Sunday, February 4, 2024

Another Culture

I probably have said this before but when we moved from Manhattan to the southwest it was far more culture shock than if we had moved to almost any country in Europe.

We wanted to understand the new cultures that we were encountering. Though we were both interested in the Hispanic and Native American cultures that we were being introduced to my wife concentrated on the former and I on the latter. I knew, of course that there were many Indian tribes, but I did not know that there are 574 Federally recognized Native American tribes and many others that are not recognized. Obviously, there is no way to learn everything about them, but we try to understand as much as possible, particularly about those in the southwest.

I had a friend in New York who years ago told me she was a Cherokee, a registered Cherokee. I countered that I was the son of German immigrants. That seemed to be an appropriate quid pro quo. I did not really understand the difference between just saying you are Cherokee and being registered as a member of the tribe.

According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in order to be considered Native American you must have one fourth Native American Blood and/or have membership in a government recognized tribe. If you wish to enroll in a tribe, you must first identify the tribe to which you believe you belong, establish your ancestry, and then contact them to find out what their requirements are, since each one is different.

You have probably seen the New York Times article of January 26 or similar reports that the Museum of Natural History in New York is closing its Native American galleries and many museums are putting curtains over their displays in compliance with new Federal rules requiring Native consultation before display or research of cultural items. It is possibly overdue as I have learned that here in Santa Fe, some Native parents do not want to take their children to certain museums that may have objects that according to their culture they are not allowed to see.

Many tribes have been actively trying to revive their cultures and languages that were decimated years ago by what the white man called manifest destiny. “Go west young man go west”, ---this was at the expense of those who originated here.

The new regulations require a review of museum holdings and the removal from view of any items that may offend. I have no problem understanding the desire to have human remains returned to their families and I have never understood the bizarre reasons for holding onto them in the first place.

It is more difficult, however, to know what other holdings are not acceptable. It seems that even works that are made today by Native Americans can be offensive either to their own tribe or to another. Also, different members of a tribe may disagree on what should be shown and what not. Some tribes are trying to find consensus, and many have appointed their Governor (the head of the tribe) or their Cultural Preservation Officer to speak for the tribe on these issues. Others simply do not wish to engage.

Obviously, there will be a need for each museum to find a way of coping with these issues and there are bound to be disagreements. From what I have learned the essential is to begin the process of dialog and consultations.

There is a tried and true saying that something is never as good as it seems nor as bad as it seems, and so it will be with this issue. Slowly but surely institutions will develop a methodology of how to go about respecting the beliefs of “the other”.

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