A Different Kind of Conference: ATALM 2017

It’s conference season in the museum world right now, and I’m privileged to be able to attend several this fall, including the American Association for State and Local History which was earlier this month in Austin, TX, and the New England Museum Association, which takes place in late October in Falmouth, MA. But the one I look forward to for its unique learning opportunities is the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) International Conference which happens October 9-12 at Santa Ana Pueblo outside of Albuquerque, NM. This will be my third year attending and it presents such a wonderful chance to learn from all the amazing people and work that’s happening in tribal museums and museums that work with tribes, not just in North America but around the world.

In a previous post, I shared my experience participating in a workshop about Mukurtu and TK Labels at the 2016 conference. This experience, along with meetings at the same conference, provided key steps in preparing for work the Abbe will be doing in coming years to use both these resources to better connect Wabanaki communities and Wabanaki knowledge to Abbe collections and to start work towards returning control of Wabanaki cultural intellectual property to the tribes.

At the 2016 conference, surrounded by the immense natural beauty of the Gila River Indian Community, I also had the chance to hear about current perspectives on NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), how museums can serve as resources for learning traditional knowledge in communities, how museums can provide supportive professional development for Indigenous students and staff, how anthropology can become more relevant for Indigenous communities, and examples of outstanding collaborative projects between tribal communities and museums.

This year’s program promises to be equally informative and engaging. Browsing the session descriptions, it’s clear that NAGPRA is still a key topic, 27 years after it was passed. A number of sessions will look at how digital tools can provide access to and increasing levels of control around museum collections and traditional knowledge for tribal communities. There are several sessions that look at what is happening at Canadian museums, which is especially relevant for the Abbe and the Wabanaki, whose homeland spans the two modern countries.

We’ll also have the opportunity to hear from some of the real visionaries in Indigenous North America, people like Walter Echo-Hawk, Winona LaDuke, Dr. Henrietta Mann, LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, and Sven Haakanson. And near and dear to the Abbe, James Eric Francis, Sr.  and Amy Lonetree will be sharing their knowledge with attendees.

Examples of successful partnerships and collaborations will be shared, and I expect there to be challenging conversations around the progress towards decolonization and indigenization in the fields of museums and archives. As someone coming from a non-tribal museum, I look forward to being inspired by new ideas and methods to help the Abbe move our decolonizing practices forward.

I’m also excited that the Abbe’s Curator of Education Starr Kelly will be joining me this year. It will be really helpful to be able to bring together what we each learn over the course of the conference. I can only imagine that the results will be greater than just the sum of our two experiences.

Julia Gray is Director of Collections & Research at the Abbe Museum. As a non-tribal museum whose work focuses on the Wabanaki (the Native people of northern New England and easternmost Canada), the Abbe is committed to a vision to reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience. Gray’s work in collections management and care, exhibit development, research, and community outreach has engaged extensively with the decolonizing vision of the museum, most recently in the development of our core exhibit, People of the First Light.


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