Uproar as Indigenous mother is told to remove woven baby carrier on visit to Native American museum exhibit
The Portland Art Museum has been forced to change its policies and cultural sensitivity trainings after an Indigenous woman was asked to remove a traditional willow basket she was carrying her child in during a visit to the museum last week.
Sophie Weinstein, an OBG/YN at Oregon Health & Science University, is a citizen of the Karuk Nation and of Yurok descent. Last Saturday, on what she told Underscore News was her first day off in three weeks, she ventured downtown with visiting family members to see the Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe exhibit at the museum.
Ms Weinstein arrived at the exhibit carrying her young child in a willow basket – a longstanding Indigenous cultural practice that Ms Weinstein told Underscore News she is proud to continue.
When she approached the front desk, however, museum staff members told Ms Weinstein that backpacks are not allowed in the exhibits. A relative of Ms Weinstein’s reportedly tried to explain to the staff present that the basket was not a backpack or bag, and eventually Ms Weinstein was allowed to enter the museum.
She decided to leave only partway through her visit, however, when a second staff member told her that backpacks are not allowed and instead offered her a stroller. The staff member then said Ms Weinstein should “take a deep breath” when she questioned the stringency of the rule and its enforcement.
The experience was upsetting and frustrating for Ms Weinstein on a number of levels. The notion that babies can be brought into the museum in strollers but not baskets like the one Ms Weinstein wove for her son is rooted in ethnocentrism.
Ms Weinstein told Underscore News that she imagined weaving the basket she was carrying her son in as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Her mother, Lisa Hillman, is a master basket weaver who has created a number of different baskets and supervised Ms Weinstein’s weaving along with another weaver.
It also was not lost on Ms Weinstein that site at which the basket was scrutinsed was an exhibit of Indigenous artwork produced by Oscar Howe — a Yanktonai Dakota artist whose highly acclaimed painting style is recognised as a major influence on modern Indigenous art.
“The Portland Art Museum — where being Indigenous is cool as long [as] you are part of the exhibit and not actually practicing your culture. According to the nice white lady, Leland’s baby basket is a danger to the art and also my baby,” Ms Weinstein wrote in a Facebook post shortly after leaving the exhibit. “The irony: we were at an Indigenous art exhibit. Racism is alive and well in these walls.”
The post quickly attracted attention, with a number of commenters voicing their support of Ms Weinstein and frustration with the museum.
“It seems that ignorance was the biggest display at the Portland Art Museum,” one commenter, Robin Nicole, said. “Sad. Very sad.”
The museum, for its part, issued an apology — offering Ms Weinstein and her family free museum memberships and tickets to the exhibit.
“We need to do more to prepare our staff and make sure that they are educated enough to really have a deeper understanding of some of the issues that Native people have faced, and continue to face, and are able to handle situations like this better,” Kathleen Ash-Milby, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and the museum’s curator of Native American Art, told Underscore News.