In Conversation: Will Wilson, McClung Museum of Natual History and Culture, UT Campus, Knoxville, November 2023
In 1990, Congress and President Bush designated November National American Indian Heritage Month. The name has since changed to National Native American Heritage Month. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge “the culture, traditions, and achievements of the nation’s original inhabitants and of their descendants.”
How we acknowledge, celebrate, and illuminate the culture continues to shift through the decades. Two wonderful, time limited exhibitions at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on UT campus offer a unique opportunity to celebrate the month, while considering how we portray indigenous cultures.
Portraying indigenous culture has primarily fallen to white men until recent history. Whether through museum presentations, photographs, books, or movies, the lens that controlled the subject has been white. The current exhibition of photographs, “Will Wilson: In Conversation” explores that reality explicitly. Pairing historic photographs by Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868–1952) with contemporary photographs by indigenous photographer Will Wilson, the interaction with native cultures is expanded, assumptions challenged.
Curtis is responsible for many of the iconic photographs of indigenous people with which many of us are familiar, from the famous, such as Geronimo, to the unnamed as in his photo “A Desert Cahuilla Woman.” A number of his prints are included in this exhibition and the subjects contained in his photographs are priceless historic documents. He wasn’t alone in photographing them, but his 20-volume The North American Indian (1907-1930) remains a singular work in documentation of a changing time.
While critical in documenting a time and place, the photographs have gained increased scrutiny in recent years. Curtis dictated the contents of each image, instructing each subject to dress in only traditional indigenous attire for their culture. Nothing modern could appear within the image to date it to the current time. In doing so, he preserved very traditional images which might have otherwise been lost.
He also took control from the subjects, portraying them as he wanted them seen and then profited off their image. He believed indigenous culture would soon disappear (even as the U.S. government worked to make that so) and that it had to be preserved. The perspective denied the reality of contemporary indigenous culture as it had begun to adapt to modern realities.
Photographer and associate professor (University of Texas) Will Wilson, who is Diné (Navajo) spent his formative years living in the Navajo nation. He has since amassed what is likely the largest collection of photographs of indigenous people since Edward Curtis and uses the same wet-plate collodion photographic process used by Curtis.
Unlike Curtis, he encourages his subjects to be photographed as they wish and to include objects important to them, whether sentimental (a photograph of a great grandmother) or routine (a skateboard). In doing so, he is documenting the culture as it lives today. The subject of each photograph receives the original.
Seen together, the photographs form a striking conversation. Indigenous people frozen in time through the lens of a person who viewed their culture as a part of the past contrasts with living, breathing, contemporary indigenous people seen as they wish to be seen. The experience becomes multidimensional through the use of an app which, when a phone is held in front of certain photographs, brings that person to life as they tell a part of their story.
But that isn’t the only exhibition to explore.
As a part of its ongoing efforts with its partners, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the 22-year-old Native Peoples of Tennessee exhibition has undergone transformation which includes removal of items which have been claimed by various native groups. The exhibition has been re-imagined as “Repatriation of Archeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee.”
At issue is the fact that many of the items contained in the exhibit for over two decades carry religious significance to various groups. Some of the objects were removed from burial grounds. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, mandating that “all institutions receiving federal funding provide federally recognized Tribes with a list of Native American Ancestral Remains, burial, sacred, and other culturally significant items for possible Repatriation.”
The exhibition as it now stands includes information regarding the law and the process used to determine the legitimacy of claims of ownership. You’ll still see many of the objects which have been included from the beginning, but more powerfully, you’ll see empty spaces with notice that the item formerly occupying that space has been returned to the group determined to be its rightful owner. It serves as a reminder that these cultures didn’t disappear but are alive and deserve to be acknowledged as such.
The Will Wilson exhibition ends December 2, while the repatriation exhibition ends December 22. A contemporary exhibition will replace the Will Wilson exhibition in the front gallery, but the rear gallery will close for a year in preparation for a major new exhibition mounted in conjunction with the museum’s indigenous partners. Focused on mounds building and place making when it opens in 2025, the presentation will emanate from the perspective of the indigenous groups as they tell their own story.
The current paradigm shift represents a tectonic change for museums and for McClung. Be sure to get in over the next few weeks to engage with this journey in its beginning stages. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Parking is provided with a pass (stop at the booth) on Circle Park Drive in front of the museum.