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Complexities in Discussions

Public discussions and portrayals of Indigenous cultures and histories and European colonial history 

The Indigenous Appalachia exhibit acknowledges the complexity of defining tribes and describing/depicting Indigenous lands and waters in ways that do not fit into a contemporary map or Eurocentric worldview. The exhibit seeks to make distinctions between Indigenous sacred sites, historic sites, and traditional Indigenous beliefs about land, water, and other natural resources (seen as relatives), versus Eurocentric notions of land ownership, property, excessive exploitation of land (and other resources), occupancy, and conceptions of stewardship. This section aims to address these complexities and note  challenges related to developing an exhibit around Indigenous histories and communities.

Nonlinear, or circular, forms of narrative are part of Indigenous research methodology, against the traditional European, linear thinking. This is part of our work to decolonize our curatorial approach.
Sally Brown, Exhibit Coordinator

The concept and religious belief of Manifest Destiny is the traditional Euro-centric view of land as a conquerable commodity, something to own, develop, live on, and sell.  The settlers’ “Manifest Destiny” deity-sanctioned values drove Europeans’ taking of land from the East to West Coasts of Native North America. From the moment the first trans-Atlantic slave trader set foot on a Bahamian island in 1492, encouraged by the heads of European government (and then sanctioned by the Church) to achieve power over the land, Indigenous communities were subjected to terror,, enslavement, murder,, and rape. Eurocentric values centered on amassing land, and thus wealth, resulted in extreme actions, including political actions, and romanticizing settler-colonialism in art and media.  Many 19th-century landscape paintings romanticize land as raw, open, and available.  

Painting depicting a river flowing through mountains with a man walking on a path
Autumn on the Kanawha, 1868, oil on canvas, by William Sheridan Young (American,1837-1878).
Courtesy of the Art Museum of West Virginia University, 1997.

Look at the Autumn on the Kanawha painting again. Consider that it was painted in 1868, 38 years after the Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson, resulting in tens of thousands of Indigenous people being forcibly removed from Appalachia to the West.

Does considering that the land in the image is devoid of its original people inspire any new feelings, perceptions, or questions you didn’t have at first look?

For Indigenous people, land is generally more than a place; relationships with land, waterways, and nature run deep. Nature nurtures the community, and vice versa. The health of the land is central to law, culture, and life. Thus, there is a responsibility to care for it. This is one reason why it is so devastating for Indigenous peoples to be forced from their land.

As Ambelin Kwaymullina writes: “For Aboriginal peoples, a country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human- all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, cattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and the country loves, needs, and cares for her people in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.”

In the U.S., approximately 80% of Native Americans live somewhere other than on designated tribal land.  ) Yet maintaining a connection to homeland is often felt as a vital connection to culture, law, art, spiritual ceremonies, and stories. Passing stories on to younger generations can provide a sense of belonging and is one way that Indigenous people share their histories and perspectives.  The United States was built on the ethnocentric, patriarchal belief that Indigenous cultures were less-than, “primitive,” savage, and too uncivilized to possess land rights and interests in land.