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New Encounters Jim Enote keynote presentation

Jim Enote, Director, A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Centre, New Mexico, 18 March 2016

MAT TRINCA: Our first keynote speaker is Jim Enote. Jim is the Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center and Director of the Colorado Plateau Foundation. He serves on the boards of the Grand Canyon Trust and Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, and is a Senior Adviser for Mountain Cultures at the Mountain Institute.

He’s a National Geographic Society Explorer, a New Mexico Community Luminaria, and an EF Schumacher Society Fellow. In 2013, he received the Guardian of Culture and Lifeways Award from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. In 2010, during the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference, Jim was awarded the first Michael Ames prize for innovative museum anthropology. Please join me in welcoming Jim to the stage.

[applause]

JIM ENOTE: Showtime. [laughter] Get serious now. What do they call these? Somebody’s told me, not a vest, a waistcoat?

MARGO NEALE: Waistcoat, bolero …

JIM: Many names for things right? Thank you. [speaks in Indigenous language].

I want to give thanks first, of course, to the First Peoples of this place and to the organisers, all of the organisers here and behind the scenes, and also to our people who are preparing the foods for us and nourishing us with such delicious food throughout the days and evenings.

So I come from Zuni, New Mexico, in the Southwest US. And it is a place that’s very dry, very, very dry. About now, we are coming into spring and very soon it will be the driest time of all, where you can feel the edges of your mouth crack. Sometimes you get nosebleeds. When it’s windy, your hair is sideways. I used to curse that wind actually, sometimes. I used to really hate that wind. It blew so hard. Then I realised that the wind was shaping the earth, pushing things from here to there. When I thought about it more, that the wind was necessary, of course, to move pollen, to move pollen around, all around.

I remember I was speaking one time at a farming conference. I’m a farmer first. That’s how I identify myself. I gave the same sort of description about how I curse the wind, and I realised that wind was important and how it moves pollen and such. It sort of slipped out of me and I said, ‘You know what? That wind is like Mother Earth’s orgasm.’ [laughter] Of course, that was in print the next day in the newspaper. [laughter] Watch what you say to the press.

So yes, I identify myself first as a farmer. I’ve been planting … this will be 59 consecutive years. Since I was in a cradleboard, my grandmother and aunties held me in the cradleboard and put seeds in my hand and put me over a hole. With my little hands, I’d drop seeds into the hole.

Ever since then, I planted something. Whether I was in a college in a dormitory, I planted some chillies and cilantros, and onions outside, or when I was hitchhiking, I planted something. I’ve always planted things. I like to plant things.

See, yesterday, in addition to being thrown off with the jet lag, I was even more discombobulated with the position of the sun and the temperature. I maintain an internal almanac. I’m always watching when birds are coming or going and other things are happening. I was thrown off, but this land and the environment is yours, the people of this place. You are of this place. Clearly, I am a visitor.

I feel my life in seasons, and so I thought I’d arrange these words in seasons as a farmer first.

Springtime – As a boy, I sometimes managed to get a hold of newspapers, and I enjoyed reading Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I liked those fantastic statements and those crazy illustrations. There was some ‘Miss Natasha’ from Miami, Florida, has a tattoo on her on her body of a Ford F150, not because she likes those pickups, but because she was struck by one three times. Believe it or not!

A few years later, my family was visiting a museum with its clean white walls, and glass cases, and beautiful lighting. I was really impressed and I was thrilled. I was even more thrilled that in this museum, there was some pottery made by my grandmother, and it was displayed in these beautiful cases. So I pressed my greasy face and my dirty hands against those cases, and I read the labels and what I read was shocking.

The label said that they were seed jars. But they were not seed jars; they were water jars. So I was not pleased. The labels also made no mention of the designs and what they mean. I watched my grandmother make those pots, and she carefully described to me all the details of the designs and how she felt when she was making them, what inspired her to make them. I knew then something was wrong. I knew that those pots were of earth, water, and fire, and they have voices. We helped her collect the clay at certain places and she would taste the clay sometimes.

She did her own assay, just in her mouth. ‘No, this won’t work; it will crack. This one, no, this won’t work either.’ We collected the plants that she would boil to make the paints. We collected minerals that she would rub down to make paints, and we helped her to gather the things to make the fires. We stayed away, too, when she was firing early in the morning when there was no wind. The fire didn’t get too hot; it just was a constant temperature. She told us ‘No man or boy should be here when I’m firing, otherwise they will crack, the pottery will crack.’

And when the potteries were finished firing, she’d pick one up, one at a time and she’d tap it. ‘Oh, that sounds pretty,’ and she’d pick up another one. She says, ‘They’re talking, each one has a voice.’ None of that was in the labels. None of those things were described in catalogues.

Next was public school. After high school, a couple years of hitchhiking across the country, then later college, and then the power of a million new ideas.

Summertime – The rains came and life flourished. Incidentally, where I live … I’ll say it again, where I live we never say, ‘I hope it doesn’t rain.’ The rains came and life flourished for me. This is all, metaphorically, really. I found myself directing a conservation program, starting a publishing company. a farmer’s cooperative, a foundation, and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum, a museum that is by and for the people. The Museum’s narrative is Zuni to Zuni. But that does not mean that we are isolated and unsociable.

About ten years ago, a group of Zuni experts and I, we were visiting a university museum in Europe to review some collections. Of course, many things in the collection were misidentified. One set of objects was clearly misidentified, and we told the staff what those were. We talked about them among ourselves and the staff seemed quite uncomfortable.

One said, ‘So you’re saying that these are not what the catalogue said they are?’

We said, ‘No, they are not.’

He said, ‘Oh, my goodness! A student just finished her dissertation based on this collection.’

I asked, ‘How many degrees have you bestowed on your students based on this wrong information?’

He said, ‘Probably a lot.’

And I’ve had that same conversation with many museum staff, collectors, registrars, curators. How many people have you informed based on wrong information? How many degrees have been bestowed based on wrong information? A lot.

So began one of my mantras – setting the record straight. In this brave new world, digital media is altering the way we access and share knowledge. We all know that. We know that the internet enables information to travel simultaneously, instantly, and we know very well that unsatisfactory and harmful information can also travel instantaneously. Digitised museum catalogues are now being accessed by young Zuni, and they are learning their identity in part from misinformation.

The way of accessing knowledge with a face-to-face interaction, language, and performance, is being undermined with codes, passwords, and hardware. Maybe, it’s time for Zuni to revisit and think more critically about digital media, because for us we are not in a cultural salvage or recovery mode. Thank goodness! Some communities are, and let there be no judgment for them. If that’s the route they choose, that’s perfectly fine, but I found for us it’s better for us to learn things face-to-face within arm’s reach, as we always have. Maybe it’s time to rethink this. Have a time out and think about it.

Also about this time, I was approached by a large museum that was developing an exhibit that included Zuni objects. I was asked if Zuni might be interested in participating in some programming around the exhibit. Really? Some museum staff will still take it upon themselves to represent us without asking. So this was disappointing, but it did not mean that all hope is lost. This was a time to harvest the disappointing things along with all other experiences and lay them out and count my blessings again.

Autumn We never expect a harvest. We don’t plan and anticipate a harvest. Also in the same way, we don’t name our children before they are born. We don’t buy them clothes either. We don’t plan for a harvest. We hope there will be a harvest. If we do the right things, maybe we’ll have a harvest. At this time in my life during the autumn, I realised I had finally ripened into a more complete human being. I was beginning to find my centre and my truth.

This is when I sensed that museums are trendsetting places, where we go to learn about the latest in science and technology, new innovations in art, new historical discoveries and perspectives. I saw that museums are places for mediation of knowledges. After all, we live in a world with many ways of knowing. Science is one knowledge system. Our Indigenous knowledges are another.

My grandmother didn’t measure matter in our ceremonial places called kivas. We receive directions on how to maintain the cosmological process, and we don’t ever say, ‘Prove it.’ I tried many years, many times over the years, to bring science and Zuni knowledge together, but I couldn’t. They are separate knowledge systems. Some people ask me, ‘What about ethnobotany? What about ethnoastronomy?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s still subjugating our knowledge to an ethnoscience.’ Rather than try to combine them, I believe the challenge is to learn across knowledge systems.

Winter – I had days of struggle and time seemed to stand still. Like winter, the days got shorter and colder. In the winter, animals that can, will move to warmer places. Others move down into Mother Earth to dream. I hunkered down in my home and made fires day and night. By that, I mean I wrote words to warm my soul, and I prayed that the sun will come again.

Springtime – The sun grew higher and the warmth came again, and ideas sprouted faster than I could keep track of. From the autumn and winter experiences, I saw an opportunity to right many wrongs.

What fell out of me was this museum collaboration manifesto. I’ll just read this. I wrote this recently:

After many years working within museology, we continue to see items in collections disguised with mistaken and unsuitable interpretations. With so much error, many items gain false significance and meaning by the hand of outdated standards and practice. It is strange enough that things are removed from their local setting and context. Now they have been renamed and reframed in languages and contexts foreign to the place and people from which they were born.

We are now finally witness to efforts that improve staid systems of museum classification and accounting. Let us bury the fit-in-a-box orthodoxy of one structured and established system of classifying objects and archival materials. The current standard, the current system, is not even binary. It is not two systems with one recognising the other. It is one system.

And I will say this – noone has a right to restrict what we name or label this thing or that. Inclusion of expert peoples representing the source of collection materials is the keystone of a collaborative movement. Welcoming and respecting knowledge of objects by the makers and users of the objects does not change the objects. Why must we even offer an explanation? Has a museum or archive ever created the objects in their collections?

In the spirit of just transition and responsibility, we will advocate for genuine, reliable, and virtuous collaboration. This is a higher order than many may be concerned with and implies that collaboration involves reaching out and enlightening on equal terms to decentralise power and leadership and share problem solving. We will not oppose each other; rather we will enable one another, and allow objects and people to speak.

By virtue of pure collaboration, we will pay tribute to voices of objects, and the objects should be perceived and understood. Clearly, many old conventions in museum collection management, lexicon, and conservation, have lost their purpose. If the field of museology is truly egalitarian, and moving forward then, there must be centrifugal answers to our problems. We will labour, co-labour, collaborate, and co-elaborate from the fixed centre. We are where knowledges are transitory and fluid, and the old system supporting them, only one way of knowing, are themselves artefacts of humanity’s misstep.

A new museum conservation dialogue has also emerged. In some situations, let us appreciate the beauty of aging things. In collaboration with desires of source communities and makers of objects, we will respect that some items and collections should fulfill their lifetime as naturally as possible. As we are fascinated with the age and seasoning of buildings and other structures, we can honor the aging of some items and collections. In this sense, those items will reclaim their destinies.

We will pay tribute to the creative, the impalpable nature, and the spiritual dynamics of objects together with the science of materials and their environments. I believe the spirit of pure collaboration is a movement and the number of colleagues that are attaining pure collaboration is additive and promising. These colleagues’ works are principled and noble, and I applaud them and everyone associated with their ideas. We are informed by many years of experience. We are serious people and we are thinking differently from those that served before us.

Surely imaginative and unfamiliar concepts will be met with resistance. But when the tide goes out, I imagine we will trust heretical notions as positive beacons that will enlighten the field of museology, and manifest new accountability of all knowledges through pure collaboration.

Museums are important learning institutions and enormous institutions and represent sweeps of the human experience. While museums can represent the best of who we are, museums are periodically criticised as being narrow minded and entrenched to bygone policies and methods.

At this time of rapid social change and cultural change, museums will reflect these changes, influenced from outside and from within the institutions. Certainly, museums’ methods like many others, will evolve and improve. Museums are places of mediation. We can use the power of museums to inform, to create safe places where we can bring together great ideas and learn about other peoples and their ways of knowing.

I believe museums are informed and grow from justice and compassion. My mother asked me, ‘What about me? What can I do?’ Part of these seasons, I had some ups and downs. I was informed generally from some difficult times, and I ranted sometimes. Other times, I had to bring back and remember that there’s some great beauty in the world, and so I’ve come full circle and I’ve learned to honour my mother and all mothers with this.

Let me share this with you as I close – this is what I tell boys. We are all born from a woman. When we come into this world, our mothers, aunties, sisters, and grandmothers are often the first to caress us. Our mother is our first point of reference, our starting place, and that makes women and girls the core of our identity. To continue our collective and individual destinies, women and girls must be regarded highly and protected, not because they are delicate or unassertive, because they are our equals and without them we cannot exist.

They are our partners as seeds are to the soil. Some of our traditions applied to women and girls are intended to guard them from physical harm or suffering. We cannot put in danger the core of our humanity. Men and boys do not have the important rhythms and awareness that women and girls have. Consequently, other traditions are intended to guard them from images, energies, or forces that might cause shock or disorder to female balance and rhythms.

Today however, some men and boys are wrongly evoking traditions or taboos to devalue and break down the true intentions of care, honour and preservation. We can learn and share traditions about women and girls the right way or the wrong way. I will do my best to tell the boys the right way. Thank you very much.

[applause]

Date published: 20 September 2016