Native American Studies Department, Native American elders express dismay with Manetti Shrem exhibit

Native American Studies Department, Native American elders express dismay with Manetti Shrem exhibit

Photo Credits: LUIS LOPEZ / AGGIE

Certain items removed from exhibition  

The Native American Studies (NAS) department at UC Davis, as well as Native American elders in the Davis community, have expressed concern about the use of ceremonial objects in the Xicanx Futurity exhibition at the Manetti Shrem Museum on campus.

The NAS department alleged that it was not aware of the exhibition’s content until it opened in January of 2019. They objected to the use of ceremonial indigenous objects. These sacred objects included eagle feathers and tobacco ties.

The NAS letter cited the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as evidence of Native American cultural protocols which forbid the use of ceremonial objects as art.

“The main thrust of our concern is that [the artists in the exhibition] are using our sacred objects as art,” said Susan Reece, a Native American elder who lives in Davis. “Our religion is not art. It never has been.”

Reece alleged that the NAS department wasn’t consulted about the exhibition. “You have a world-recognized NAS department at UC Davis,” Reece said. “The experts are there, so there’s absolutely no excuse for them not to know.”

Rachel Teagle, the founding director of the Manetti Shrem, responded to the NAS allegations in an email.

“Our purpose at the Manetti Shrem Museum is to cultivate transformational art experiences to inspire new thinking and the open exchange of ideas,” Teagle said via email. “Xicanx Futurity’s guest curatorial team has helped us deliver our mission. It is not our intention nor purpose to offend and we regret when it happens. We honor the important and difficult concerns that have arisen around the exhibition. This is our work and we endeavor to deliver it with care.”

She also said that the museum does not plan on releasing a public statement about the issue. According to Teagle, a symposium is being planned to address the concerns raised.

The Xicanx Futurity exhibition was curated by Carlos Jackson, an associate professor and chair of the Chicano/a Studies department at UCD; Susy Zepeda, an assistant professor of Chicano/a Studies at UCD; and Maria Esther Fernandez, the chief curator at the Triton Museum of Art. The artists featured in Xicanx Futurity are Margaret “Quica” Alarcon, Gina Aparicio, Melanie Cervantes, Felicia “Fe” Montes, Gilda Posada and Celia Herrera Rodríguez.

“As the co-curators, we want to assure our communities that deep prayers were offered by the six featured artists,” the guest curators said in a letter. “In collaboration with the curators, the museum worked thoughtfully to support the fulfillment of the artists’ intentions […] The tensions that have arisen demonstrate the need for greater dialogue so as to encourage healing and solidarity.”

The curators objected to the characterization that the artists featured in the exhibition misrepresented indigenous identity, noting that many of their practices are rooted in ceremonial teaching from elders.

“[The artists] never misrepresented their identities,” the curators said. “Direct and indirect feedback that the curators have received from some critics of the exhibition reflects a belief that UNDRIP does not provide protection to detribalized indigenous people of the Americas (as defined by settler colonial governments), Xicanxs included.”

They also emphasized the political nature of Xicanx art and the importance of the dialogues that it can elicit, stating that, “For diasporic communities, it is a political act to affirm the right to self-determination through embodied practice.”

The NAS department said that the eagle feathers used in the exhibition are protected by both the Bald and Golden Eagle Protections Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. NAS alleged that these acts stipulate that only members of federally recognized tribes can own eagle feathers.

“According to these protocols, eagle feathers are sacred, and for use in prayer and ceremony; they are not for display in a museum,” the letter said.

According to Teagle, the artist Celia Herrera Rodríguez requested the release of the eagle feathers in her mixed media installation on March 25. The feathers have since been removed.

“The most difficult thing for me at this moment is to reckon with how [my] installation has been stripped down to its elements and objectified and that then my piece […] has been isolated from the entire exhibition […] I feel kind of taken apart and censored, at the end of it all,” Herrera Rodriguez said in an interview, referring to her installation, “Grandfather Earth”, in which the eagle feathers were previously featured.

“In an installation, all of the parts become a whole, [but here] only half is being focused on,” she added.

Herrera Rodriguez said that she had never been in direct communication with any of the people who made complaints about the exhibition. The director of the Manetti Shrem was the first to contact her regarding the accusations, she said. She also said that she later received an email from university lawyers asking her to provide the provenance of the eagle feathers used in the exhibit.

To her, the indirect nature of the accusations leveled also indicated that the curators of the exhibition had not been formally contacted by the complainants.

“As an artist, there should have been a point A, a conversation,” Herrera Rodriguez said. “A dialogue, a question directed my way if I was being discussed. My work was being discussed as an element in a museum and everything got taken apart—me, the production of my work, the piece itself, the whole exhibit.”

Herrera Rodriguez, an Oakland-based artist born in Sacramento, identifies with the Tephuanes community in Durango, Mexico. She stressed the complexity of Chicana/o identity, noting that indigenous Mexican tribes may not necessarily be federally recognized but are still provided protection by UNDRIP.

“[Chicano/as] are many people and we are affected by many different political perspectives,” she said. “And it’s a rather short conversation–we’ve only been having it for forty-five or fifty years. This is a momentous time and we deserve compassion and room amongst ourselves and within the scope of the international indigenous movement […] I get frustrated with this idea of federal identity being the only identity possible.”

Herrera Rodriguez also said that her work on the “Grandfather Earth” installation had been a meticulous collaborative effort, in which all of the pieces were handmade. She stressed that the decision to use eagle feathers had been done in good faith, and that the feathers had been given to her son, who is well-versed in ceremonial practices, by other indigenous individuals.

Native American elders in the Davis community have expressed anger about the use of the ceremonial objects.

Reece is a member of the Haudenosaunee tribe and the Odowa tribe and has been an active participant in the native community in California since the 1970’s.

“Those prayer ties originated with the Lakota people and the purpose of them is to offer tobacco when someone is sick or hurt,” Reece said. “But that practice is still ongoing and to tell people before you leave the exhibit that ‘you can make a prayer offering when [you’re] leaving,’ [that’s] not telling you [what the prayer ties] mean.”

Concerns have also been raised about the use of ceremonial practices in artist Gina Aparicio’s installation Caught Between Worlds, Praying for a Better Future. According to Reece, the installation depicted a sweat lodge, which mimics the shape of a womb and is designed to be a place of healing in a spiritual context.

“I was shocked, and I stopped in my tracks,” said Carole Standing Elk, a Native American community member in Davis. “[Aparicio] did this knowing it was controversial and that meant she sees it only as art. She didn’t see it as a practice of something spiritual or religious.”

Aparicio was unable to provide comment before this article went to press.

Standing Elk is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe. She defines her membership of the tribe, and her citizenship in the United States, as being integral to her identity.

Raised in South Dakota, she moved to Los Angeles as a high school student under the auspices of the Indian Relocation Act, and since then has been an outspoken activist for Native American rights.

“The university needs to take care of this,” Standing Elk said. “I’m not so interested in an apology as in change, as in something happening on paper, as in something being done.”

According to Reece, this is not the first time UC Davis has been involved in controversies surrounding the use of Native American objects in its campus museums.

“Two years ago there was a potlach installation, [which is] a tradition of about five or six different northwestern nations that extends right into Canada,” she said. “It’s a thanksgiving tradition and [the Manetti Shrem] made an art installation of it.”  

But this lack of cultural oversight isn’t just a problem at UCD.

“In the seventies, new agers, white people, would misuse our ways,” Standing Elk said. “We would protest that and speak against it. Now what happens [is that] it’s these people [that] we allowed into [our community] use it for art and they don’t know what it is.”

Standing Elk likened the religious practices with eagle feathers and with tobacco ties as being similar to how people might feel about other places of worship, saying that, “It’s how Caucasians feel about their churches.”

“It’s like putting the holy eucharist of the Catholic Church, putting it in a museum, and calling it art,” Reece said.

“Our beef is where does the buck stop [with this]? Who is the master? Who is the university?” Standing Elk asked.

Both Reece and Standing Elk voiced their concerns about the exhibition to the Chancellor’s Office. According to Reece, they have also consulted with tribal justice specialists at King Hall, the UC Davis law school, and with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Reece and Standing Elk are also working with an attorney.

Reece and Standing Elk said that they were referred to Wendi Delmendo, the UC Davis chief compliance officer, to address their concerns. Delmendo declined to confirm whether or not this had taken place, citing privacy policies.

Reece said that they were informed about a whistleblower policy, but they found that no university policies in place that address the issues they brought up.

“It really should be in the hands of the general council of lawyers [at the university] and they should have been involved from the very beginning—we should have been dealing with them initially,” Reece said. “The decision making has been relegated to a compliance officer.”

Both were dismayed to find that the Manetti Shrem does not currently have an in-house curator, but typically uses guest curators for the exhibitions.

“The university has been reckless and negligent about their responsibility, even to themselves,” Reece said. “I would never build a museum and not have a resident recognized curator. If they had a curator, there’d be less of an excuse for the university. They’d know the legal protections that we have and they’d be duty-bound to them.”

Rachel Teagle said the Manetti Shrem is currently in the process of hiring an assistant curator, as the previous one did not return from maternity leave.

“We hope that our demands are very simple,” Reece said. “We want the installation taken down. We want the university and the artists themselves to publicly apologize to the Native American community. The third request is to initiate written policies within the UC system so that this does not happen again. [The UC system] needs to [recognize] and [enforce] the Indian Religious Freedom Act.”

Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — campus@theaggie.org