Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian & Associate Curator Paul Chaat Smith

by Jesse Jensen

I’m Jesse Jensen, an undergraduate student from the University of Iowa and associate producer for the Creative Process. During this interview Paul questions the education,or lack thereof, we are receiving in America around past and current Native American history. When reflecting on my own education I find that the miniscule amount of time and effort that was spent around these topics is insulting to Native Americans and also harmful to the youth who will grow up to be the future with a clouded and misleading education about American History. In school i was taught what Paul describes as a “brief chapter” where Native Americans were introduced to us in what textbooks describe as the “beginning of america”, but from that point forward in the book it’s as if they didn’t exist in our history. It’s not that their history stopped in the 1700’s, it’s that our education system has failed to acknowledge their existence. This is why I find the work that Paul and the Smithsonian do to be so important as they continue to challenge our modern understandings around American history and Native American culture. As an American who inherits America’s awful bloody history, it isn’t Paul’s objective to evoke emotions of guilt or pity, but rather he hopes his work at the museum and books bring about what he calls “collective responsibility.” Part of this responsibility would consist of correcting our education system so that they will acknowledge that this country was taken during a genocide of Native Americans and was build apon the backs of the enslaved. Those that continue to deny or ignore these facts will ultimately find themselves dancing near the wrong side of history. It’s easy for us in the 21st century to label our slave-owning presidents or the early colonizers as being on the wrong side of history, however there are so many circumstantial, environmental, and contextual factors that somehow convinced them at that time that their acts were justifiable. It’s hard to say if these same people were placed in our current society with a modern education if they would feel regret or remorse for their actions hundreds of years ago. This idea of being on the wrong side of history can be applied to our current situation as well. Once again it’s hard to say if our president and his supporters will feel remorse or guilt for spreading and rebooting racist and xenophobic behavior through their policies and rhetoric but only time will tell. We’ve come a long way since the colonization of this country which subsequently brought on the destruction of Native American culture. So what do we do now? Many of us are trying to better equip ourselves with education and experiences that help us be better allies to minority groups and people of color so we can help combat racism when it is presented. During this dark time in American history it’s great to have voices and artists such as Paul Chaat Smith who are able to address our past while offering education and insight into Native American Culture.

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The Creative Process · Collective

Traveling Exhibition & International Educational Initiative. Interviews, Portraits & Podcasts of Leading Artists, Writers & Creative Thinkers + Students Voices