HERSTORY: I discovered cultural anthropology when I was a student at the University of Arizona. I had a professor who made it all make sense -- how humans are the same and different in religion, farming, clothes. In 1999, I heard about an internship at the National Museum of the American Indian. I'm part Zuni, part Tlingit, and being Native gives me more of a vested interest in the museum: I want it to be great, yet preserve the integrity of the people it's representing. I started here full time in July 2003.
ART & ARTIFACTS: I worked on the exhibition "Window on Collections: Many Hands, Many Voices," which features 3,500 objects created by Native people, including beadwork, projectile points, peace medals, tomahawks, dolls and containers. It shows the continuum of Native artistry -- you can have something that was made pre-contact, meaning before 1492, right next to something that was made a few years ago. The exhibit is also a dynamic system; we can continually update our records. If a Native person comes in and says, "My grandmother made that beaded vest," and has sufficient documentation, we can go in and credit her as the artist.
PIECING IT TOGETHER: In 1989, the Smithsonian bought the Museum of the American Indian in New York, which had been established by the collector George Gustav Heye [1874-1957], the son of a German merchant. Heye was what is known as a boxcar collector, meaning if you had a boxcar of stuff, he would buy everything. This could be viewed negatively -- the more sacred something was to the person who'd made it, the more valuable to him -- but the positive is that we have an amazing collection.
COMING SOON: November is Native Heritage Month, and there'll be events nationwide. I'll be signing a children's book, "Meet Lydia: A Native Girl From Southeast Alaska," that I was commissioned to write by the museum. Lydia is a real girl -- her experiences mirror my own. As a child I spent every summer with my mom's family in Alaska, fishing and picking berries.
VOCAB DRILL: It's kind of funny that this is called the National Museum of the American Indian, because "American" and "Indian" are terms that are not our own. I use the term "Native," which seems to be the most neutral and the most accurate, but I like the Canadian term "First Nation"; it acknowledges that we came first. This museum is a major recognition of our contributions -- it's a historical event. And it's about time.
As told to Curtis Sittenfeld