In new roles, Yale curator seeks connections with Indigenous communities
Royce K. Young Wolf understands what it means to be denied the ability to access one’s heritage. Like four generations of her family, she attended a boarding school that discouraged her from studying her Hiraacá (Hidatsa), Nu’eta (Mandan), and Sosore (Eastern Shoshone) language and cultural practices.
In the wake of that experience, and with the support of her elders, mentors, and family, she has become a scholar, curator, and artist whose work seeks to revitalize and preserve the languages, culture, and traditions of Indigenous peoples.
Last year, Young Wolf came to Yale as the Postdoctoral Associate in Native American Art and Curation — a position that supports the study and teaching of Native American art at Yale. She was also elected as a Yale Presidential Visiting Fellow. She was recently named to dual appointments as the Peabody Museum’s inaugural collection manager of the Native American collection and as the first assistant curator of Native American art at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Young Wolf will begin those roles in June 2023 after she completes her fellowship. This past summer, as part of her postdoctoral research, Young Wolf journeyed across the country visiting Indigenous urban and rural communities and studying museum and gallery exhibits focused on Indigenous art, history, and culture.
She recently spoke to Yale News about her research and her plans for the dual positions. The interview has been edited and condensed.
As you complete your fellowship this academic year, what will you be doing to prepare for these new roles at the museums?
Royce K. Young Wolf: Part of my work will involve defining priorities. At the Gallery, one of the first tasks will be to assess the status of the Native American and Indigenous works and representation there. What’s been happening with the collections? What is known about them? What are our relationships with the contemporary Indigenous artists? We’ll need to think about the best spot in the galleries for an exhibit space and how to integrate the Native American materials into the broader collections.
At the Peabody, I’ll also need to spend some time familiarizing myself with the collections. In the immediate future, I’ll be working on the new exhibits that will be on view when the museum reopens after its renovation. It’s very exciting because, while there will be one central Native North America exhibit space, there will be many spots throughout the museum where Native and Indigenous voices and perspectives will be shared.
Speaking of Indigenous perspectives, how important is outreach to Indigenous communities that have connections to materials in the collections?
Young Wolf: It’s hugely important. There’s a big movement in the museum field to engage with traditional knowledge keepers and their communities where collection materials originated. It’s not about consulting with them once and moving on. It’s about building lasting relationships and engaging in consistent and fruitful dialogue. It begins with those upon whose ancestral lands we’re located, which means reaching out to the local tribal nations, establishing mutually respectful relationships with them, and integrating their perspectives and beliefs into the museum’s practices and programming. Through David Skelly’s leadership, the Peabody has been building a relationship with the Mohegan Tribe and is working on doing the same with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.
But this engagement goes beyond local tribal nations. The Peabody’s collections include materials from Indigenous lands throughout the world. To fully know the stories, or the gaps in the stories, of the collection materials requires building relationships across North America and across the globe. We need to locate and engage with the Indigenous people who have connections to specific materials, who still value and tend the lands, languages, cultures, and ceremonies where the materials came from, and who have a unique and important perspective on them. These areas of knowledge intersect, and you can’t have one without the other.
How do you go about building those relationships?
Young Wolf: Part of my research this summer involved traveling the country and meeting and speaking with cultural knowledge keepers and getting a feel for how we can have open, honest, and consistent collaboration. Do they have the time for that? Do they want to be involved? My role at Yale creates distance between me and my own communities and mentors. I want to make sure that the lines of communication and connection are being prioritized and cultivated.
I wish I could say that my conversations this summer were all positive, but they weren’t. That’s okay. We need to be open to criticism and open to hearing from those who haven’t had the best experience with places like Yale. They are the people with whom we need to engage with, along with the stakeholders in our communities.
How might this focus on constructive dialogue influence how you’ll go about acquiring contemporary artworks?
Young Wolf: We don’t want to separate the vibrant lives of artists from their works. The materials in the Gallery’s contemporary collections should be tended to in the same way that we tend to ancestral materials. We should know the minds, the voices, and the hearts of the people who have created them. We are extremely skilled at preserving these materials. We must be similarly skilled at preserving the materials’ stories and the intentions of the artists.
During your fellowship, you’ve also taught a graduate course in the Department of the History of Art. What excites you about teaching?
Young Wolf: Teaching is an opportunity for me to continue learning. By teaching and being amongst students who are growing, I’m able to continue to learn how my field is shifting and how the students’ perspectives are shifting. I can teach about materials and topics that many students have little access or exposure to. To my understanding, students advocated strongly for the fellowship and for these new positions at the museums. I think it would be irresponsible to not make teaching an important part of the work.
The Peabody and the Gallery are incredible examples of what museums can accomplish through teaching and educational programs. I’m stepping into a community that already values education and is reinventing how to bring college students and youth from the local community into these spaces for educational purposes. That’s very encouraging.
Your research trip this summer also involved visiting museum exhibits and cultural spaces across the country relating to Indigenous cultures and art. What did you see?
Young Wolf: I traveled all over the country visiting the latest exhibits curated and organized by Indigenous people, as well as many of the older exhibits and art spaces as I could. Each incredibly unique. For example, I visited the Field Museum in Chicago, the Pathways Indigenous Arts Festival and the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico, and the new Meow Wolf Convergence Station in Denver, which is an immersive experience that includes a Native exhibit. I purposely visited spaces without an invitation. I didn’t want guided tours. I wanted to experience these spaces just like everyone else. After viewing the exhibits, sometimes more than once, I visited some of the communities, families, and artists who have had their work presented or who had been consulted about the exhibits.
Museums and galleries have such a huge influence on our popular culture and on the minds of people who visit them. It’s both a heavy responsibility and a wonderful opportunity to craft spaces where people feel a genuine connection to the materials and stories being presented. Visiting all those spaces and listening to the perspectives of the curators and members of the Indigenous communities, from youth to elders, was such a fulfilling and enjoyable experience. It was also challenging to see exhibit spaces that still don’t have collaborative voices and perspectives from Indigenous people. All of these exhibits are inspiring my work in various ways.
It is very important that I continue making the spaces and collections at Yale accessible to a wider group of Indigenous scholars, students, and artists. To work collaboratively with them and determine the best paths forward and where we need to pause and really discuss important issues before we take action.
You started the Native American and Indigenous Speaker Series at Yale. How does that program further efforts to build bridges between the university and Indigenous people?
Young Wolf: The series is a great way to enhance collaboration. It’s an opportunity for Indigenous artists and scholars to view the collections and to share their insight and knowledge with my students and the Yale community. Last spring, we hosted conversations with three Indigenous artists: Hawk Henries and his daughter Sierra Henries (Nipmuc) and Lokosh “Joshua Hinson” (Chickasaw Nation). We also arranged Zoom presentations for my “Evoking Ancestral Memory” class by other Indigenous scholars and artists, including Chief Many Hearts Dr. Lynn Malerba and Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel (Mohegan Tribe), Karl Duncan (Arikara, Hidatsa, Mandan, and San Carlos Apache), and Hemi Hoskins (Māori, Ngāpuhi). Their expertise and work enhanced our understanding of specific collection materials and themes in my course. I plan to continue to expand these collaborations in the coming years.