This IS Kalapuyan Land began in 2019 as a physical museum exhibition by Guest Curator Steph Littlebird Fogel. Fogel annotated panels from the museum’s prior exhibit on Kalapuyan peoples and added contemporary Native artwork as well as historical content from preeminent Kalapuyan scholar Dr. David Lewis to address representation past, present, and future. The full content lives on here as an online exhibition, below.
Learn more about the exhibition through Fogel’s reflections, originally published on Medium, 6/30/2020:
Decentering Whiteness in the Museum
Q: Do you have to acknowledge a mistake to fix it? Or is it easier to erase an error and start from scratch? Should we examine our missteps before we take another? Asking for a friend…
A: Those are not the kind of existential questions a curator necessarily has to ponder. But, in my unique role as Five Oaks Museum’s first Guest Curator, I was tasked with reframing a preexisting exhibition on the Kalapuyan people of Oregon. In May 2019, museum co-directors Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini invited me to view the original exhibition. At the time, they were considering junking the entire thing… and wondering — was the exhibition outdated, or too problematic?
As a lifelong Oregon resident and descendant of the Kalapuyan people, I grew up in a state that exalted pioneer and Oregon Trail mythology. Even as an elementary student, I realized my tribal history was absent from school textbooks and regional remembrance. I vividly recall being told my tribe was “extinct” in a high school history class once, and while I knew that wasn’t true, that belief is still pervasive amongst non-natives and shapes the way outsiders view Indigenous culture. We are seen as existing only “in the past.”
Looking over each massive, depressingly-sepia-toned panel, I was not surprised by the biases that emerged. But, I assured the co-directors there was still much to be learned from the exhibition, so we agreed to keep the existing panels and I would devise a way to show viewers where the errors were.
I then convinced the co-directors to let me take the exhibition home in my Subaru, so I could sit with the work and examine the texts closely. I lived with the panels in my home for the next two months, reading them over and over, researching what I did not know, and noting the obvious changes that I needed to make.
The preexisting exhibition, created over 15 years ago, was riddled with errors, erasures, stereotypes, and scientific misinformation. It was fascinating to see what non-natives prioritized from our history, what events “experts” thought were important to demarcate. Because I am not a historian, it was imperative for me to work with someone who is an expert in our tribal history. I was incredibly lucky to collaborate with tribal scholar and Grand Ronde Confederation member, Dr. David Lewis. With his generous assistance and online collection of academic articles, I eliminated inaccuracies, and reframed biased narratives.
One of the first changes I made was to the show title. Originally named “This Kalapuyan Land,” the language felt disembodied, as a writer I noticed the verb “is” was missing. The specific function of the word “is” is to express existence or a state of being or “to be.” By removing this word, the creators of the original panels were actively dehumanizing their subjects, a subtle but powerful shift in language — “this isn’t Kalapuyan land anymore” is how it reads.
This IS Kalapuyan Land acts as both a museum exhibition title and land acknowledgment. It is also a declaration of perpetual stewardship by the Kalapuyan people. “We have always been here, we will always be here.”
I used red sharpies to correct and strike language throughout the exhibition. Every red mark became an act of reclamation over our histories as Indigenous people. My hand-made corrections — act like a teacher’s red pen on your first draft — it calls out to the audience for more attention. “Check your sources”… These manual marks turn the exhibition into a scavenger hunt, as viewers scour each panel, searching for more corrections. The updates I made reflect the absence of information too, the original panels make no mention of intergenerational trauma, state-sanctioned assimilation, Indian schools, nor our unique triumphs post-colonization.
To a normal museum-goer, the juxtaposition of professionally printed panels with my handwriting might seem blasphemous at first. “Did the museum REALLY let you draw on their exhibition?!” This unique mixed-media presentation is precisely what makes the exhibition so powerful. You can see the mistakes for yourself and discover exactly what the museum got wrong, some sort of beautiful defacement.
Along with those edits, I curated 17 different contemporary Indigenous artist’s work into the exhibition. By introducing artwork made by living Native creators I could demonstrate the vibrance and abundance of Indigenous culture that thrives today. Art featured in the show runs the gamut from traditional beadwork and regalia to printmaking, sculpture and painting. These objects combined with the historical text panels create a unique and diverse experience that is rare to find in institutional spaces.
When an institution like a historical museum opens itself up for critique, there will inevitably be some painful and maybe shameful revelations. White supremacy permeates much of higher learning and institutional thought, and most of us have yet to fully realize this. However, through critical dialog the institution can start to rectify past transgressions, model progressive behavior for other institutions, and begin the process of decentering whiteness as an authority. If a museum is brave enough to withstand the criticism, the potential for real structural change is much greater. When a museum makes honest attempts to reform, by sharing its perceived cultural authority with marginalized groups, a richer more holistic conversation can be had.
As a society, we imbue institutions with “authority” without questioning whether they got the facts right. This IS Kalapuyan Land is meant to remind viewers to think critically about all institutions of authority and the information they tell us, whether it’s a museum, president, or a textbook.
— Steph Littlebird Fogel
While the museum building may be closed right now, you can still visit our current main exhibition, This IS Kalapuyan Land, from your home. Browse text panels about Kalapuyan tribal history, annotated by guest curator Steph Littlebird Fogel (Grand Ronde) and view contemporary artwork from the exhibition by Native artists living in Oregon today.
This IS Kalapuyan Land Digital Exhibit
The Sun Bathed Everything
Everyone’s A Winner
Everyone’s a Winner, Too
When Rivers Were Trails
That Bear Tooth Necklace
Lindsea Wery, Joni Millard, Jana Schmeiding, and Whitney A. Lewis
Bear Claw Beadwork, and more
Fredrick and Friends
Without a Trace
Walk a Mile
Stephanie Littlebird Fogel
Stephanie Littlebird Fogel (Grand Ronde, Kalapuya) is a visual artist, professional writer and curator from Washington County, Oregon. She is a 2019 Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) project grant awardee, a two-time Art + Sci Initiative recipient, and has worked in collaboration with the Oregon Bee Project, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the United States Postal Service. Fogel served as a juror for the Idea Initiative grant program and received the Nancy Tonkin Memorial Scholarship for Emerging Artists.
Listen to guest curator Steph Littlebird Fogel explain her curation decisions and the significance of the exhibition to her as a Kalapuyan descendant and Grand Ronde tribal member.
“Thank you for putting all this art together so we can visit it and for crossing out the wrong words to show the truth.”
-Forest Grove Community School 2nd grader to Steph Littlebird Fogel about This IS Kalapuyan Land
Looking for more about Native history in the area?
Watch The Oregon Trail of Tears and Other Hidden Native Histories, a Local Story conversation with ethnohistorian David G. Lewis, PhD (Grand Ronde) and guest curator Steph Littlebird Fogel (Grand Ronde) in conjunction with this exhibition.