Dartmouth Dreaming: Conference Wrapup

The events surrounding the opening of Dreaming Their Way at Dartmouth College concluded on October 12 with a full day’s program of speakers. The morning was given over to the art of the exhibition, while the afternoon featured talks by two Native American Professors of Government on questions of indigenous land rights. There was a wonderful irony to this, in that in the US, October 12 in the day on which the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus is celebrated. I don’t know that anyone in our hemisphere has ever considered referring to this as “Invasion Day,” but then the Taino people who occupied the island upon which Columbus first set foot effectively disappeared by the 18th century.

The first speaker of the day was exhibition curator Britta Konau, who talked about the making of Dreaming Their Way, which I summarized in an earlier post. Speaking as she did about the art/ethnography divide, she captured the interest and the enthusiastic participation of many members of the audience, particularly museum staff and faculty from the departments of Art and Anthropology. This degree of engagement early in the day was to become the rule, as everyone in attendance seemed excited, not just by what they had seen in the exhibition, but what they were hearing in the lecture halls and galleries. Given the diversity of the audience–it included members of the general public and Friends of the Museum as well as Dartmouth faculty and students–it was truly gratifying to feel that the attendees were coming to the experience with consistently high levels of enthusiasm throughout the day.

Margo Smith, curator of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum, followed Britta, with a lecture entitled “‘The Enchantment of Being What We Are’: Diversity and Change in Aboriginal Australian Art.” Drawing on her extensive experience with the collection of the Kluge-Ruhe as well as her fieldwork in Australia (done near Finke, SA; Margo holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Virginia), Margo kept the audience entertained and engrossed. She traced the development of Aboriginal painting, especially among women, across Australia. In doing so she gave the audience good insight into the diversity of cultures, the fundamentals of the Dreaming, and the importance of art in the lives of Aboriginal people. The highlight of her talk was an extended look at one of the great barks in the exhibition, Galuma Maymurru’s Djarrakpi Landscape (Manggalili Dhawu). The monumental painting (nearly three meters tall) encompasses most of the themes and iconography that Galuma learned from her father Narritjin, and is a standout among the masterpieces that crowd the walls of the exhibition.

The morning’s activities closed with a walking tour that I led through the exhibition, with a crowd that may have grown a little larger, as at least one Art class joined the ranks. I had led a similar tour through the exhibition in Washington, and had an absolute ball doing so. At first, the audience was intrigued by the opportunity to have the works interpreted, but by about half way through the tour, in both venues, I wasn’t the only one speaking. In Washington, the story of the Yirrkala Bark Petition, which I told to give some background to the emergence of the homelands movement and the education of women painters among the Yolngu, drew cries of outrage at the court decision (and a bit of derision for US courts as well). At Dartmouth, as I talked about moieties and complementarity, I mentioned Yothu Yindi and a ripple of electricity went through the middle of the room. It turns out that the band had played at Dartmouth a couple of years ago, and people in the audience had seen the concert. Suddenly, it seemed like everything clicked.

After lunch Dale Turner and N. Bruce Duthu offered the insights into the condition of land rights for Native Americans, and it was a sobering experience listening to them. Turner is a Teme-Augama Anishnabai man from northern Ontario; Duthu belongs to the Houma tribe, with roots in Louisiana. Turner’s community lost a dispute in the Canadian Supreme Court before he began his study of the concept of “sovereignty.” Duthu, who was a visiting scholar at the University of Wollongong in 1999, belongs to a tribe that is not even officially recognized as “Indian” by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

My notes from their talks and sketchy and often illegible: I was so engrossed in what they were saying that I often forgot to write down salient points. There’s no way that I can really do justice to the arguments that they presented, but I remember thinking all the way through that if one substituted the words “Aboriginal Australian” each time one of these men said “Native American,” their talks would resonate with anyone who has been reading The Australian or The Age lately. It was truly disturbing to hear them speak on centuries of legal action and repeated failures of justice, and to feel that a miracle will be needed to achieve a fair solution on either continent.

Turner spoke of “the asymmetry of justification” in land rights arguments and the distinction between “delegated and inherent recognition.” In plainer English, you might say “a losing proposition,” “a non-starter,” or “a stacked deck.” One party to the debate defines the rules; the other is thus “dependent” and almost by definition unable to win the point. He referred to the Canadian concept of “domestic dependent nations” which is used to deny first nation peoples the status of a foreign nation in terms of law, thus invalidating the concept of treaty. Sound familiar? Maybe “I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television….”

Duthu spoke with passion and humor about the impulse to empire and the Western habit of a “colonial Leviathan” holding a monologue with itself. (This reminded me of Will Stubbs’s recent characterization of the debates in the Australian media as a bunch of whitefellas with megaphones shouting at each other over the heads of indigenous people.) A persistent theme throughout his remarks was what he called the “dying Indian syndrome” that has been used for half a millennium in North America to justify legal ploys to take the land from Native Americans. Although I don’t remember anyone in America offering to smooth the pillow of a dying race.

He spoke movingly of returning to his country in Louisiana after his marriage, and of his wife’s initial recoil from the poverty of the community. And yet when the couple returned to Louisiana after a brief and unsatisfying move to North Carolina, she was moved the second time by coming home to a community whose strength and steadfastness seemed its most obvious characteristics. He spoke of the Lakota people of the northern central United States, who have refused a government buy-out of their land. The settlement that was awarded to the Lakota has been gathering interest in an escrow account for nearly fifty years now and has accumulated a value of half a billion dollars, but the Lakota can not bring themselves to accept the money; they simply can not sell or alienate their land, even though having lost the lawsuit they have no chance of returning to their homelands. I sincerely hope that someone in the Northern Territory knows this story and tells it when the issue of 99-year leases is next discussed and the benefits of private home ownership are heard from the barker’s mouth in the government’s traveling circus of land grabs. 

And yet despite all this, and despite the “asymmetry of justification” as Turner described it, Duthu retains his faith in the instrument of the law and persists in seeking solutions within the system that will brings the tribes justice. Towards the end of his speech, he referred to the White Apache word ni, which means both “identity” and “land.” The resonances with indigenous Australians once again provoked a shiver.

And then it was all over, or nearly so. Harvey and I joined Britta and Margo for dinner that night in a downtown Dartmouth eatery, and spent nearly three hours talking about issues that the two days had raised for us. It was a great event, in no small part thanks to the generosity and hospitality of all the people at Dartmouth College, and I want to close my report by thanking Brian Kennedy for all his efforts, and by thanking his colleagues in the Hood Museum who hosted and feted us, and especially Mary Anne Hankel, who took care of all the travel and accommodation arrangements. The faculty and students were gracious, friendly, and kind, and even the weather cooperated as the rain held off and the clouds eventually gave way to glorious autumn weather and hills full of flaming fall colors. I’m tempted to go back for another look.

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