Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

The past has not passed: reflections on NAISA

In May I had the privilege to attend the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in Honolulu. Below are some of my reflections on this amazing opportunity.

Discussing the repatriation of knowledge Sven Haakanson showed us examples of museum artefacts being used to re-teach the traditional skills of his people and other Indigenous groups from Alaska. Haakanson comes from Kodiak Island where he worked at the tribal museum on projects which culminated in the rebuilding of a sea kayak using traditional methods gained in-part from museum objects and the expertise of Elder craftsmen. He said, ‘we have to rebuild this knowledge that is discussed in scattered historical accounts.’ In a presentation about rethinking the relationship museums have with Indigenous people, the repatriation of knowledge was an important theme and an important term to describe a positive and productive relationship which museums can have with Indigenous people whose material culture resides in their collections. One method Haakanson employs is the making of model kayaks with Indigenous youth which also has the broader aim of reconnecting people with their land and the environment. He believes that the importance of living in the environment in a considerate and ethical manner is endangered by certain propensities of Western civilisation.


On Oahu, as at home, I am surrounded by the impacts of consumerism and a lifestyle which has not historically considered the environment (and is slow to do so now). On a visit to the Arts at Marks Garage Gallery an undergraduate student and Native Hawaiian artist Dru Hara has used photography to document the leeching process which the water systems in an affluent suburb are having on the environment there and additionally the sediment which was then carried out to the reef was detrimentally effecting the ecosystem there. Hara used photography to bring this issue to the attention of the audience. The outcome was quite conceptual, given that the artist had altered his photographs to obscure elements and draw the viewer’s attention to specific aspects.

During the roundtable featuring Haakanson Aotearoa artist, art historian and ‘recovering curator’ Agahiraka Mason spoke about her relationship with museums. She joked that currently she was a ‘recovering curator’, meaning as an Indigenous person she struggled with the situation of working for a museum, The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Now she is somewhat outside that system and can look back on what it was like. This is an important idea to consider in the context of museum debates about employing more Indigenous curators to handle the materials which are culturally sensitive. Part of the conflict for Mason and many Indigenous curators is that the community’s view of her role was different to that of her colleagues and the institution she was working for. A significant aspect of the struggle was about applying Indigenous knowledge in the museum context, and she asked was this the point. ‘What is the difference’, she asked, ‘between worshipping the fires of tradition or the ashes of the past? The cultures of the past as objectified and the tradition as living have to be kept in mind, she argued. This resonated with a phrase I heard often at the conference (though I cannot remember who said it first): we begin from the premise that the past is not past.  

Noelle Kahanu carried on these thoughts and described her time at the Bishop Museum which culminated in the ten year loan (and return) of the ‘Ahu ‘ula and Mahiole of Kalani‘ōpu‘u – that is the cloak and helmet of Hawai’i’s reigning chief who in 1779 gifted the cloak to Captain Cook. The cloak is pictured above. This was a demonstration of good will as well as appeasement for Cook’s actions on other islands (kidnap and murder) had earned him the title of ‘one who shoots fire from his nose’ (canons). Soon he would murdered in a conflict following the theft of a longboat. His attempt to get it back through attempted kidnapping Kalani‘ōpu‘u resulted in his death.

The displays inside the Bishop Museum were incredibly moving. The content but also the attention to detail in the display meant that the nuances of different cultures were sensitively displayed. The Polynesian Hall had been redone in recent years and renamed the Pacific Hall here the viewer can see an overview of the material culture of the Pacific. In the Hawaiian Hall which has three levels the viewer can see important aspects of Hawaiian culture and history. It was on the floor level that the cloak was displayed.

Continuing the theme of understanding, problematizing and researching the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the museum, the panel I was part of did just this. The first speaker was Anne Marshal from the University of Idaho who spoke about tribal museums as Indigenous sites of decolonisation. Utilising themes from Linda Tahuwai-Smith’s Decolonising Methodologiesresearch in the context of architecture Marshall provided engaging examples of native museums consideration of place, nature and the environment as integral to the creation of a native museum. The themes she drew on were: indigenising, returning, protecting, story-telling, and remembering.

The second speaker was Katie Bunn-Marcuse from the Burke Museum. She spoke about an exhibition which was produced from the research collection – in which research pieces were featured alongside the artworks of contemporary artists who had utilised the collection. It was a sort of behind-the-scenes exhibition and was very commendable.

The fourth speaker, who presented after me, spoke about Frank Speck (1881-1950) an American anthropologist and professor at Pennsylvania University whose methods were unorthodox for the time but resonate today with protocols for engaging with Indigenous communities. This paper was intriguing not only because the speaker Margaret M. Bruchac is herself of Abenaki descent, but additionally the question of getting objects identified is a pressing and exciting field of research in itself. As the Penn News reported recently ‘Her approach, which she refers to as “restorative methodologies,” involves tapping into multiple data streams, including oral traditions, material analysis, university archives, anthropological publications, craft technologies and social memory.’

My paper was perhaps the odd one out in the sense that I looked at an artist and not a museum. My work focuses on the life and work of Wurundjeri artist William Barak and pays particular attention to the transnational circulation of his work through anthropological and religious networks of the nineteenth century.

Reference points:

Native American and Indigenous Studies Association conference 2016

Arts at Marks Garage - The Lab: Experiments in Photography

Bishop Museum display of Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s cloak

Penn News – article on the work of Margaret M. Bruchac