An Introduction to the Difficult Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Museums / Julia Gray

This study path will introduce learners to the concept of decolonizing museum practices by exploring the complex relationships between Indigenous people and museums.

By Julia Gray, Independent Consultant, Riverside Museum Solutions


Learners will be introduced to the concept of decolonizing museum practices. They will investigate resources that show the unique and challenging relationship that exists between Indigenous people and museums, especially in the settler-colonial states of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Learning Objectives

  • Learners will engage with questions and tools to do a preliminary evaluation of their own (institutional) practices and identify  initial steps to move towards a decolonizing museum practice.
  • Learners will understand the history of inequity in the relationship between libraries, archives, and museums and Indigenous people and communities and how this history is different from other issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Reflection/discussion prompt

Watch/listen to Decolonizing Archives and Museums: What Comes Next?

In this presentation, Jennifer O’Neal, University Historian and Archivist at University of Oregon and Deana Dartt, Anne Ray Fellow at the School for Advanced Research, highlight some specific projects and Indigenous-led activist work happening to decolonize tribal and non-tribal archives and museums. The presenters review work completed in the ATALM Archive and Museum Summits on this topic, and suggest ways for moving forward to continue the work of decolonizing tribal archives and museums. This session was part of the ATALM annual conference held in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, on October 10-13, 2017. It offers the direct perspectives of Indigenous people working with and in museums and archives.


Background Reading

Define some basic concepts that may be new to learners:

  • Colonization
  • Colonialism
  • Decolonization
  • Intergenerational trauma
  • Settler colonialism
  • Indigenous [perhaps a/some resources on the various word of identity, such as Native, American Indian, First Nation, Aboriginal]
  • Agency [idea of keeping people in the interpretation]

Discuss how digital projects and online collections databases play a role in Indigenous-museum relationships. Create a list of pros and cons.

  • How can digital/online tools support collaboration, strengthen Indigenous first-person voice, and tell the full measure of history?
  • How can digital/online tools perpetuate colonialism, cause ongoing harm, further intergenerational trauma?

Hands-on activities (select one or more that works for your learning environment)

Using the Plateau Peoples Web Portal and a traditional online collections database of Indigenous cultural belongings, try to find the information (metadata) that is shared on the PPWP in the traditional catalog.

Based on what you learned from the video and readings, find one or more cultural belongings in a museum collection that are problematic from a decolonizing framework. Create a short presentation that describes why the presence of the cultural belonging in a museum collection could be problematic, and how you might go about resolving this.

If you are at a museum that exhibits Indigenous cultural belongings, select one or more pieces on exhibit, evaluate their labels in regards to a decolonizing practice. Rewrite the label(s) towards a more decolonized interpretation.

Find an online exhibit of Indigenous cultural belongings. Selected one or more sections of the exhibit (or the complete exhibit) and evaluate the interpretive text and other content for (1) evidence of collaboration, (2) Indigenous voice, and (3) truth-telling/difficult history.


Here are some questions you can ask to get a better idea of where your museum is today, a starting point to begin decolonizing your museum practice:

  • Does the history you tell of your local community begin with the first settler? Are you including pre-European history?
  • If you do include the Native history of your town or region, how much space do you give to the thousands of years of that history, as opposed to the several hundred years of Euroamerican history?      
  • Does the Native history you tell stop with the arrival of the first settler? Are you including Native people throughout the history you tell? Native people have been present throughout New England’s history, and are still here today, but they are often left in the past, referred to only in the past tense.
  • Are you including Native art in your art museum? Does this include contemporary Native art?
  • Are Indigenous knowledge (TEK) and perspectives incorporated in your natural history/science exhibits and programs?
  • The encounters and interactions between European/Euroamerican explorers, colonists, and their descendants have been extremely important in shaping our share history- are you engaging with this shared history? Are you telling both the difficult history of genocide and the inspiring stories of survivance and revitalization?

Some ideas for moving forward:

  • Have you complied with NAGPRA? If not, there is funding to help you do so (National Park Service, 2018). Remember also that NAGPRA is human rights legislation, so think about the spirit of the law, not just basic compliance.Read the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2008).Think about language.
    • Remove “prehistory” from your vocabulary. It is all history, it has just been recorded and passed along in different ways. Consider using pre-Contact instead.
    • Use the active voice when sharing Native content.
    • Consider agency- keep people in the language when interpreting archaeological collections. Artifacts don’t make themselves, they don’t move across the landscape, they don’t change their own styles- people do all these things, and it is reflected in the artifacts they create and leave behind.
    • Learn and use the tribal names that the people use themselves, and wherever possible, be as specific as possible.
    • When it comes to questions around the use of Native, Native American, Indian, American Indian, Indigenous, First Nation, first try to use as specific a tribal name as possible. If talking on a more general level, ask the Indigenous people you are working with what they prefer.Build relationships
    • Visit tribal museums; go to public events and celebrations at tribal communities.
    • Invite members of local tribal communities to your museum for a VIP tour, and start getting to know them.
    • Check out the Communities + Museums and Museums + Communities guidelines for collaboration at
    • Start by building personal relationships and trust, and build out into the wider community from there.
    • Be transparent.
    • Be patient- your priorities may not be tribal priorities.
    • Be prepared to compensate people for their time and expenses (mileage, lodging). Ask if they would like to be compensated and respond accordingly. Some Indigenous people performing spiritual practices do not want to be paid to do so, but they may still ask for and appreciate being reimbursed for their travel costs.
  • Recognize that tribal members are experts in their own culture and history; you may have a different perspective, allow these to co-exist; use “and” not “but” when bringing together multiple perspectives.
  • Do all of this relationship building before you ask them to work on a specific project at your museum! Know that you need them much more than they need you. You are not doing them a favor by consulting or collaborating- you are just doing the right thing.

Consider sources and resources:whenever you can, use Native authored sources, – publications, exhibits, tribal websites – this is a good first step while you work to build relationships.

In the longer term:

  • Work towards shared authority and decision-making, and towards the privileging of Indigenous perspectives.
  • Consider the presence or lack of Indigenous people at your organization’s governance level, and work to address gaps.
  • Learn how your organization can meet the needs of the tribal communities. Do their artists need new venues to sell their work, and can you sell their work in your gift shop? Do tribal schools need hands-on artifacts for school programs, and can you provide that at little to no cost? Perhaps the tribal community would like to create posters to address a challenge the community is facing in areas like public health – can your exhibit designer provide their services to create posters? Ask what you can do, listen, and then make it happen or at least begin the conversation and investigate options.


Case Studies

Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Mukurtu CMS

Communities of practice


Sustainable Heritage Network

Exemplary projects

Plateau Peoples Web Portal

Sq’éwlets: A Stó:lō-Coast Salish Community in the Fraser River Valley

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