Thursday, December 24, 2009

IndiVisible" Poses Questions on American Indian Identity
(Smithsonian Institution exhibition examines Americans' tangled roots) (877)
By Sharon Carper
Staff Writer
Washington - Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, lost his life in Boston when British troops fired on Colonial demonstrators. Decades later, during the U.S. Civil War, abolitionists cited Attucks as an African-American hero without mentioning his American Indian roots. Was he a black man or an Indian? Could he have been both?
"IndiVisible," an exhibition that opened in November at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, examines the convergence of American Indian and African-American roots across the Americas. For instance, rock star Jimi Hendrix and poet Langston Hughes are entrenched in one racial identity, but how many also know them as American Indians?
The powerful themes of "Who are we?" and "Where did we come from?" as well as "Where do we belong in society?" emerge as the exhibition challenges visitors to think beyond racial stereotypes. The Americas embrace many cultures and ethnicities, but for decades the legal rights and social rank of people not descended from European colonialists were circumscribed by law and limited by oppression.
For more than 500 years American Indians and African Americans have enriched their own lives and communities with rich cultural traditions, including music, crafts and cuisine. Their backgrounds and histories are intertwined, a phenomenon this exhibition addresses.
"There still exists a largely invisible story of America - how African and Native peoples come together across space and time to create shared histories, communities and ways of life," Gabrielle Tayac of the Piscataway tribe, the coordinating curator, told "Through centuries of struggle, slavery and dispossession, then by self-determination and freedom, African-American and Native American peoples have become, more often than publicly recognized, indivisible."
This "thought-provoking exhibit," according to Tayac, arose from the grassroots desire of indigenous people in the Washington metropolitan area. They approached the Smithsonian to share histories about their roots.
"Who are the Indians? Stand up and be counted!" Tayac heard from community members. "This was not work to be done by an 'expert' alone. Traversing the hundreds of years of racism, fear and denial, which has left communities, families and individuals deeply scarred at many levels, requires collective courage to bring a hidden history to light," Tayac said.
The National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture partnered to sponsor a collection of voices (recorded during visits around the country), clan histories, tribal stories, documents showing dispossession of lands, and stories of heroism in the face of oppression.
Twenty-seven scholars submitted papers, which for some represented the culmination of their work in cross-cultural and racial issues. Experts with roots in American Indian tribes including Hopi, Choctaw, Piscataway, Comanche and Wampanoag, as well as those with ties to the African-American experience, contributed to the exhibition.
The 20 panels or banners display four main themes: racial policy, community, creative resistance (both peaceful and militant) and life ways. Each banner raises questions that encourage discussion and social interaction among visitors.
Questions like "Who are you?" or "Who has power over you?" or "When did people start trying to control you?" are coupled with life stories of ex-slaves, interracial marriages and educational successes.
"We have no doubt that the project as a whole will be questioned and debated in multiple circles and we welcome that. 'IndiVisible' does not offer tidy solutions," Tayac said. "Material drawn from so near the heart seldom is tidy. But it begins to plumb great depths."
The exhibition includes a video produced from field visits to tribal lands and African-Native American communities in Massachusetts (the Mashpee Wampanoag community), California (Creek and Garifuna communities in Los Angeles), Oklahoma (the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah), and New York (the Tutelo Homecoming Festival in Ithaca, embracing Cayuga, Tutelo and Saponi Indian nations).
Individuals look squarely into the camera and say: "Are you white or black?"; "Be proud of who you are!"; "We need to be accepted as Native American-African-American people. ... That's who we are." One young woman, of the Wampanoag tribe, tells her story of being raised with that tribe's heritage and traditions, but being perceived in the outside world as "just another black kid."
The exhibition is scheduled to visit 10 U.S. cities and may also travel in Latin America through the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
This exhibition can affect people regardless of where they come from, Tayac said. "It's a huge part of our American landscape and heritage. It affects everyone and causes them to ask, 'Who am I and where did I come from?'" Tayac is the general editor of the exhibition book that covers many aspects of the 'IndiVisible' theme.
In the exhibition book's introductory essay, Tayac closes with these words: "IndiVisible goes beyond its subject matter. All human beings express the basic desire for being and belonging. Revealing a particular aspect of this fact through the examination of African-Native American lives can help everyone to look into their own identities, origins and the forces that make us who we are. May we all overcome with the power of love, not with the love of power."

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