Native Perspectives Added to The Met’s American Wing

Last week Marabou visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and was surprised to see some curatorial additions to the American Wing galleries. There are now supplemental labels with white type on navy blue background that are entitled “Native Perspectives” placed next to a handful of museum labels for objects that depict Native American people. These navy blue labels are written by indigenous artists and historians, and provide points of view that has been missing from the Met’s American Wing since its inception. This initiative is in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, “Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection” (Marabou will discuss this exhibition in a later post). “Art of Native America” is slated to run until October 6, 2019. Marabou hopes that this process of inviting less represented, non-white, non-western perspectives into the American Wing is not just a fleeting gesture, but one that continues and moves beyond the American Wing to permeate the entire museum.

The “Native Perspectives” labels were added alongside a number of objects mentioned in Marabou’s August 2018 analysis of the American Wing. Marabou is sharing some of those objects and their supplemental labels below. Reading the original label and the “Native Perspectives” Label side by side further exposes how objects and history are framed in very particular ways and illustrates that adding another voice to the conversation can dramatically change and add nuance to an object’s narrative.

“Mexican Girl Dying,” Thomas Crawford, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art (97.13.2a–e)

In the post “American Woman,” Marabou wrote about the portrayal of women in the American Wing. “Mexican Girl Dying” is one of the works addressed. It now has a “Native Perspectives” label written by artist Livia Corona Benjamin (Mestizo).

Original Met Label

“The Rome-based Crawford drew his inspiration for this work from the “History of the Conquest of Mexico,” published in 1843 by the American historian William H. Prescott. Although the young woman’s identity is unknown, her dramatic position, as well as the gaping wound beneath her right breast, suggests that she has fallen in battle. Crawford may have wished to demonstrate in visual form Prescott’s central thesis that the Spaniards conquered Mexico in order to convert native peoples to Christianity. The cross beside the young woman’s left hand would have consoled nineteenth-century viewers by implying that she had embraced the religion and found eternal salvation as she lay dying. The marble pedestal is original to the sculpture.”

“Native Perspectives” Label by Livia Corona Benjamin

“Silencio. Be quiet.
There is a Mexican
Girl Dying, amongst
the sculptures and decor-
ative objects that
dress the American
Wing. Mantelpieces,

fountains, ornament,
dead centerfold-pose
women. Exposed, cross
in hand, without
citizenship. Where is her
blouse, Mr. Crawford?
Where are the children
with her? Or was
she a child herself?

Across from her sits
a Libyan Sibyl,
aloof, as if to say,
“We demand
museum representation.”

Yet here they are,
pitted against Sèvres
vases, just outside
the café.
A Mexican
girl is dying.

We know why some girls
from Mexico
die and others
do not.”

Livia Corona Benjamin’s label connects historical representations to contemporary events including tensions between the US and Mexico border and the often ignored or unknown reality that 1 in 3 indigenous women in the United States and Canada go missing or are murdered. According to the Indian Law Center, more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than 1 in 2 have experienced sexual violence. The connection of past and present is echoed in other “Native Perspectives” labels that emphasize the continuing, present impact of historical violence and marginalization.

In the post “Native Americans and Manifest Destiny at The Met” Marabou discussed the portrayal of Native Americans in Gallery 765, “The West, 1800-1920,”  filled with paintings and bronze sculptures of Native Americans. The “Native Perspectives” label is not in response to one object, but to the entire gallery. Artist Jason Lujan  (Chiricahua Apache, Texas) writes of the inescapable impact of the US government’s dehumanization and removal of Native Americans from their land and cultures, all while creating a false narrative that is perpetuated in US history textbooks and museum galleries to this day.

Original Met Label

“Beginning in the 1820s, the American West inspired artists to explore its vast thematic potential, from the breathtaking beauty of the landscape to the gripping adventures of scouts and trappers. After the Civil War, industrialization and urbanization fueled a market for art that mythologized the vanishing frontier, while the saturation of American culture with genteel sentimentality inspired a countervailing yearning for heroes who tested their manhood in dangerous lands. Frederic Remington and other painters and sculptors represented in this gallery celebrated cowboys and cavalrymen, who also emerged as stars of fiction, the popular press, and motion pictures. At the same time, the government’s slaughter of the buffalo herds and the decimation and relocation of native peoples encouraged artists to glorify endangered animals and to commemorate American Indians as a noble, doomed race.”

“Native Perspectives” Label by Jason Lujan

“Some kind of sun seems to have set.

An exercise in illustrating the concept of the “terminal narrative,” the works in this gallery occupy the absence of Native North American self-representation during the expansion of the United States in the nineteenth century. Bronze and oil paint; Frederic Remington and Albert Bierstadt; the pre-reservation Indian. While Indigenous figures in works such as these were often modeled after real people, I have found myself wondering if the artists also viewed their subjects as actual human beings.

People often awake from dreams and nightmares and find them unreal, but this has never been the case for me: these powerful and proselytizing images of the West continue to have a profound influence on the inherited realities of contemporary Americans who happen to be born Native.”

The heavily edited narrative of the US government’s relationship with native people is also addressed in a “Native Perspectives” label for the American Wing’s pride and joy painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze (also addressed in the post “Native Americans and Manifest Destiny at The Met”). The label is written by artist, writer, lecturer, and curator Alan Michelson (Mohawk). He draws attention to a person in the painting who normally doesn’t receive much attention.

washington crossing the delaware
Looking at Emanuel Leutze’s massive “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851. Metropolitan Museum of Art (97.34)

Original Met Label

“Leutze’s depiction of Washington’s attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 25, 1776, was a great success in America and in Germany. Leutze began his first version of this subject in 1849. It was damaged in his studio by fire in 1850 and, although restored and acquired by the Bremen Kunsthalle, was again destroyed in a bombing raid in 1942. In 1850, Leutze began this version of the subject, which was placed on exhibition in New York during October of 1851. At this showing Marshall O. Roberts bought the canvas for the then-enormous sum of $10,000. In 1853, M. Knoedler published an engraving of it. Many studies for the painting exist, as do copies by other artists.”

Detail of Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

“Native Perspectives” Label by Alan Michelson

“The boatman pictured in the stern wears Native moccasins, leggings, and a shoulder pouch, and likely represents an Indigenous member of Washington’s troops. Native American warriors fought, often decisively, on both sides of the war—British and American—according to their nation’s interest. In 1778 the United States signed a treaty with the Lenape (Delaware), its first formal treaty with an Indigenous nation, securing assistance and safe passage through Delaware land in exchange for “articles of clothing, utensils, and implements of war.” The treaty recognized Delaware sovereignty, guaranteed territorial rights, and offered the possibility of Indigenous statehood. But soon a (double) crossing of the Delaware took place: persistent treaty violations by settlers and the US government culminated in the 1782 Gnadenhütten Massacre, in which a Pennsylvania militia killed ninety-six defenseless Christian Lenape. Virtually all of America’s Indigenous allies suffered similar fates.”

Michelson’s label adds great historical context to an iconic painting that graces the pages (possibly even covers) of many US history textbooks. Where the Met emphasizes the painter’s story (as one would expect an art museum to do), the supplementary label makes sure to remind viewers that a celebrated event in US history also had Native American participants who did not reap the benefits of revolutionary freedom from England.

“Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California,” Jules Tavernier, 1878. Metropolitan Museum of Art (2016.135).

The final “Native Perspectives” label Marabou shares with you is not related to a work discussed in a previous post, but is one that emphasizes that Native American culture is not gone or of the past, but very much a part of the present. The painting “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California” by Jules Tavernier hangs in the same gallery as “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The “Native Perspectives” label is by interdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator, Ty Defoe (Ojibwe and Oneida) in which he recounts his experience growing up in the roundhouse, writing in the present tense.

Original Met Label

“Parisian-trained artist Jules Tavernier settled in San Francisco, in the 1870s, where he received his most important commission from Tiburcio Parrott, the city’s leading banker. During a visit from his Parisian business partner Baron Edmond de Rothschild, in 1876, Parrott was able to obtain entry to a sacred ritual in the Pomo Indian’s underground roundhouse at Clear Lake, north of San Francisco. The two men were in the process of acquiring the mineral rich lands of the Pomo Indians, which the tribe had inhabited for generations.

Tavernier spent two years working on this recently discovered masterwork, creating a composition of nearly one hundred figures, including two young Pomo male dancers, who, surrounded by the tribe and the white visitors, including Parrott and Rothschild, act out a coming of age ritual. Tavernier renders the light illuminating the dimly lit interior with brilliant technical finesse by means of highly controlled tonal variation and flashes of color to enliven the scene. Upon its completion, Parrott presented the painting to Rothschild, where it remained in their family until present time. The painting captures the very moment when white settlers laid claim to the Pomo lands.”

Detail of Tavernier’s “Dance in a Subterranean Roundhouse at Clear Lake, California”

“Native Perspectives” Label by Ty Defoe

“When the seasons change
we go to the roundhouse.
When it is a birthday
we go to the roundhouse.
When a funeral happens for an elder
we go to the roundhouse.
We unite.

First time I heard the eagle song
It was played in the roundhouse.
It was so powerful my uncle took out his eagle bone whistle
blew it four times in the air as if to call spirits down from the sky,
a circular opening above,
in the night
maps of stars.

The dust rose from the dancers’ feet.
People in pieces of regalia
jean jackets and shawls draped over shoulders
as if everyone was transforming into animal clans inside a lodge.

Dancers dance to the drum
like a chain for spirits to find their way into our little roundhouse.
Movements are prayers.
Seven years on the earth I was
with ear pressed on the dirt floor.
Now, every time I hear eagle song
I remember the roundhouse.”

Marabou has shared just four of the new “Native Perspectives” labels now in the American Wing at The Met. There are eight more to read on the Met’s Native Perspectives page. Marabou appreciates the action taken to include indigenous perspectives in the American Wing, however, Marabou is not patting The Met on the back. The Met’s work has just begun. 12 objects in the American Wing have been annotated, a small step in the right direction. Marabou finds value in reading the Met’s original labels and new “Native Perspectives” labels side by side. Together they provide a better understanding that objects and history can be spoken about in a multitude of ways, and that there is value as well as danger in this flexibility. Museums and cultural institutions need to continually revisit the narratives they share. Especially if they have been telling the same story that has been told for decades (even centuries), it’s time to re-evaluate the way objects and spaces tell stories and make space for new narrators of those stories.


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