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Museum won’t verify claims of tribal ancestry after artists withdraw from show
Native women raised alarms about exhibition in Massachusetts
Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Fruitlands Museum in eastern Massachusetts doesn’t plan on verifying whether the artists it works with have connections to the tribes they claim even after two individuals withdrew from a new show.

Gina Adams, who claims to be Ojibwe and Lakota, and Merritt Johnson, who claims to be Mohawk, removed their works from “Echoes in Time: New Interpretations of the Fruitlands Museum Collection” when questions were raised about their tribal affiliations, The Boston Globe first reported in a story posted online on Tuesday. Neither are enrolled with any of the Indian nations they claim but a director at the facility doesn’t plan on changing how such matters are handled.

“I personally would not, nor would I recommend a curator call the tribe to verify,” Jessica May, the managing director of art and exhibitions at the Fruitlands Museum, told The Globe.

“I expect that if they claim that identity as their own, they are doing so truthfully,” May told the paper.

Even though Adams, who is an assistant professor and an assistant dean at Emily Carr University in Canada, withdrew her works, she is still credited as a co-curator of the show, which opens on Saturday. The way Fruitlands has handled the matter doesn’t sit well with the Native women who raised concerns about the exhibition, The Globe reported.

“I think they totally dropped the ball,” Leah Hopkins, a citizen of the Narragansett Tribe who is an administrator at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, told the paper. “I’ve seen this happen so many times. It’s 2021. We’ve got to get with it.”

Although Hopkins serves on the Fruitlands Museum’s Native American Advisory Team, she told the paper that she was never informed about “Echoes in Time” in the first place. She didn’t know Adams was involved either, The Globe reported.

“We were completely in the dark about this,” Hopkins told the paper of the four-person Native advisory team. Two other Native women also approached the Fruitlands Museum about the show, The Globe reported.

Adams claims to be related to two Ojibwe leaders who signed the Treaty with the Chippewa of the Mississippi in 1867. She created a “Broken Treaty Quilt” in memory of her purported ancestors.

“The Treaty with the Chippewa of the Mississippi 1867 Broken Treaty Quilt has deep meaning to our family as our great great grandfather Waabaanaquot signed the treaty, as did a great great uncle Mishugiiziguk,” Adams says in an artist’s statement.

A work by Gina Adams at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was marked as being available through a commercial art gallery. The facility identified Adams as “Ojibwe” and born in 1965 as part of a show that closed on May 31, 2021. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

She further indicated in her statement that she “discovered” her supposed connections to the Ojibwe treaty signatories after winning a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. She carried out her studies in 2016 at the Natural History Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian, according to her resume.

The signatories of the 1867 treaty include Wau-bon-a-quot and Mijaw-ke-ke-shik, according to a treaty volume. Negotiations were completed in Washington, D.C., in March of that year and the government-to-government agreement was ratified and proclaimed a month later.

Wau-bon-a-quot was known as a leader of the White Earth Nation, one of the federally recognized Ojibwe tribes in present-day Minnesota. Despite repeatedly boasting a connection to the treaty signer, Adams has acknowledged to allies that she is not a citizen of the tribe, The Globe reported.

“I’ve worked with Gina in the past and she has always been straightforward, candid, and transparent about her identity,” May of the Fruitlands Museum told the paper. “She’s not enrolled in a tribe and she’s never said she was enrolled.”

And while Adams has discussed on numerous occasions her supposed Ojibwe heritage, she does not explain her connection to the treaty signer other than to assert that her grandfather — her mother’s father, she recounts in a Brooklyn Museum video — was supposedly taken from the White Earth Nation at the age of 8 and sent to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. She says her grandfather “never returned” to his alleged place of origin.

“My grandfather used to call it ‘White man training school,’” Adams says of Carlisle in a video created for the Nordamerika Native Museum in Switzerland.

In the Brooklyn Museum video from May 2020, Adams says her maternal grandfather stayed at Carlisle for 10 years, until he was “roughly 18 years old.”

“He never returned to the reservation,” she says at around 10 minutes into the virtual presentation. “He was seen as one of the model students. He went into the Navy and then he became an organic farmer in southern Maine. ”

In 2021, Emily Carr University of Art + Design announced Gina Adams as Assistant Dean of Foundation. Photo: ECUAD

The Carlisle boarding school school operated from 1879 through 1918. It was founded by U.S. Army general Richard Henry Pratt, who advocated for a genocidal “Kill the Indian — Save the Man” approach when educating Native children.

Records kept by Dickinson College show that a number of Ojibwe children from Minnesota attended Carlisle during the time it was open. But with Adams’ maternal grandfather being two generations removed from Wau-bon-a-quot, who was born around 1830 and died in 1898, the timeframe for his supposed placement at the boarding school does not appear to match up.

Similarly, Adams at times has claimed to be “Lakota” but little information exists as to which other Indian nation she claims. Still, her stories have led to her works being featured and displayed by numerous institutions, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, where she was identified as “Ojibwe” and born in 1965; the Museum of Fine Arts in Massachusetts, where one of her pieces was acquired through a “diverse collection” fund; and Dartmouth College, whose original mission was to educate Native students.

A number of her works are marketed as being available for sale, raising questions about compliance with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. The federal law requires works marketed as Native to have been produced by a Native artisan, which is defined as a citizen of a federally- or state-recognized tribe, or by an artist certified as such by a tribal nation.

“Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act it is illegal to market art or craft products in a manner that falsely suggests it is Native American produced if it is not,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to serve in a presidential cabinet, says in a video in support of Indian artists.

An individual who was quoted in The Globe article represents Adams in the commercial art market.

One of the Native women who raised questions about the Fruitland Museum show in fact asked the other co-curator, Shana Dumont Garr, whether the federal law was taken into account.

“I asked Shana if she’d done any due diligence, if she’d followed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and checked what [Adams’s] tribal enrollment or status is, and she said she had not,” Erin Genia, a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, told The Globe.

As for Johnson, she too admits that she is not enrolled in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, based in New York, or with any of the Mohawk Nations across the border in Canada. Her biography asserts that she is “not claimed by, nor a citizen of any nation from which she descends.”

A recent virtual talk which was to feature Johnson and her work, which relies heavily on her experience as a person of “mixed” ancestry, was marked as “CANCELLED” by Simon Fraser University Like the educational institution where Adams works as a professor, SFU is located in the province of British Columbia in Canada. Johnson is also represented by Accola Griefen Fine Art, the same as Adams.

Emily Carr University described Adams’ hiring in 2019 as a means of “Indigenizing” the campus. She was touted as one of four full-time Indigenous faculty members at the time.

The “Echoes in Time” show in Massachusetts features “sixteen contemporary artists of Indigenous descent from throughout North America,” according to the Fruitlands Museum website. Participants include:

Norman Akers (Osage)
Marwin Begaye (Diné/Navajo)
Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute)
Betsey Garand (French Canadian, English, Abenaki)
Brenda Garand (French Canadian, English, Abenaki)
Mimi Gellman (Anishinaabe/Ojibwe, Ashkenazi Jewish, Metis)
Margaret Jacobs (Akwesasne Mohawk)
George Longfish (Seneca, Tuscarosa)
Jacob Meders (Mechoopda/Maidu)
Dillen Peace (Diné/Navajo)
Sydney Jane Brooke Campbell Maybrier Pursel (Ioway)
Theresa Secord (Penobscot)
Alicia Smith (Xicana)
Alana Tapaha (Diné /Navajo)
Summer Zah (Navajo, Jicarilla Apache, Choctaw)

The exhibit runs through December 6.
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