For decades, a stereotypical and frequently inaccurate mindset dominated the way anthropologists and museum curators treated Native Americans in research and exhibits. But several attendees on this year’s American Anthropological Association conference noted an expanding willingness in the field to pay attention to the voices of Native peoples in the development of new museum exhibitions and in the evolution of older ones, according Inside Higher Education.
Bruce Bernstein, the National Museum of the American Indian’s assistant director for cultural resources said: “I think that people are largely enlightened now,” said Bernstein. He recalled that while presenting similar ideas on American Indian voices within museums at an American Anthropological Association conference in the early 1990s, “the crowd was not pleased.”
“If, as anthropologists, we’re really looking to work with people — to understand them better — then repatriation [of objects] is really the best thing that ever happened for museums. It puts them in one-to-one contact with the very people that they want to be in contact with and generate information about.”
Has the dialogue sometimes gone too far, Native Indians taken over the control? Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, president of the association, says why Indians still need anthropologists:
“There’s been a lot of dialogue by Native Americans, asking ‘Why do we need anthropologists to speak for us? We can speak for ourselves,’. I think that’s a legitimate question, but I think there’s an answer to it. Nobody — including anthropologists — see themselves objectively. People benefit from dialoguing with an outsiders point of view. If anthropologists are outsiders, that’s also good for Native people to be in dialogue with them. It’s also good for anthropologists.”