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Just a Little Respect

Minority cultures recognize disrespect, for they encounter it often. It is fairly easy for the museum, representing as it so often does the values of the dominant culture, to slip into unintentional disrespect for other cultures. But it is also fairly easy to communicate respect. When exhibiting material aspects of cultures, it is essential that the museum send messages respectful of that cultural group. You must let them know that you did your homework — that you asked questions and really listened to the answers.

In October, 1994, the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, South Dakota, opened a new permanent exhibition entitled “Oyate Tawicoh’an” (The Ways of the People). “Oyate Tawicoh’an” examines Sioux culture through the four cardinal virtues of their society: generosity, courage, fortitude, and wisdom. It presents the Sioux as a living In “Oyate Tawicoh ‘an, ” visitors learn that the buffalo has spiritual, as well as practical, significance for the Sioux people. photo: S.D. State Historical Society, Robert Travis culture by taking the Sioux point-of-view, using the Sioux language in text and audiovisual programs, offering traditional Sioux stories, and by displaying objects in a new and different context. Our educational goals for the exhibit also reinforced the idea that the Sioux culture is vibrant and alive; that it is better explained using its own societal guideposts; that there are genuine, explainable cultural differences between the Sioux and non-Sioux; and more generally, that simple objects can have complex meanings. [To learn more about this exhibition and its educational objectives, read Ms. Nicholson’s article, which appeared in the Winter 1994 issue of The Docent Educator.]

Although we do not know for certain how our educational goals are being met, there is one message that our visitors seem to take away from the exhibition. That message is “respect” — respect for a people, respect for a culture, and respect for the intelligence of our visitors to sort it all out. We attempted to convey this respect in a number of ways.

Communicating respect to museum visitors through exhibits and programs begins in the planning process. When planning “Oyate Tawicoh’an,” the museum staff worked in partnership with a committee of Sioux advisors. These advisors learned very quickly that we intended for them to make a significant contribution to the “design” of the exhibit and not to act as rubber stamps. Chair of the Indian Advisory Committee Martin Brokenleg later told me he felt from the beginning that we would take his comments seriously. He said he understood this as much from our body language as from our comments and questions.

The museum also communicates respect to its visitors by being “accessible” in the broadest sense of the word. Did you have the visitor in mind as you designed the exhibit, the programs, and the tours? Will people who are not of the culture presented feel as if they are invited in? Does your presentation convey an exclusivity? Can docents speak knowledgeably about the culture, and do they do so without judgment?

Because many of our visitors cannot “read” objects, the words we use are of great importance. We attempted to use language and words in “Oyate Tawicoh’an” in ways that communicate respect.

“Look at this!” an Indian visitor said to me when explaining his comfort in our gallery. “This is my language.” The visitor’s delight in seeing objects from his culture named in his language, or hearing people speak the language, should not have been a unique experience for him, but it was. The use of native languages in exhibits and programs is a daunting task, because of the difficulties in spelling, pronunciation, and translation. It is, however, respectful. In our case, not using the language would have perpetuated the notion that the Sioux culture is a thing of the past.

Beyond using the language, however, you must ensure that translations are correct. It is a difficult task to translate anything, but if you do it accurately, imagine the positive impression it will have on visitors from that culture. It speaks volumes about your willingness to find and work with native speakers.

On the same subject, selecting the appropriate name of an Indian tribe may also be fraught with the peril of disrespect. Many Indian tribes in the United States bear unflattering names that they did not give themselves. The Sioux, for example, were named by the French, in a corruption of an Ojibwa word meaning “snakes.” The Sioux name for themselves is “Oceti Sakowin” (the seven council fires), which we used. What you choose to call your subject sends a powerful message.

The “language of respect” avoids using loaded words. Is “horse stealing” really theft as Europeans understand it, or in this cultural context could it mean something else? Perhaps there is a more appropriate term to use? Did the Sioux avoid menstruating women because they are “unclean?” In Sioux society, they are avoided because during their monthly cycle they are considered extremely powerful. When confronted with loaded words in anthropological texts, ask your advisors. Perhaps it is the anthropologist who has misunderstood. Or, perhaps the translation is simply incorrect.

For instance, Tasunka Kokipapi had a reputation for keeping fine horses. His name translates as either “The Young Man of Whose Horses They [the enemy] Are Afraid,” or “Young Men Fear His Horses.” For years, though, this Oglala man has been referred to in books and by museums as “Young Man Afraid of His Horses.” The difference, of course, is enormous.

When it comes to cultural objects, generally only members of that culture are likely to recognize sacred or sensitive objects and their disrespectful treatment. This is another instance in which advisors can play a key role. In our case, advisors told us that it would be acceptable to exhibit pipes — instruments of prayer in Sioux culture. However, they advised that the bowl and stem should be separated, and that they should properly be displayed on a bed of sage — a cleansing herb.

We were also told that it was acceptable to exhibit a “medicine bundle.” This particular bundle was an herbal healing kit rather than a sacred bundle. In another instance, advisors recommended that a small ball used in a sacred ceremony rest on a red cloth, as a way to further indicate its sacredness. It is possible that you may have sacred objects in your collection that would not be appropriate to show. In the United States, many of these objects may eventually be subject to repatriation. If your advisors tell you not to show an object, then it is prudent to respect their wishes. Although any or all of this may be lost on a non-Indian visitor, it is still important to communicate this message of respect for sacred objects.

Art communicates. In “Oyate Tawicoh’an,” we deliberately did not use the works of non-Indian artists to illustrate the exhibits. To have used the works of George Catlin or Karl Bodnier would have sent the wrong message. The use of winter count symbols, pictographs, and even the drawings of Sioux children powerfully suggests just whose “voice” it is the visitor is hearing; just who owns the exhibit. None of this is made explicit, but Indian visitors do notice.

Finally, devise an organizing principle that suits your subject. It is respectful to demonstrate that you have thought about the culture you are exhibiting or touring, rather than trying to shoehorn it into an ill-fitting framework. The exhibit should meet the needs of the culture you are presenting. For “Oyate Tawicoh’an” that meant organizing the exhibit and tours around the four cardinal virtues of Sioux society. Our Sioux visitors are pleased to see the virtues mentioned as cultural imperatives. Immediately, it gives them confidence that we made it our business to find out who they are. For other cultural groups, there may be many valid organizing principles, but the traditional anthropological approach need not always be considered best.

A person with an open and curious mind will find that respecting other cultures is easy. And, when one can respect the differences between cultures, it is not too far a leap to understand their similarities. Museums can be instrumental in helping visitors make this leap. One Indian visitor told us that “not too many museums are as respectful of my culture.” It is never too late to change.

Claudia J. Nicholson is Curator of Collections for the Cultural Heritage Center Museum, a program of the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre, South Dakota. She received her B.A. in history from Mary Washington College and an M.A. in History Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. Prior to moving to South Dakota, Ms. Nicholson was an exhibits specialist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Nicholson, Claudia J. “Just a Little Respect,” The Docent Educator 5.3 (Spring 1996): 6-8.

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