Water Protector to National Museum of the American Indian: Staff Needs Cultural Competence Training

This banner was on water protector’s jacket when told to remove it.

Published March 18, 2017


 WASHINGTON – With thousands of American Indians in the nation’s capital city last weekend for the Native Nations Rise March to support Standing Rock on March 10, it was only natural many of the water protectors ended up to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The NMAI is where many American Indians visit while in Washington, D.C. because it grants them a feeling of belonging.

That is what Jolie Varela, a tribal citizen of Tule River Tribe, did not feel when she visited the museum one week ago.

Varela, who lives in Big Pine, California, was told by a security guard she could not go into the museum unless she removed a “Water is Life” – “Mini Wiconi” patch from her jacket or took her jacket off. She also had a Leonard Peltier button and a Sitting Bull “Disobey” button. She was told she had to remove both buttons, as well.

She went to the front desk to find out if what Varela was told by the security guards was accurate. The woman at the desk agreed with the security guards.

She was not alone. Another water protector, who Varela did not know named Allison, met the same treatment at the same time.

Varela, who made two trips to Standing Rock last year and lived at one of the encampments for a two-month stretch from late October to December, feels her treatment at the museum was unwarranted.

Varela said those who she encountered were not American Indians. The security guards were African Americans and the woman at the front desk was Caucasian.

“The treatment was terrible. People who work there need to know about who we are and more about our culture,” Varela told Native News Online. “They need some cultural competence training. They should have to go through the exhibits to find out what we have had gone through as Native Americans.”

Penni Opal Plant, from San Pablo, California was in the museum at the time of the incident. Plant, a longtime activist, recorded a Facebook interview to capture the moment.

“They were really, really hurt,” says Plant. “The irony of the whole thing is those patches “Mini Wiconi” will be part of the museum some day.”

The people on the front line at the museum are not even employees of the NMAI. The security guards are sub-contractors hired by the Smithsonian Institution and the staff at the front desk are volunteers.

The NMAI public relations department emailed Native News Online the following statement in reaction to last Saturday’s incident:

The Smithsonian does not prohibit political messages on clothing, but it does prohibit bringing in signs on posts and the displaying of banners of any nature in the museum. In this one instance, one officer mis-interpreted this rule. The two water protectors were allowed into the building but unfortunately and incorrectly they were asked to remove their jackets. The rule has been clarified with all of our officers. It is not the museum’s intention that people—and certainly Native people—ever feel unwelcome or unacknowledged here. We sincerely regret this happened.



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