Lindsey Willow Smith – “Native Intern in a Native Collection”

“this is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.” 

This is a line from the poem “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” by Adrienne Rich, which was later used as the title of an article about naming authorities at the University of Denver, which was where I first read it. I thought of this line every day while I worked at various museums at the University of Michigan, and use it now to frame this blog post. 

While I interned at the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, I worked with a collection of Anishinaabe basketry, cataloging, photographing, and occasionally cleaning them. As an Anishinaabekwe (Anishinaabe Woman) and citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, it was an honor to work with a collection of objects made by my ancestors, to hold baskets with Indigenous knowledge woven into them. However, it was still difficult to remove myself from the museum work at times, to sit and type the technical language into the computer for the database, and to lock the baskets in a dark cabinet at the end of the day. 

I spent a year working with another Native woman at the Clements Library, curating the exhibit “‘No, not even for a picture’: Re-examining the Native Midwest and Tribes’ Relations to the History of Photography.” We created an exhibit based on the Pohrt Collection, a set of approximately 1000 images of Native peoples sold by Richard Pohrt to the Clements Library. It was wonderful to be able to create something like this exhibit that viewed photography of Native, and specifically Anishinaabe, people critically, but at the end of the workday I was usually drained and would spend the evening lying on my couch hoping I had done the right thing. A phrase we, the Anishinaabe, use is to walk in a good way. I always wondered if I had walked in a good way with my work when the end of the day came around. 

This feeling of desperation is known well by Native folks in museums, constantly considering the intersection of work and identity. It can be harrowing and painful to work in museums that house images or objects used by the ancestors. It can also be incredibly rewarding and provide a life purpose. The respect I give these objects, the reverence they have to me, made the work rewarding but also challenging at times. I constantly wondered if others understood the importance of having these objects in the museum. I knew others did not view them in the same way I did, but I wondered if they understood how profound it was for me, as a person from a traditionally oppressed minority, to be able to work with objects from my own culture. In writing this blog post, I write in the oppressor’s language, but I am able to talk to you about what these objects and experiences mean. 

Museum work, while rewarding, can be taxing emotionally. With museums beginning to recognize how valuable Indigenous perspectives are, I implore readers to keep in mind that these perspectives have a non-monetary cost to those providing them. It was not the same for my non-Native co-workers to work with these objects as it was for me—the emotional exhaustion was not there for them at the end of the day in the same way. Recognizing this labor, and referring to it as labor, is necessary for those working as museum practitioners. In a White-dominated field on the verge of major shifts in how differing perspectives and identities are considered (just look at what UMMA has done in the past few years), I hope museum studies students and other reading this blog post are able to recognize that it is not only important to get people from different backgrounds working in museums but to give respect and care for what those people need to feel comfortable. There is no monetary value to my perspective, but respect is needed for me to share it with you. This is the oppressor’s language, yes, but I use it to talk to you. Please listen. 

What can be done to respect perspectives in museums? 

Some steps have already been taken by the University of Michigan that allow for people of minority identities to feel more comfortable in museums, such as the smudging protocol for UM buildings. In some of my previous work I have done for the Clements, I helped create a worksheet guideline for making land acknowledgments that some departments have been using in the past year. In less formal observances, everyone I have worked with over my undergraduate years was incredibly willing to learn what they could do to make room in their museums for more perspectives. With that in mind, here are a few helpful ideas that I hope benefit those who read this blog: 

  • Recognize that emotional labor is labor. The stress of doing certain work relating to one’s ethnicity is a different kind of labor than just physical work. Emotional labor cannot be repaid in the same way and needs to be appreciated and respected. 
  • Understand that museum work is a process, not a result. There will always be more work to do in museums, and will never be “done.” It is important that this work is done in a good way and not rushed. Listen when others are providing their perspectives, and sit with the knowledge that is shared. Vocalize that you appreciate the gift of others’ perspectives, and provide them the room in the conversation to share their perspectives. In return, you will have room to share yours too. 
  • Consider how your own background contributes to the work you do. As a Native person who has worked extensively with Native objects in museums, the link between my identity and my work is quite obvious. However, we all have links between what our work is and what our identity is. 

With these few ideas to keep in mind, I hope students in Museum Studies as well as others reading this blog can begin to recognize how they can improve the museums they work in by providing space for others’ perspectives. From directors and curators down to student interns, this is something that can be kept in mind at all levels. This is the oppressor’s language I am using to get this point to you, but it does not need to be used to oppress. Use this language, use your voice to accept and learn. Miigwetch.

Lindsey Willow Smith

Lindsey Willow Smith is an enrolled citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and received her B.A. in History and Museum Studies at the University of Michigan in 2022. She was one of two student co-curators at the Clements Library on the project No, not even for a picture and has also curated for the Saginaw Art Museum. Raised in Michigan’s lower peninsula by her White mother and urban Chippewa father, she embraces her identity as a researcher in social sciences and museum studies.