From cigar store Indians to reality TV, American popular culture has reflected, created, and perpetuated stereotypical representations of Native Americans. Museums have helped legitimize and solidify these stereotypes, freezing American Indians in a primitive, ahistorical past. Brown University students taking ETHN1890N, “Thawing the ‘Frozen Indian;’ American Indian Museum Representation,” have taken on this complicated issue culminating in a challenging exhibit at the Haffenraffer Museum of Anthropology. Assistant professor Elizabeth Hoover writes in “Contexts,” the museum’s annual report,
Native American people have had a mixed relationship with the museum world, from the history of hurt and anger over the collection of sacred and inappropriate objects to gratitude for the preservation of American Indian Art traditions. Given this complicated history, how can museums appropriately display Native American culture?
The class used the museum’s collections in order to better understand this history and come up with an answer to the question. The resulting exhibit is fascinating and thought-provoking. This cigar store Indian, the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, and the “Navaho” underwear sold by Urban Outfitters, are all examples of Native images appropriated to the commercial benefit of non-Natives. These displays are juxtaposed to great effect with genuine Native artifacts (carved, beaded, woven) from the museum collection. (Don’t miss the Penobscot root clubs.) The museum is closed Mondays and Brown holidays.
Free and open to the public, Haffenreffer Museum, Manning Hall, Brown campus near Prospect and Waterman Streets