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On the sky line” (1962-08-2667), September 1909, Crow Reservation, Montana. Photographed by Joseph K. Dixon. Wanamaker Collection of American Indian Photographs and Archive, IU Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

CCDI Awardee Indiana University Collaborates with Indigenous Artists to Prioritize Indigenous Perspectives  

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Indiana University, one of CCDI’s 2024 Higher Education awardees, is receiving $68,154.48 for their project, “Connecting Collections: Indigenous Identities in Edward Curtis and Joseph Dixon Materials.” The team began their project in December 2023 and will be presenting their work at CCDI’s upcoming Summer Fuse 2024 event in Washington, D.C. Through their project they will work collaboratively with three Indigenous artists that have cultural, geographical, and creative connections to the collections at the Library of Congress and Indiana University. The artists will access and review photographs and wax cylinder recordings gathered by Edward Curtis and Joseph Dixon and held at the Library and Indiana University and their curatorial work will materialize in an both an online and physical exhibit that shares a narrative about Indigenous temporalities and identities. Isabel Brador, a Program Specialist for the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative, interviewed the IU team to learn more about their project. 

Congratulations on receiving a CCDI Libraries, Archives and Museums award! Can you tell us about your project?  

The Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (IUMAA) is collaborating with three Indigenous artist curators to create a hybrid virtual and physical exhibit that connects with collections at the Library of Congress and Indiana University. The curators, Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo/Korean), Molina Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne), and Yatika Starr Fields (Osage/Muscogee Creek/Cherokee) will utilize and reimagine the image collections and wax cylinder recordings of Indigenous Peoples created by Edward S. Curtis and Joseph K. Dixon in the early 20th century. Though the initial creation of the collections was extractive and based in colonial practices, this project intentionally shifts the paradigm to prioritize Indigenous curators’ perspectives, knowledges, expertise, and creativity to redress colonial harm and uplift source community voices.    

This project is meant to support the curators’ needs as artists, researchers, and creatives and help make their vision a reality. Debra Yepa-Pappan is a contemporary multimedia artist who specializes in photography and digital collaging; she’s also co-founder and Director of Exhibitions and Programs at the Center for Native Futures in Chicago, Illinois. Molina Two-Bulls specializes in beadwork, quilting, and handmade dolls; she’s the founder of Molina’s Lakota Beadwork and has mentored many Native/Indigenous artists within her community. Yatika Starr Fields is a painter, muralist, street artist, and community activist based in Oklahoma.    

Guest artist, Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo/Korean). Image courtesy of Debra Yepa-Pappan.


What excites or inspires you the most about the work you’ll be able to achieve with the CCDI award? 

We’re most excited to see how the curators relate to the materials and create something new inspired by what they’ve seen and heard. Early in the grant process, we brought the curators together at Indiana University Bloomington to engage with the Wanamaker Collection of American Indian Photographs and Documents and the holdings of the Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) in person. Our team also connected with the UITS Advanced Visualization Lab (AVL) who are excited to develop a virtual exhibit where the art created by Debra, Molina, and Yatika can be digitally scanned and rendered in an interactive online gallery space. The Bloomington visit was an opportunity for consultation and collaboration between all of us, face-to-face. During these conversations the project started to solidify, and we continue to grow the project in our monthly discussions.   

The award is about connecting communities, be it our museum visitors with the peoples in these collections; the curators with each other and the exhibition audience; the different departments at IU coming together; or the Library of Congress, IU Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Archives of Traditional Music connecting disparate yet related materials. Fostering community is at the heart of sustainable relationship building and one of the bright moments that have come to light during the launch of this award. We have had the opportunity to be a connecting point for not only linking these diverse collections to descendant Indigenous curators; we have also been able to be a conduit for network building and connecting Indigenous students, faculty, and the community curators. These relational connecting points of Native laughter, joy, and dialogue create a ripple of impact that will be carried by each person and outlive the exhibit and this grant cycle. We believe this is the heart work of museums and why this award has been a point of inspiration on so many levels.    

Guest artist, Yatika Starr Fields (Osage/Muscogee Creek/Cherokee). Image courtesy of Yatika Starr Fields.


One of the goals of your project, “Connecting Collections: Indigenous, Identities in Edward Curtis and Joseph Dixon Materials,” is to create both an online and physical exhibit. Are there any major differences or similarities in planning an exhibition for a digital medium versus in-person?   

To a certain extent, the virtual and physical exhibits will be similar. The curators are each making art inspired by collection materials in addition to developing these exhibits; their creations will be displayed at IUMAA and, once 3D-scanned with the help of AVL, placed in the virtual gallery. Visitors to either space will be able to see and experience their art. Most of the content will be the same, though their lived experiences and how they may manifest within the exhibition spaces will likely be different. Another major difference is real world space limitations. Our physical museum exhibit will be in a high-traffic hallway, which is affected by wall or display case size, number of outlets, natural versus artificial lighting, hours of operation, and its location in Bloomington, Indiana. Our virtual exhibit is comparatively unlimited in scale, since we can build new gallery spaces in Spatial based on the curators’ needs, manipulate sound and lighting in intriguing ways, and audiences can visit it whenever and wherever they’re located. We can also change the virtual exhibit quickly if desired; for example, music or visuals could change according to the season and the curator’s direction. The virtual exhibit is much nimbler and more adaptable in that way.   


An integral part of your project is collaborating with three Indigenous artists that have cultural, geographic, and creative connections to the collections at the Library of Congress and Indiana University. How was IU able to form these partnerships and could you share more on the artists’ work and methodology?  

Transparency and accountability were, and continue to be, integral parts of how we approached relationship building and establishing authentic partnerships with the guest curators. One of our first points of contact with the curators was a request letter which was intentionally drafted to embody these values. The letter included 1) the grant outline, 2) timeline and work deliverables, 3) compensation, 4) a recognition of the coloniality of the collection they would be working with on this project, and 5) the Museum’s commitment to honoring and privileging their vision, direction, and expertise as Indigenous peoples. We also actively check in with the curators to ensure the collectively agreed-upon commitments made to them by the Museum are being upheld in practice, and ask if there are areas the guest curators would like to see the Museum change or grow to better support their diverse needs.  

Part of this agreement was that the guest curators would make two in-person site visits in March and October, with the first being focused on collaborative planning and exhibit development, and the second being focused on community engagement and education. Toward the end of the curators’ first Bloomington visit, we sat in community and discussed how engaging with the collections’ embedded history impacted their approach and direction for the exhibits. Debra mentioned listening to one of the recordings from her community of an individual singing, and having a moment of surprise when she heard the singer’s voice crack. The singer then coughed and, instead of continuing the song, took a moment to laugh. Debra said that this was one of the first times she had heard Native laughter in any of these types of historical ethnographic recordings within institutions like museums and libraries. She continued by saying how in that moment she felt connected in a much deeper way and felt like it was home. The recorded songs were beautiful, and she enjoyed hearing these recordings, but to Debra it was this moment of laughter that held the most significance, because for her it was a telling example of how what the colonial gaze may deem valuable can run directly counter to what may be of value and impactful through a Native/Indigenous lens.   

Molina had a similar experience with the collections, noticing a moment in the photographs where a small child in a group photo was standing to the side picking his nose. Kids will be kids no matter the context, and Molina took inspiration from the relatable and lighthearted moment, which both subverts and highlights the underlying coloniality of the photos. Despite the staged nature of the Curtis and Dixon images, which were produced to align with colonial expectations of how Native/Indigenous peoples were “supposed” to look, control is always relative, and over a hundred years later the innocent act of picking one’s nose serves to demonstrate how colonial assumptions are just that – assumptions – and Native people at any age are humans who will present themselves in various ways.  

Lastly, Yatika found connection in a series of landscape and cloud study photos. He was inspired to coordinate the digitizing of an environment in Oklahoma that has deep cultural connections to both him as an individual and to his tribal community, which will then be integrated to be the setting and background for his exhibits.   

Guest artist Molina Two Bulls (Oglala Lakota/Northern Cheyenne) with image of their artwork. Graphic courtesy of Molina Two-Bulls.


These moments of connection, reflection, and joy are at the heart of what this project is about. What advice do you have for other Higher Education organizations who are embarking on their own projects that hinge on community and artist collaborations?   

We would say to plan to compensate artist collaborators for their contributions to the project, but take note that compensation may not look like a standard invoice or honorarium payment. It will likely be beneficial to meet with folks within your organization’s financial and/or HR departments during the grant planning process to understand what the collaborators are required to do to be paid.  

Additional compensation considerations: When or how often will your collaborators be paid? What is the process by which the payments are initiated, i.e., will the collaborating partners be required to submit documentation of their contributions to the institution, or will your grants management team be responsible for initiating payments? Should collaborators expect taxes to be withdrawn from their compensation? If supplies are needed, which party will purchase those items and ensure that taxes are not applied to those purchases? If the artist collaborators purchase their own supplies, what is the process for reimbursement and is it accessible to individuals outside of the organization’s bureaucracy? 

Be sure to clearly communicate these pieces with your collaborating partners before they commit to the project! Be persistent to uphold the agreements you’ve made with the collaborators even when the bureaucracy makes it difficult! It may be beneficial to identify folks in your organization who are excited about your project and willing to help throughout, such as someone in the organization’s contracting or accounts payable team. Keep the lines of communication open, even if that means finding a different way to communicate when one method isn’t working, e.g., reaching out on Facebook or Instagram, platforms used often by artists, rather than email.  

And finally, consistently work toward being generous and humble. Let go of the power dynamics that are inherently imbedded within the working structures and operational systems of museums, archives, libraries, and academia. From the beginning, we articulated that our commitment to the guest curators was and is to honor their work and direction. What this means in practice is to honor their direction, authority, and expertise; while simultaneously stepping back, releasing control, and shifting the paradigm from being in charge to being the conduits and support systems that work to ensure their visions manifest in space.  

Summer Fuse 2024 

Interested in learning more about IU’s work or hearing from other CCDI awardees? Register now for CCDI’s upcoming Summer Fuse event on June 24! This virtual event will feature presentations from our 2024 CCDI Award Recipients, a Community-Engaged AI Panel, and our CCDI Junior Fellows and an AHHA intern.   

CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.

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