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‘Small, but powerful’: All-Indian Center exhibit highlights cultural misappropriation

Visitors tour the Mid-America All-Indian Center Tuesday, July 10, 2012. It has been seven years since the City of Wichita took over the operation of the Mid-America All-Indian Center. In that time, changes have been made. The center is now debt free and well on the road to recovery.
Visitors tour the Mid-America All-Indian Center Tuesday, July 10, 2012. It has been seven years since the City of Wichita took over the operation of the Mid-America All-Indian Center. In that time, changes have been made. The center is now debt free and well on the road to recovery. The Wichita Eagle

A small stream of donations is constantly coming into the Mid-America All-Indian Center. Some of these things make it into the museum, but not necessarily because they accurately showcase or preserve the various cultures of Native Americans. In fact, some of the items do the exact opposite.

The center recently launched a small exhibit called “Objects of (Mis)appropriation” which is made up solely of items donated to the museum. The items, which Erin Raux, museum director, called “cringe-worthy,” misrepresent and stereotype the culture of American Indians.

To the best of her knowledge, Raux said this is probably the first exhibit like it at the museum.

“I think it’s kind of rare to put objects that don’t necessarily belong in a museum traditionally and to put them on pedestals and put them in an exhibit so that’s kind of a different route,” Raux said. “I think the whole point of this museum right now is to preserve the culture of the American Indian, that is our mission statement.”

The exhibit, Raux said, is about “reiterating what is appropriate and what is not.”

I started the exhibit because I wanted to have a conversation about what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s perfectly fine to be interested in a culture and to admire it, but to steal from it is entirely different,” Raux said.

The federal government officially recognizes more than 550 different tribes of American Indians, but Raux said society still views each group as the same. For instance, a symbol commonly associated with all Native Americans is the headdress.

Raux said she often sees women wearing ornamental headdresses, which she said is an example of misappropriation. Only men in leadership positions in the American Plains Indians Nations wore feathered war bonnets.

“Misappropriation is taking something and not honoring it at all, but using it in an entirely wrong way,” Raux said. “Misappropriation is really the theft of an identity of a people.”

One of the key facets of the exhibit is a series of Barbies from the Native Spirit collection launched in the early-2000s. They challenge people who see them to address the issues of cultural misappropriation head on, Raux said.

“The Barbie dolls got me to thinking that if there was a finer-line, not so black and white where this is wrong,” Raux said.

The dolls themselves make an effort to represent all female American Indians at once, but in the process, create wide generalizations that misrepresent the identity of women in these cultures and sustain the image of what Raux calls the “Pochahottie.”

“It’s a term where it’s just categorizing native women as basically sex objects with their regalia,” Raux said. “Not all native people wear buckskin, not all native women are always decked out ornamentally.”

So far, Raux said, people have received the exhibit well, but sometimes it brings up negative emotions. Specifically, some of the promotional material posted on Facebook for the event drew in some people that were shocked that objects like the Barbies and other misappropriated items are still in circulation.

“People online were getting really angry, not at us necessarily, but angry at the fact that this is going on,” Raux said.

There are some people, however, who don’t see using cultures out of context as problematic, Raux said. One of the hot topics that usually divides people, she said, is using cultural symbols or groups of people as a mascot for a sports team.

“It kind of starts with the mascot,” Raux said. “My ultimate response is mascots are not people and when you are using an image of a type of person then you can get into very discriminatory and negative thoughts.”

In addition to the “Objects of (Mis)appropriation” exhibit, the Mid-America All-Indians Center is currently showing a contemporary painting exhibit from Micah Wesley of the Mvskoke Creek Nation and Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Raux said “A Posteriori” is one of the first live, contemporary artist showings the museum has hosted.

The exhibit, Raux said, shows that native people are not dead.

“American Indian people are not gone from here, they are still here and they most certainly have purpose,” she said. “I think it’s important to continually talk about the American Indian and how they are not deceased. They are not dead — they are our teachers, our doctors, our friends. They are right here making contemporary artwork.”

The center, at 650 N. Seneca St., is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and military and $3 for children. Children under the age of six are admitted for free. Exhibits will be on display at least until October.

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