A conversation with Gabrielle Tayac, curator of IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, a new exhibition from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the National Museum of African American History and Culture:
Q. Tell us a bit about your background.
A. In professional terms, I have a Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University, specializing in historical approaches to identity issues in indigenous societies. I also come out of a long-term commitment to human rights, working with groups like Amnesty International and Survival International. In personal terms, I am enrolled in the Piscataway Indian Nation through my father, am Jewish through my mother, and grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City. I now reside in Takoma Park, Maryland, with my husband and two children.
Q. How long have you been with NMAI?
A. I came to NMAI in 1999, first serving as the Director of Education. I then moved into a curatorial role, to work on the inaugural exhibit, Our Lives, and also one that opened in 2007, Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake. Being on the "mommy track," I worked on contract from 2005-2006, and then came back permanently as a historian.
Q. What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
A. The rewards are endless. I am grateful, on a daily basis, to be involved with the project of uncovering new truths and dispelling stereotypes about Native peoples; I am profoundly honored to be participating in this new legacy of understanding through NMAI.
Q. What are some of the challenges of working on an exhibition like this one?
A. There are many, many challenges. The history and contemporary experiences of individuals, families, and communities who have blended African and Native American heritages are enormously complex throughout the Americas. A major challenge is to try to narrow down the focus and select stories among the thousands that exist. We know that we can't tell all of the stories or speak to all of the experiences, but we hope to give the public enough information so that they can learn more on their own with a set of thoughts to begin with. I am also deeply aware of the emotional pain and policy implications that affect people due to the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and dispossession, so our team is carefully approaching topics that may still be raw for people.
Q. What's the format of the exhibition?
A. IndiVisible will be a panel show and will feature some stunning and powerful images from many different sources. We will also be gathering new images from contemporary fieldwork. One of my favorites was just brought to me by our project manager, Fred Nahwooksy (Comanche), after returning from a trip home to Oklahoma. It shows Ta-ten-e-quer and his wife, Ta-Tat-y, with their niece and her children. The elders in the photo are in classic Comanche dress, while their niece (the daughter of a Comanche woman and an African American Buffalo Soldier) and her children are in early 20th-century clothing. They are clearly mixed African and Native, yet they arrive at the photo studio as a united family.
Q. What do you hope people will take away from the exhibition?
A. Our hope is that people come away with a clearer sense of the vastness of the African-Native American experience in its many aspects, with a deep understanding of the historic and contemporary groundings of real-life stories. I believe that this exhibit will speak to people of all backgrounds, who are engaged in the essentially human pursuit of being and belonging.