Council for Museum Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Tekahionwake, Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), was a lauded lyrical poet and performer who throughout her life, writings, and politics deftly negotiated her identity as an Indigenous woman of mixed Mohawk and British-Canadian ancestry. When she died in Vancouver in 1913, she gave some of her belongings to the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) – the museum’s first known donation from a contemporary Indigenous woman – granting the MOV a long-lasting role in interpreting Johnson’s legacy.
Following changing discourses around this bequest both inside and outside the MOV, this paper shows that Indigenous collections in museums, while subject to representational agendas and opinions, are not static or without agency, and have the ability to pull institutions into unanticipated relations with Indigenous communities and activists alike.
The MOV’s initial interpretation of Johnson’s legacy and collection softened the political portions of her work and reframed her identity as part of an historical, nonpolitical indigeneity, aligned with essentializing understandings of race and authenticity. Yet just as Johnson in her life refused to abandon her Mohawk identity and conform her writing to societal expectations, her bequest refuses to fit neatly into museum narratives. The collection's enduring obligations to Indigenous peoples in British Columbia, Six Nations Reserve members and beyond, demanded staff and institutional entanglements with the political and material goals of the emerging Indigenous rights movement in the 1960s. This case study highlights collections’ political potential and importantly recognizes Indigenous peoples’ power outside of the museum to change institutional narratives and priorities.