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Sharing Authority with Indigenous Peoples

Category: On-Demand Programs: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
Screenshot of the video Sharing Authority with Indigenous Peoples

Museums are in the early stages of repairing their relationships with Indigenous communities, learning how to undo some of the harm resulting from traditional museum practices. In this session, we will hear how two museums have “flipped the script,” ceding power, authority, and voice to the Indigenous peoples’ whose stories they tell.

Moderator: Elizabeth Merritt, VP Strategic Foresight & Founding Director, CFM, American Alliance of Museums

Speaker: Nicole Armstrong-Best, Director, S’edav Va’aki Museum (formerly Pueblo Grande Museum)


  • Dawn DiPrince, President/CEO & State Historic Preservation Officer, History Colorado
  • Caitlin Dichter, Exhibit Designer, S’edav Va’aki Museum


Elizabeth Merritt: Welcome to the session of Sharing Authority with Indigenous Peoples, I’m Elizabeth Merritt, vice president and founding director for the center of future museums here at the alliance. I have the honor of moderating this discussion today. Before we dive into the session, I wanted to alert you to two related resources.

It’s in your digital eBag for the conference but I want to take a minute to remind you just because it’s in your eBag doesn’t mean it automatically follows you home. To download it into your computer, click on the eBag in the upper right‑hand nav bar, then click on documents, then open a document using the view button. Make it full screen and you can hit the download button, a down arrow in the upper right‑hand corner and it will be living on your computer.

There’s going to be a discussion breakout about the report at 3:45 p.m. today, just after this session where I’ll be joined by Steve Nash, director of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to discuss the report with attendees. You may have noticed we had some technical difficulties with the breakouts, today we’re going to try to run them in a Zoom meeting. Hoping it will be a better experience. When you finish this session and click on the breakout it should take you into the Zoom room, cross fingers.

I also want to give you a heads‑up that the latest addition of “Museum” magazine which is in the mail right now and possibly already in your mailbox is also devoted it to this topic, includes an article from Dr. Nash on involuntary repatriation and the return of ceremonial items to Yaki communities in Mexico. Victoria Reed from fine arts Boston wrote an art on prof essence and institution and staff at the McClung Museum to reshape the museum’s exhibits. Hope you will enjoy that in your inbox.

Now, it is my pleasure to introduce our panel today. Nicole Armstrong‑Best was named S’edav Va’aki Museum administrator in December 2015. She previously served as the chief of community stewardship at Arizona state parks which included responsibility for archeology, collections in curatorial support, volunteer and non‑profit engagement and educational programming. She has spent over 20 years supporting the preservation and interpretation of cultural resources in Arizona. With degrees and certifications in archeology, museum studies, volunteer management and non‑profit executive leadership she has worked to engage all types of communities in cultural resource management work.

Caitlin Dichter is an exhibits designer and she has been with the S’edav Va’aki Museum since 2021 first as the aide and designer. She’s worked at a variety of museum spaces including the Arizona Jewish Historical Society the bard graduate center gallery in New York City, the torpedo art gallery in Alexandria and the numismatics at the Smithsonian museum of natural history. Caitlin has earned a MA in museum studies from Georgia Washington University and an MA in decorative arts from the bard graduate center. In addition to the indoor galleries at S’edav Va’aki Museum Caitlin also oversees the outdoor interpretive spaces. Dawn DiPrince is President and CEO at History Colorado in Denver and Colorado’s State Historic Preservation Officer. For over a decade at History Colorado DiPrince has been a leader innovator in community centered museums with large history‑based museums including the nationally recognized border lands of southern Colorado, hands down history, youth education program designed to meet the needs of rural students with four‑day school weeks, and museum of memory, a growing public history initiative that works together with Colorado residents to reanimate and center histories that have been intentionally marginalized. She has collaborated with her team communities and tribal nations on exhibits such as unsilenced, indigenous enslavement in southern Colorado and the Sand Creek Massacre, the betrayal that changed Cheyenne and Arapaho people forever. Join me with welcoming panelists with Dawn DiPrince coming to the stage next. Thank you.

Dawn Diprince: Thank you, Elizabeth and good afternoon everyone. Yes, I am here representing not just my work but the work that our organization has done in collaboration, in consultation with a number of communities and I’m very honored to share this with all of you.

So, I always like to think about this quotation from Milan Kundera, a Czechoslovakian author, the struggle of man against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting. So, something, I think about often, that it is important for us to think about the power dynamics that exist when we are talking about who gets to remember and whose memory is considered worth, you know, worth collecting, worth our historic record. I bring this up because even in the midst of all of the work that we have been doing in this realm, we hear quite often from people that the work we do with community whether it’s in collaboration or consultation is still not the real history, you know, the real history, so to speak, exists in our, you know, our official documents, those sorts of things. I think it’s really important for us, of course, to push back against these notions ‑‑ excuse me ‑‑ and really be clear around what the power dynamics are in thinking about who has the right to remember and whose memory is considered valid.

I wanted to share with you one of the things that I will be sharing with you is an exhibition that we opened last November on the Sand Creek Massacre, the deadliest day in Colorado’s history. This exhibition first opened when the History Colorado center opened over ten years ago. And the exhibition immediately faced critique, valid critique that we did not properly consult with the tribes that were most impacted by this horrific episode. We eventually after an outcry the organization had to close the exhibition and start over. That started a 10‑year‑plus journey with History Colorado, the state of Colorado, as well as the northern Cheynne and Arapaho tribes, and southern. After ten years of rebuilding our relationship and very deep consultation around, you know, what this history deserves and then eventually the development of an exhibition we were able to open the exhibit in a way that our tribal patterns, tribal representatives felt good about.

These are two headlines essentially 10‑year difference that helps to illustrate that.

Part of what was required for us to move forward in this work was to create a formal government‑to‑government, the state historical society, we are a state agency. So this really was a memorandum of understanding between our government, the government of Colorado with the tribal governments, for those tribes that I just mentioned. This created a very formal for who was supposed to be at the table. It really defined the who and how of how we were going to have this conversation and who should be present for the conversation. Each tribal government was asked to select and name formally two representatives from each tribe and those were named by the elected governments of ‑‑ elected government officials and so those were the formal members of the consultation team, that formal designation was very important, sometimes formality can be limiting. Actually, it was the framework created the right space and the right dynamics for us to really move forward in a positive way.

So why is consultation important beyond what I just shared? This is really an important way of doing the work because it truly acknowledges the sovereignty of tribal nations. Whenever we are able and whenever it is appropriate, we must work in this very formal government‑to‑government way.

Beyond the formality of it, there is, of course, a spirit that is important to bring to the work. And probably most important truly is this commitment to the journey. And by that I mean practicalities around time, consultation really, for the most part, needs to be able to take the time it needs to take. And commitment to the journey. And by that I mean we don’t always know where the path is going to lead us. And we need to be open to where the consultation takes us.

So one of the things, when I talk about consultation with people, is that oftentimes there’s an assumption that consultation is advisory that we and, you know, we’ve all done this where we worked with groups who are advisory, but this is very different. It is a shared decision‑making. Decisions are made in this space. We are not making decisions and then bringing it to an advisory group to get a blessing. We really are making the decisions as a group when we are in consultation. So it is not advisory. That is a ‑‑ I think a very important distinction. I love this photograph that I’ve got here. I think it really helps to illustrate to what these consultations look like. In this image, we are actually collectively working on the label copy for the exhibition. And every single word in this exhibit was consulted on. Every element of the exhibition, colors, the flow, the traffic, how we are telling the stories, how much space we devote to each thing, all of that was decided in this shared decision‑making space of consultation.

Here is our introductory label to the Sand Creek Massacre exhibition. What you can see, I don’t know how visible it is on everyone’s computers but this I think is a really excellent example of co-authorship. I am always intrigued by the idea of how authorship and authority are, of course, words that are connected here. You can see in this text that there are ‑‑ that it is written in the plural first person. And so the three tribal nations and their representatives worked together, this is their voice, it is written in their voice some of this we think about, too, is co-authorship between museum or institution and tribal groups but we’re talking about four distinct groups here, the museum and three different tribal nations. So to come to consensus in co-authorship for every single word, that can take time. People don’t ‑‑ you know, we’re not always in agreement about the heft or detail of certain words. So this label I think is just a beautiful expression of what that co-authorship can really behold.

Another thing that we have learned, in some ways we know intuitively, that, you know, it can be really tempting, as an institution or a museum, to think of this work just based on projects. Like projects can be ‑‑ projects are always time‑bound. But we are building relationships with different communities, and relationships are truly forever. So, I think it’s really important if you’re going to engage in this kind of work that you don’t just think about this as a project. That you are really building a relationship and projects will be expressions of your work with each other. And so earlier, when I talked about a commitment to a journey, I think this is an important part of it. You need to make sure, as a museum or institution, that you are willing and committed to this, you know, for ‑‑ for infinite, if that can exist in our work. But really in terms of resources and time and staffing, you need to be mindful that this needs to be built into the thinking.

You know, this is from another exhibit that we currently have on at the History Colorado center. It is revolt. It is about the pueblo revolt of 1680 and through an indigenous futurist lens. The center of the photo is the brilliant artist, internationally known and based at the (saying name) pueblo in (saying name) pueblo in New Mexico is Virgil Ortiz. And we worked very closely with Virgil on the development of this exhibition and part of the power of this work, again, is this idea of a commitment to a journey. We really knew we had wanted to collaborate with Virgil. And we, you know, we had some ideas, of course, that we brought to the table, but we did not have a preconceived conclusion of what this should ultimately look like. Again, in these collaborations it’s important that decisions are made together. It isn’t that the institution makes a decision and hopes collaborating parties will come along. We really want to be in a shared decision‑making space with people we’re working with.

And I also love this photo because this is a team of his ‑‑ just some of the team of his creative collaborators, he’s such a good example of what honest collaboration, the beauty of honest collaboration.

I think this is a photo from an installation at our Fort Garland Museum in southern Colorado. It is an exploration of the topic of indigenous captivity in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

This is an exhibit that in effect, I like to call it an installation, I like to make the distinction because this is an installation in a way that admits what it does not know. It presents historical evidence as a way to continue the conversation. In this photo you will see Teresa Mastes, a resident of southern Colorado, and this is a photo of her ancestor Maria Atec Gallegos who was enslaved by a local family in southern Colorado. We have been able to work with Teresa around this photo, around a documented oral history of her ancestor. And so we are able, through this installation, to build more connections with people whose history this is that, again, not just connections to us as an institution but the community whose history this is have been able to build connections to each other. And in many ways this has been helping people to build in the gaps of what they know about their own familial history as it helps us as a state to build in the gaps of what we don’t know about this history as well.

Oh, my little thing is not working. Here we go. Oh, and then it worked too fast. So just this last ‑‑ maybe a week or two ago, we helped to participate in the healing run. This is something that has gone on for a number of years, led by the Cheynne and Arapaho tribes. They run, it’s a very significant journey they run from the Sand Creek Massacre site in southeastern Colorado to Denver. And the attempt is around this idea of healing. Otto Braided Hair from the northern Cheyenne was here and gave a speech on the steps of the state capitol just, you know, two weeks ago, Sunday, October 22nd. And he asked us to contemplate this question, he asked the audience to contemplate this question. And I think it’s a powerful one. How can we create healing. Of course, this isn’t something, you know, we talk a lot about this internally. This is not something, of course, museums and institutions can decide for communities. Even communities that we work closely with. But I think it’s an important question to guide our work.

I also want to point out the photograph that is seen on the slide here. This is also at the Fort Garland Museum. Shawn Price who is the director of the Denay dance group reached out to the director of the museum Darryl Carpio when he heard of the unsilenced installation and said, you know, we really would like to come to Fort Garland and, you know, do a blessing, do some dancing, and also plant a white pine on the fort grounds. Of course, the fort was used as a place to help assist in the removal of indigenous peoples from the place that we now know as Colorado. Planting this white pine tree was just a beautiful gift. Again, and a nod towards the healing that is needed in these spaces. And I wanted to end with this quotation by the incredible Hanif Abdu ‑‑ sorry, I’m messing up his last name ‑‑ Abdurraqib, the problem with approaching history in America is that too many people measure things by distance and not by impact. I think this is really important when we are talking about working with communities, tribal nations or otherwise. I think it’s important to remember the ways in which things that we might be seeing as historical are very present in people’s lives today. You know, there are all sorts of repercussions, trauma that reverberates through generations that this is not the ancient history or things that feel long ago in our time lines, this is very present in today. And it’s really important when we do this work that we are doing it in collaboration, in consultation with those who have been most impacted, not just historically but continue to be impacted by the tragedy and horrors of these chapters in the present. And, again, you know, not just the present as well, this is ‑‑ this is future work, this is generational work, and, you know, I think our illuminating these histories, doing it in a way that is in a consultation and collaboration with those most impacted can hopefully reverberate in better ways well into our future.

Thank you, and I will pass it on to my copresenters.

Elizabeth Merritt: Yes, thank you, Dawn. Please welcome to the stage Nicole Armstrong‑Best and Caitlin Dichter.

Caitlin Dichter: Hi, welcome everyone, my copresenter Nicole is joining us by phone so you’ll only see my wonderful face today. I’m the designer for the S’edav Va’aki Museum and I’ll let Nicole introduce herself real quick.

Nicole Armstrong-Best: Hi, everyone. My name is Nicole Armstrong‑Best and I’m the director here at S’edav Va’aki Museum so since I can’t advance the slides I’m going to ask Caitlin to do it. I would like to give you a little bit of an introduction of the museum and the site because we are actually an arc logical site to kind of lay the groundwork for the work that we’ve done. So, I think if you could go to the next slide, Caitlin. Thank you. The site that was originally donated to the city of Phoenix in 1924 in order to save the platform mound as you can see in the picture it was originally three stories high, it’s as big as a football field. This is actually from the 1930s when they’re starting the excavation. The city of Phoenix was actually the first municipality to hire a city archeologist in 1929 to excavate the mound and create a museum. This work was done by CCC, WPA people and the first archeologist actually wasn’t an archeologist at all. But they really did not communicate with the tribe back then. So, we have made changes to that, of course. And we started formal consultation as our first presenter talked about in 2015. And we started that because the city archeologist still resides and works out of the museum although the position of museum director was split from that in the ’90s. So, we started formal consultation with our two associated, excuse me, two affiliated tribes which are the (saying name) and the (saying name) and we do have two associated tribes, the Hopi and the Zuni. So, we consult on current archeological work going on in Phoenix under the Arizona antiquities act in our burial laws and we consult under the federal law NAGPRA for our legacy collections. So we have been doing formal government‑to‑government consultations on full compliance on those two issues since 2015.

But we have been meeting monthly with the two most closely associated tribes to us which is the salt river Pima‑Maricopa healing communities and the gila river community and as our presenter said you grow relationships with the people you are consulting with, we consult with the officers which have been designated by their tribes to represent their groups in cultural matters so we’ve been doing that all along and we started getting requests from them for other things.

I also came in in 2015 after our formal director had been here for 26 years and passed away so one of the first things I wanted to do is to try to see what our stakeholders felt about the site, how to pre‑ ‑‑ how we preserved the site so far and our interpretation so we did some stakeholder meeting and by 2017 we got a lot of input, definitely invited our tribal communities to come to those discussions and then I went and presented to them.

During that presentation, I was asked if we would ever change the museum’s name and that was in 2018. So it has been in my head the whole time, since that presentation. Shall we move on, Caitlin?

OK, so after we held those stakeholder meetings, it became very apparent that the current ‑‑ at that time the museum’s mission was not accomplishing what it should have been. It had changed from the early ’40s to, as you can see, the 1992 mission up there, but it wasn’t really reflecting the kind of relationship we wanted to have an our interpretive messaging so you can see we changed it in 2018 and that prompted a lot of other changes because now our mission is to foster understanding and appreciation for our shared cultural histories. So then we went hunting for some grant money so we could start changing the interpretational site. None of the outside signage, we have an interpretive trail that goes around the site. We have preserve the platform mound or Va’ aki and a full court and reconstructed houses, full houses and compound houses and then you can come inside to our indoor exhibit. So on the outside trial the signage had not been changed in 20 years. And you can see an example here of the change in signage that we accomplished. We got some national historic landmark funding and ‑‑ because we are a national historic landmark and that requires federal money so that requires formal consultation which we then participated in, of course, not with ‑‑ not just with our affiliated tribes but also our associated tribes. And it really was an eye‑opening experience. We had, as you know, I’ve said we’ve been consulting on compliance issues but now we are starting to talk to these representatives about interpreting their history, what they would like to see. Just as an example here, the original sign said a legend. You can’t see the title on here. And our tribal community took offense to that, it’s not a legend, it’s our historical tradition, it’s our oral history, it’s way more than a legend. And ‑‑ ledge end so these are the kind of things we changing so over two funding cycles we changed 26 of 28 signs on the property where we are including the awesome narrative. Should we change to the next slide?

So, as I mentioned, we were requested to change the name way back in 2018. But I report to a deputy director who reports to a director who reports to an assistant city manager who reports to the city manager who reports to the parks board who reports to the council. So we have many, many, many layers of municipality to go through and I did not know if there was the political will to take this all the way up the chain. However, in 2020, the parks board actually approached us and said that they would like to approve a land acknowledgment which we then went to our tribal partners and we consulted on and sent the language that they approved up through the chain and that was approved.

I thought, since the parks board had kind of opened the door to this conversation, that we would go ahead and request a name change. So, at one of our regular consultation meetings in February I asked our tribal representatives if they would like me to start that process and they said yes.

So, of course, nothing moves very quickly with municipal government, but we went and presented, we came back to the tribes, we asked them what they’d like to name it, we got a list of names, from Anelda, we had the lead tribe which is the salt river Pima Maricopa Indian community made a decision, they wanted to name a S’edav Va’aki because it was the main prominent feature that we preserved and it’s central, we’re central in the valley, we’re kind of smack dab in the Phoenix basin. They very much a descriptive language and that’s what they wanted to name us so we are S’edav Va’aki. And you can see (saying name) Lewis’s actual notes on why this is important to them. Let’s move on.

Caitlin Dichter: I’ll jump in here. One of our current exhibits on display really exemplifies this change, this ethos and mission at the museum. So sending their ancestors home was a passion project of our tribal partners and was initially requested about five years ago. The exhibit discusses the efficacy of NAGPRA 30 years and confronts the museum’s own come police if I of the display of human remains and ancestors and while I wrote the initial script and kind of did the fiscal work of designing of panels, all elements of the exhibit, the text, images, the esthetic, the AV all of that went through a consultation. And it was really truly my goal to just act as a facilitator for the tribes to tell their story in our space. As a group, we started working on the goals of the exhibit, set an outline and parameters for what topics we wanted to discuss as well as what topics we wanted to leave out. Initially we envisioned a broader reflection of NAGPRA but after our first consultation meeting, we narrowed the focus down to primarily discussing NAGPRA to how it relates to our museum. (saying name) is currently the NAGPRA community member and Barnaby Lewis was also a review committee member and both of these individuals provided valuable insight and Ms. Garcia Lewis in particular was really the driving force behind this exhibit as well as the lead voice that we turned to for guidance when making curatorial decisions.

On the eve of the museum’s name change so this ‑‑ the name change went into effect officially in March. This exhibit opened in July. We’re still kind of in process ‑‑ we were still in the process of changing things out. We didn’t want to shy away from any of the heart truths of our past and so this exhibit served as a moment of self‑reflection and leaving any of the outdated standards of practice with our old identity behind us.

When referring to the museum and exhibit, I refrain from using S’edav Va’aki. I didn’t want to tarnish this fresh start that we were creating with these deep wounds from our past but we were no longer technically Pueblo Grande Museum at the time of opening, so we compromised with using kind of “this museum”in the text. The most noticeable element in the exhibit is the central display case. We workshopped this element over the course of a few meetings. It’s easier for visitors to understand why museums shouldn’t display ancestral remains that’s a little bit easier of a jump to make but discussing the importance of sacred objects and patrimony in an exhibit about repatriation without displaying them is a little bit harder so we came up with this idea of doing an old exhibit display that had, you know, this exhibit that had been taken off display, you know, hopefully due to repatriation and all that remains are these like ghost shadows left from over time of the objects. And then around the case are labels written by Ms. Christie Lewis discussing the importance of sacred objects and what they still mean to the communities today.

And when you see these shadows surrounded by her words and then behind it, on that wall it’s hard to see in the photo, is the entirety of the NAGPRA law printed in legible text which hits home how short of a law this is, it’s very striking. Overall the exhibit has been really well received by our visitors. We had an influx of tribal members during the first week of its opening and continued throughout and since July, we’ve been collecting written reaction cards from visitors and a lot of them really are indicating, after visiting the exhibit, a more receptive ‑‑ that they’re more receptive to seeing museums change their display practices based on the influence from NAGPRA regulations. And then we also do go into the work that still needs to happen with the law and with museums in the community.

Nicole Armstrong-Best: Caitlin, can I jump in here for a minute.

Caitlin Dichter: Oh, absolutely, go back?

Nicole Armstrong-Best: The shared stewardship issue that we are currently moving forward with, as we mentioned, you’re building relationships project by project. So we are continuing to have these kind of conversations and just because we have managed to interpret this site from an awesome perspective our main galleries have not been changed in 22 years. So we began work on a complete redo of our interpretive plan. And that started with consultation, of course. So that was the first meeting we had. We have since had some other public meetings with our other stakeholder groups and that is being finalized and hopefully by the end of the year we will have a completely rewritten interpretive road map that I can use to start working on absolutely redoing all of our main galleries.

So this relationship outside of compliance continues, as I think our other presenter also mentioned you have to build in time for that consultation. Sometimes we are sitting together and they say they have to go and think about things and come back to us. A lot of ‑‑ especially during the NAGPRA interpretive consultation meetings, there’s a lot of pain there. And the members need time to, you know, work through that. This is very, very personal to all of them. And so you need to build in that space. It does cause issues with trying to make sure that you have enough planning time and enough back‑and‑forth time with them to get your exhibit up in time so if you choose to take on this work, it doubles your time frame, at least. Right, Caitlin, would you say double?

Caitlin Dichter: Yes, easily. They’re also very busy, they have their own jobs, this is what they are focused on so we’re working within their availability and time scope.

Nicole Armstrong-Best: Exactly. So we also ‑‑ we ask a lot of our partners and I will say that they are very busy and sometimes it’s difficult to ask for that time but we also don’t want to step in and use our words, right? So we have videos and audio from them so we’re using the first person. We ‑‑ for instance, I asked ‑‑

Caitlin Dichter: I think we need to wrap it up.

Nicole Armstrong-Best: Oh, OK. To present to the parks board, right? So just be mindful too of tribal members’ time. OK, I’m done.

Elizabeth Merritt: Thank you so much. Can I ask the audience give a big hand using the little buttons at the bottom of the screen to our presenters, Nicole Armstrong‑Best, Caitlin Richter and Dawn DiPrince yay, guys, yay!

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