Not Your Museum Indian


A young archeologist challenges Indigenous stereotypes behind glass cases.


Performance artist James Luna, Payómkawichum (Luiseño) and Mexican-American, has created a body of work that challenges the stereotypes and romanticization of Native American peoples and objects in mainstream American culture.

His career began in the 1970’s with a notable performance piece where he unpacked a bag of “Indian artifacts” and created new “rituals and ceremonies” for the viewers, a commentary on the way in which non-native peoples view Indian artifacts as dispensable. His other work includes Take a Picture With a Real Indian which garnered much attention, a piece where people were given the opportunity, on Columbus Day, to be photographed with a real Indian. His work has subsequently been exhibited in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the New Museum in New York. In 2005, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. His art continues to work against the assumptions that non-Native people have of Native American peoples.

james luna
Artifact Piece by James Luna 1987, courtesy James Luna.

Luna’s most notable work and the one of most interest to me, given my background as an anthropologist, is Artifact Piece, which premiered at the Museum of the Man in San Diego in 1987. Luna placed himself under a glass case, on top of sand, wearing only a loincloth. He is exhibited with personal objects such as his degree, record player, and even his divorce papers. Luna’s curation of his own Native body flies in the face of typical Native American sections and dioramas found in mainstream museum culture. Native American remains and/or mannequins dressed as Native people are historically placed in glass cases, wearing historical clothing from the late 19th century, the time when these articles of clothing were collected by anthropologists. These bodies are then displayed with objects placed on and/or near them with sparse descriptions or labels. Furthermore, Native American remains / mannequins of museums tend to be placed in dioramas with little explanation of the people and their items. Luna’s piece challenges these outdated Western museum practices.

Luna’s piece subverts the traditional Euro-centric cultural gaze that creates Native peoples as “other”. He calls upon museum-goers to look at him as he looks back at them, challenging the notion that Indians are dead and a relic of the past, they have the ability to live in the present day. Luna said of his piece: “I had long looked at representation of our peoples in museums and they all dwelled in the past. They were one-sided. We were simply objects among bones, bones among objects, and then signed and sealed with a date. In that framework you really couldn't talk about joy, intelligence, humor, or anything that I know makes up our people.” Native American people have always been the subject of display at Natural History museums, equating Native American people to floral and fauna of America, not living and sovereign cultures with complex political and social structure. This practice comes from a long history of objectifying and tokenizing Native American people, their objects and their remains.

The history of collecting and acquiring Native objects began in the latter half of the 19th century. The elite class would employ middle class historians, scientists and anthropologists to “go out west” and bring back cultural artifacts and even Native peoples’ remains and ancestors in order to display these objects in their museums. These would then become part of ethnographic collections for Natural History museums and other institutions that still display and utilize these objects today. Archaeologist Scott Patterson explains that the “drive to collect objects from colonized countries and economically dependent countries created an art and cultural object economy in the United States”. This, coupled with the professionalization of archaeology, resulted in the collecting, stealing and acquisition of Native people and their objects.

These questionable practices led to the establishment of museums that would house and preserve these remains of the “dying races” along with their material creations. But what also occurred was the idea that over 500 tribes of the Americas are one homogenous “American Indian” race and therefore their cultural and artifacts are homogenous as well. This overgeneralized view of Native people and their objects is apparent in Luna’s piece as he only wears a loincloth, rather than material adornment or clothing pieces that would signify his cultural or ethnic identity. The narrative of “one Native American” culture works to historicize and dehumanize the diversity of Native peoples who are still practicing their culture today. Luna’s piece plays into that idea while demanding that the viewers also see him as human with the ability to speak and interact with his viewers.

Yales Peabody Museum
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History Hall of Native American Cultures, photo courtesy of Trip Advisor.

For me, as an indigenous archaeologist and anthropologist, James Luna’s piece acts as a reminder, a reminder that when I work with remains and objects in a museum they have a story; a story before the museum, one that was once alive, not just something of the past. His work also reminds me of the fact that I can speak for some of the objects as an indigenous person working with objects made by my people.

James Luna has created a body of work that actively works to dismantle notions of the Indian as “object” and “other”. He calls on the viewer to not only gaze at him in a voyeuristic way but to also think about the fact that the Indian can look back. James Luna is a pioneer within the museum and artistic community, actively working in a western context to challenge outdated ideas about Native peoples and their culture.

Emily Van Alst is of Sihasapa Lakota descent. She graduated from Yale University in May 2016 with a double major in archaeology and anthropology. Her archaeology senior research was a comparative thesis on the treatment of indigenous archaeology in the United States and Japan. She will begin graduate school this fall working towards a Ph.D. in Anthropology/Archaeology at Indiana University with an emphasis in community outreach and engagement, zooarchaeology, indigenous archaeology and the Northern Plains. She works with the “Learning NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)” project through Indiana University.

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