Native Americans and Museums

22 Mar

by Becky Johnston-

Where does American history start?  Does it begin with the first European who set foot on the shores of this “New World?”  And who or when would that be?  It could be claimed that in the 1100s or earlier, Vikings came to the North American shores. Does it begin with the first English invader? Or, perhaps when the continent was first inhabited by any person?  Or even farther back,when the continent became separated?  Every event in the span of this region,as far back as we can go, has had some influence on subsequent events. The outdated line that has been drawn can skew history, making it seem as though what happened before Europeans invaded is not as significant as what happened after. That’s why I think it is so important and wonderful that the Labor and Industry Museum in Belleville included the archaeology found underneath the stockyards.

Though Europeans did not encounter these peoples directly, they would have encountered their descendants whose cultures were derived from these peoples’ experiences. Settlement patterns, botanical knowledge, and scientific observations that were taught to the Europeans to help them survive in this world, had a basis in the Mississippians and their ancestors –for everything is connected.

Being a student of Native American Studies, I find this barrier outdated and more than racist. It was in the 1800s that the theory of “prehistory” became a mainstream concept. A French historian was looking for a way to denote the time before a written record in France, but “prehistory” has much worse connotations. In the scheme of world history, it wasn’t long ago that history and story were synonymous. The history of something IS its story. To say “prehistory” would mean before the story. So now, Native Americans prior to European invasion are before the story and not deemed suitable for historical study.

Another misconception within museums is relegating Native Americans to natural history. The idea that Native Americans were “one with nature” has been labeled the “Pristine Myth” by anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. Cultures and societies prior to European arrival had a large impact on the environment. Because these peoples understood that it was nature that provided for them, their religious views included more of a symbiotic relation with the world around them, but they no more belong in Natural History than the Spaniards who arrived in 1492 and wiped out an entire civilization and are commemorated for it every year.

More museums should take the initiative that the Labor and Industry Museum in Belleville has taken by including Native American Studies into their exhibits. European arrival does mark a permanent shift in the direction of this country -creating a global leader. But without the existence of the first populations that migrated to this region thousands of years ago, Europeans might not have gained the foot hold they did on the backs of the Indigenous populations.


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