Crow people began reading the book themselves, and I was invited up to the reservation to talk about the book. And I got about 20, 30 seconds into my presentation, and right in the front row, one of the tribal elders just put up his hand, and he said, “Who are your people?” Nobody had asked me that question before, but thinking on my feet, I said, “Well, I think the best answer is that I am Jewish.” And then it just came into my mind that basically the same year that this group, the Apsáalooke or the Crow were moving onto the reservation, my family was actually escaping from Eastern Europe. And I said that out loud. That began a discussion that went on for hours.

Jonathan Lear: It turned out that the people in the room were extremely interested in the Jewish people. For one great reason, which was; how is it that the Jews still are here as an existing people? They don’t know whether they’re going to be here in 50 years, and somehow after the purported destruction of our culture, the Jewish culture, and here we are. We never got to Radical Hope in that discussion, but we did ...

Paul Rand: You had a very interesting discussion.

Jonathan Lear: It was unbelievable. And the people I met that day are still my friends. My last Passover Seder had 16 Crow at the dinner table. And this is the group that is coming to contribute their art to this new show at the Field Museum. And that is, I think, another very historic step in this story, which is; not only is this show Apsáalooke Women and Warriors the first exhibition of Native American artifacts that will have a curator who is herself Native American, it’s going to be the first show in its history where their historic collection of artifacts are located in the context of the contemporary art of about 20 Crow artists and writers.

Jonathan Lear: So this is going to be an exhibition that’s very forward-looking, very much about the present creativity, and about the forward looking nature of the Apsáalooke people. And locating their history proudly, but locating it in their vision of what their past was, in terms of what their present is, and how they are living into the future.

Paul Rand: The further work of Alaka Wali is a historic change for the Field Museum and museums across the globe. But historic change doesn’t always, of course come easy.

Jonathan Lear: For many of my Apsáalooke friends and informants, they have a completely different attitude towards the artifacts. And it differs among the different types of artifacts. But there’s a question of; which artifacts, and to what degree are they spirited? Are they still alive? Do they have powers, still? And if so, what is the proper care for them? That’s a huge issue. So part of the disagreement is in the very idea of what we mean to ‘conserve’ these objects, or take good care of them.

Jonathan Lear: As I understand, from an Apsáalooke perspective, part of what it is to take good care of these objects is to use them. And it’s to use them in appropriate ceremonies, appropriate circumstances. Now, of course, using them in proper ways is going to mean wear and tear. It will mean that these objects likely won’t be here in the way that they are currently being preserved at the museum.

Jonathan Lear: So it’s not just that one side cares about conservation and the other side does not. It’s that both sides care about conservation, but they have very, very different ideas of what conservation means.

Paul Rand: So folks can come to the Field Museum and see the exhibits. It sounds like it will be terrific on a number of levels. But I think the objectives and the purpose of this hopefully doesn’t just stay in the field. It actually is something that the way that you all are thinking about this, there’s a hope, if maybe an expectation that some of the lessons learned can impact natural history museums around the world.

Jonathan Lear: Absolutely. I see this as part of a conversation. We will be part of a conversation going on around the world about how to allow cultures that are non-dominant within the larger culture to find ways of expressing their hopes, their creativity, their vision of themselves, for everybody to see and participate in, in an ongoing conversation. And I do think we have taken some very significant steps in working out how to do this well.

Paul Rand: So having it done here, was it a tough thing to ...

Jonathan Lear: I wouldn’t put it in the past tense. As all creative struggles are, there’s conflict. Creativity really emerges out of serious disagreements, and I think one of the major things we do at the Neubauer Collegium is try to create and support a safe enough space that people think “Here, we can sit around a table, and we can have forceful disagreements, but we’ll be here next week, or next month, or next year to keep talking it through.”

Paul Rand: Speaking of being in conversation, we decided to do something a little different for this episode. Because of his closeness to this process and the people involved, we had Jonathan Learear interview Nina Sanders, and Alaka Wali to better understand their stories, and these exhibits. We’ll hear from them after the break.


Jonathan Lear: Nina, I’d like to welcome you to this conversation. We’re here with Nina Sanders, who is Apsáalooke, and is a curator of a joint exhibition; Apsáalooke Women and Warriors at the Field Museum of Natural History and the Neubauer Collegium, at the University of Chicago.

Jonathan Lear: So you have this chance now to be the curator of a very new way of presenting indigenous voices within the Field Museum of Natural History. Tell me about the transition you’ve experienced. How did you take your learning experiences and translate it in to doing it the way you thought would be a good way to do it?

Nina Sanders: So I had a professor in American Indian studies who said, “I think the best thing that you can do is ask yourself the question in your own language, and then provide yourself the answer in your own language, and it will provide you with clarity.”

Jonathan Lear: So when you went to the Field Museum, what was the question you asked yourself as you were approaching this new project? You can say it in Apsáalooke, and then try and translate it for us.

Nina Sanders: What will your people see? What do your people need? And so in that, I had to think about; what is it that these objects need? Do they want to go home? What is it that they’re trying to tell us? The people who created them, as we believe, are still very much part of the life force of these objects.

Jonathan Lear: So tell me about the life force of these objects, and also really what responsibilities you have, but you think we all have to take care of these objects.

Nina Sanders: There’s a shield collection. As you know, it’s one of the things that started this exhibition. A collection of over 77 war shields that were collected in the early 1900s. They were created from visions from men. People who essentially were protecting their communities, providing for people, and protecting the land. So what these men would do is they would go out for a vision. They would fast, they would go without eating or drinking water for days, and then something would come to them. Whether it was the creator himself, they would dream something, animals would talk to them, and then they would be instructed on what to do, and how to create these objects to provide themselves with protection, and most importantly, abundance.

Nina Sanders: And once we were put on the reservation, obviously; people are starving, there’s poverty, and they all have these objects that they no longer can use, because we’re no longer riding our horses across the Plains, and so on. Enter the anthropologists, and they’re collecting for museums all over the world, and then many of them, most of them ended up at the Field Museum.

Jonathan Lear: I think one of the things I’ve learned from you is the sadness that hasn’t yet been fully worked through about the separation of these objects from their families, and that they’ve been resting dormant, and maybe unhappy, in the basement of the Field Museum. One of the things I feel I’ve learned is that the sadness needs to be faced up to. To find reconciliation you also have to be willing to put up with some conflicts, and going to the Field Museum and putting on an exhibition is a real challenge, because it seems to me that you’re trying to transform what the museum is, and turn it into a more welcoming home for the objects that are there.

Nina Sanders: Oh, absolutely. It’s painful. What we’re doing is decolonizing the institution. But what exactly is decolonizing? Decolonizing, I think, is a process that begins with mourning. And we mourn privately. My people, we don’t mourn openly. So when I first experienced or encountered these shields, it was like I was meeting my ancestors. And I think the first initial instinct is to just start crying. To weep, and to release some of that negative energy. But we wait, and we find those appropriate spaces. We feed the water, we clean ourselves off. We smudge ourselves with cedar, and bear root, and things like that.

Nina Sanders: So it isn’t something that we do publicly, and we don’t talk too much about it, because we believe that our words are sacred. When we were created as human beings; we’re the only creatures that can speak, and sing, and pray. And so we take that very seriously. And from the time we’re very small, we’re told not to cry publicly. And so it’s not appropriate for me to reiterate too much of the suffering that came to the community from the displacement of these objects. That’s the appropriate way to say it. The removal of these objects. These sacred beings, actually. And so I think as a community, we’re processing it, but most importantly, what we’re doing is; we’re turning that around, and we’re celebrating that they’re still with us.

Nina Sanders: So entering that space, we’re fortunate to have people who are incredibly open-minded, who allow us to smudge in those spaces, where traditionally, you wouldn’t be able to light anything on fire in a museum collection. To put things on display with open air. To surround them with sacred plants that should accompany them as they’re being displayed. And those sorts of acts are unheard of in museums like the Field, like a natural history, natural science museum.

Nina Sanders: So I think the flexibility and the open-mindedness of people makes the work easier. That’s not to say everybody feels the same. And so it takes a lot of time to convince people who’ve spent a great deal of their life in academia, who’ve been learning the science, and caring for these objects in the way that they should be displayed. How we should educate people about them; it’s very different. And that’s also incredibly valuable knowledge, but what’s missing is our narratives, our perspectives.

Jonathan Lear: Yeah. You talked about narrative, and the exhibition is called Apsáalooke Women and Warriors. It seems to me that one of the narratives you’re trying to restore and part of what you’re trying to teach us is that the traditional narratives about the Apsáalooke people were distorted in ways that emphasize the story of the man. Part of the exhibition is really trying to help re narrate the story.

Nina Sanders: Yeah, absolutely. The Apsáalooke people were egalitarian, until assimilation methods. Assimilation was essentially implemented through Christianity, primarily, and then politics. And when the church came in, and then the federal government came in, the instruction was “There’s no space for women in this. They need to stay home.” So before, leadership was both men and women, and when the federal government came along, they pushed women out.

Nina Sanders: And I think we were in a time of such turmoil and identity crisis that we had to just follow whatever it was we were instructed to do out of fear. What you see, what happens is; you have anthropologists and ethnographers who come into the community, and they’re writing about warfare, and your tribal warfare, warriors, war bonnets. Things of that nature. The things that you see in Hollywood. The stereotype. But what you don’t see is how women were supporting that role, and why these men were incredible warriors.

Nina Sanders: And that was taken from us. And it’s extended into modern day Apsáalooke way of life, in that we no longer have a space in politics. In leadership. Our community is led by primarily men. And then on top of that, we also have a third gender, which is [speaking in Apsáalooke], and that’s a two-spirit person. What we understand to be a person who would be part of the LGBTQ community. And these people were special, they were sacred. They’re believed to encompass the spirit of both genders, and so they were gifted in ways that may be a person who was just one gendered didn’t have. And so that was something that I felt like was incredibly important to bring back.

Nina Sanders: And for myself, I think I was planning this exhibition since I was a child. And I thought to myself, “Why don’t we come together? Why aren’t we having conversations with one another? Men and women. Why are we so separated from each other?” It all just came together. It was as if it was meant to be, because I had spent so much time in museum collections all over the country. I even saw the objects that we would display, and it was as if these ancestors, these objects, these things that I’d seen in these other collections had touched me, and spoke to me, and they made this happen. They opened these doors. They’re the things that want to be seen.

Jonathan Lear: It seems to me that this exhibition is not only historic for the Field Museum, but that it’s an important part of a conversation that is going to go on for generations, between dominant cultures and the great institutions and museums of dominant cultures and indigenous peoples. As we are stand here right now, what do you think we’ve learned, you’ve learned about how to do this well? What should we take away as best we can tell at the beginning of this exhibition to a conversation about how to do this through, around the world?

Nina Sanders: Yeah. This is a really good opportunity, and speaking to the dangers. One of the dangers is ... this is an incredible opportunity for my people of Apsáalooke, but it’s a little bit different, in that we’re emphasizing and speaking to a culture that’s very different from other indigenous cultures. So that’s one danger, is this assumption that all Native people are the same.

Nina Sanders: We come from many different backgrounds. We speak different languages. Our worldviews are very different. What is appropriate for Apsáalooke may not necessarily be appropriate for a Diné person, or a Hopi person, or an Ojibwe person. And then doing that work, it’s an investment. It takes time. And I think in order for the world to be a better place, in order for us to heal the situation that we’re in, like with climate change. If we can’t respect one another, then how can we respect the earth?

Nina Sanders: We all have agency. Whether it’s as a person who runs a podcast, or the director of an important non-profit, or a curator, or even a mother of three. We all have to understand that we have agency in this. That we can make choices that maybe the people before us decided not to. And I think in many institutions, that’s a huge risk.

Jonathan Lear: Part of it is that the institution itself needs to take that kind of a risk.

Nina Sanders: Oh, absolutely. Yes.

Jonathan Lear: Nina Sanders, thank you so much for spending time, in terms of giving. Thank you for giving this time, and thought, and to be with us and talk these issues through. And congratulations on curating this new exhibition.

Nina Sanders: [Speaking in Apsáalooke] Jonathan.

Paul Rand: As Nina Sanders said, these historic changes require an institution to take an historic risk. We’ll hear from the person at the Field Museum who’s overhauling their Native American exhibits after the break.

Paul Rand: Coronavirus is changing life as we know it on a daily basis, but how will the pandemic permanently reshape our lives in the future? What will our world look like five years from now? COVID 2025: Our World in the Next 5 Years is a new video series featuring leading scholars at the University of Chicago. They’ll discuss how coronavirus will change healthcare, international relations, education, and many other aspects of our lives. The series from the same team that brings to this podcast can be found on YouTube with new episodes released regularly.

Jonathan Lear: We are here now with Alaka Wali, who is the curator of North American anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History. Alaka, I feel that you’re living in the midst of an historical development at the Field Museum. That really the museum is in the process of thinking itself through how to be a museum in the 21st century, and that the Apsáalooke Women and Warriors project is right at the center of this free thinking, and you’re in the center of this process. What’s it like to be the curator of North American anthropology at the Field Museum at this time?

Alaka Wali: I came into anthropology in the 1970s. I came in at a time when anthropology was questioning its very foundations as a colonial discipline. And as a person from a background ... I’m from India, and aware of my own positionality within the discipline. I was very reluctant when I came to the Field Museum to even go down into the collections, initially, because they do represent this very traumatic history for the people whose heritage that is.

Alaka Wali: When we talk about representation; who gets to represent? Whose voice gets heard? If I take a tribe, “Who speaks for that tribe?” is a difficult question. And I started to think about, “Well, you can’t just ignore that we have this collection. We’re not going to give it all back. There’s too much, and people have their own conflicted views of their own heritage. What can we do?

Alaka Wali: How can we start to go beyond the trauma, or the denial of responsibility, and find a way forward to honorably provide access to the collection for the descendant communities? But also find a way that they come to life. As an anthropologist, if you are listening to people, and they’re telling you something, and there’s a reason they’re telling you something, you don’t have a choice, because that is the truth that they bring you.

Alaka Wali: So when people say these beings have a life, and need to breathe, and need to be touched, and handled, and sung to, and prayed over. If you ignore that, it’s at your own peril. The consequences are going to come one way or the other. That’s one thing, and another is; why not? Why not? Because it’s so beautiful. It’s such a wonderful way to think about what’s around us. I don’t look at a metal spoon the same way anymore. I just can’t.

Jonathan Lear: It’s been a teaching experience for you.

Alaka Wali: Exactly.

Jonathan Lear: You said at the beginning of our conversation that you found this a complex story. What’s been hard about it? The complexity, it’s a way of saying not everything has been easy for you, and what’s been hard for you?

Alaka Wali: I’ve come to understand Native North American collection, and Native North American people are not in the same relationship to the Field Museum as every other group that we have responsibility for. There has to be some more obligation to this group of people. We are on their land, and that has to be taken seriously. People want to say, “Well, if you’re going to do this with Native America, do we have to do it with the so-and-so, and the such and such?”

Alaka Wali: Eventually yes, probably. But at the moment, we have to really pay attention to what our responsibility is to the Native community. The trauma is continuing today. I mean, think about these issues of missing and murdered women. This is happening today. Think about the robbing of land to put a pipeline that could leak and cause contamination. This is happening today. This is not some historical tragedy, so we have to be cognizant of that. And that’s hard to get that message out.

Jonathan Lear: How do you think Apsáalooke Women and Warriors is helping to get that message out?

Alaka Wali: So this is another complexity surprise thing, because when we started showcasing with co-curators, Native curators, I thought “They’re going to want to hit home this message of trauma, and loss, and what these collections mean in terms of stolen heritage.” But we found that although people want to focus some on that, they more want to tell a different story, which is a story of resilience, and a story of beauty, and joy, and creativity.

Alaka Wali: So Apsáalooke Women and Warriors, the way Nina Sanders has crafted this show, curated this is really that story. Of the redefinition of what it means to be both a woman, and to be a warrior. And to find joy in spite of the massive displacement, loss, and suffering that have gone on and continue to go on. And I think that’s really the critical element, is that we’ve opened a door here. The museum is never going to be able to close that door, and they don’t want to, in all fairness. So going forward, it’s going to be exciting to see how it plays out.

Jonathan Lear: The Apsáalooke Women and Warriors exhibition is leading up to the reopening of the Great Hall of the Americas, where you’re rethinking how these collections are going to be exhibited and put on display. How has this process of putting on the Apsáalooke Women an Warriors exhibition helped you, or helped the field in it’s thinking through about how to redo its Great Hall?

Alaka Wali: Well, I think both working on the Apsáalooke exhibition and being here at the Neubauer has really forced us to rethink what it means to be collaborative. And I think that’s very critical to the new hall, because we all say we want to be collaborative. In some ways it becomes this normalized word, but collaboration is never easy. So I think being here at the Neubauer and being part of the open Fields helped me think about those complexities of collaboration and relationship.

Alaka Wali: What does that really mean? And once you’re in a relationship, you don’t just get out of it. It’s there forever. I think that has helped us think about the renovation of that hall, and learn from this experience on how to be better collaborators. And acknowledge the messiness of the process. It’s not just learning to be better. It’s just knowing that it’s not going to be some simple transaction.

Jonathan Lear: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense to me. I feel the main thing I’ve learned in my time as faculty director of the Neubauer Collegium is that you need time. And people need to be together over time, because it takes time to build up trust. And collaboration, if it’s not going to be just a cliche, does require trust. Among the things you need to trust, I think is, that the conversation will continue. That even if you have a very forceful disagreement, that there’ll be another meeting. And we’ll keep going, and the conversation is not going to end. We will continue. That seems to me, from the perspective of looking on at different groups, trying to collaborate, or learn how to collaborate, is; you need that kind of time to build up trust.

Alaka Wali: I think that’s absolutely true.

Jonathan Lear: Alaka Wali, it’s been wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Alaka Wali: Thank you.

Paul Rand: You can learn more about this important issue and see this historic show at the Field Museum of Natural History and at the Neubauer Collegium on the University of Chicago campus.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.

Episode List

What dogs are teaching us about aging, with Daniel Promislow (Ep. 133)

World’s largest study of dogs finds clues in exercise, diet and loneliness

Where has Alzheimer’s research gone wrong? with Karl Herrup (Ep. 132)

Neurobiologist claims the leading definition of the disease may be flawed—and why we need to fix it to find a cure

Why breeding millions of mosquitoes could help save lives, with Scott O’Neill (Ep. 131)

Nonprofit's innovative approach uses the bacteria Wolbachia to combat mosquito-borne diseases

Why shaming other countries often backfires, with Rochelle Terman (Ep. 130)

Scholar examines the geopolitical impacts of confronting human rights violations

Can Trump legally be president?, with William Baude (Ep. 129)

Scholar who ignited debate over 14th Amendment argument for disqualification examines upcoming Supreme Court case

What our hands reveal about our thoughts, with Susan Goldin-Meadow (Ep. 128)

Psychologist examines the secret conversations we have through gestures

Psychedelics without the hallucinations: A new mental health treatment? with David E. Olson (Ep. 127)

Scientist examines how non-hallucinogenic drugs could be used to treat depression, addiction and anxiety

Do we really have free will? with Robert Sapolsky (Ep. 126)

Renowned scholar argues that biology doesn’t shape our actions; it completely controls them

A radical solution to address climate change, with David Keith (Ep. 125)

Solar geoengineering technology holds possibilities and pitfalls, renowned scientist argues

How PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ are harming our health, with Linda Birnbaum (Ep. 124)

From kitchen pans to drinking water, dangers hidden in everyday materials, scientist warns

Master of Liberal Arts