Decentralization and Museums

and The Woman Who Could Not Be Content With Simple Things.

If you know me, you know I’m Seneca-Cayuga (Deer Clan) which is part of the Haudenosaunee — or what you might know as the Iroquois — Confederacy. The way I think about and relate to technology, especially blockchain, is really informed by some of the ways Haudenosaunee people encoded information: legal agreements, contracts, commerce, but also stories, wisdom, and practical know-how. We had systems for recording and sharing all this information and more.

Sometimes people joke that the Iroquois invented bureaucracy, which, hahaha, but we did invent confederate democracy! There are a lot of parallels actually, between the decentralized protocols and networks that are all the rage now, and these practices that date back centuries ago.

When I think about how I relate to the museum as an institution, it’s complicated.

When I think about how I relate to the museum as an institution, it’s complicated. As a native person, I see myself displayed in museums sometimes in strange ways. But as an artist of course that’s all I want right: to be displayed in museums in strange ways! So as I said, complicated.

When I think about my relationship with the museum, to art, to the various institutions that govern and fund, and profit from art, it gives me a certain feeling. And that feeling reminds me of a Haudenosaunee story. There are many versions of this story; this is the one my mother told (she is a retired storyteller who was given many stories by elders she worked with and performed with). Here is my own (highly abridged) version.

a photo I took in Upstate NY (my ancestral homelands) and rendered a 3d snake over it in C4D

Storytime with Amelia:

Once there was a woman who was not content. She did not wish to partner with anyone in the community and was not happy with the life she had. One day a man visited from another far-off tribe. He was stunning and alluring, and he asked her to be his partner. If she agreed he would take her to live with his people and keep her safe on the long journey.

Many people in her community tried to talk her out of following a stranger, but she made up her mind to follow this mysterious man and seek out adventure. Eventually, they arrived at his village. It was very late at night, and he asked her to stay in a small traveling tent outside of his town’s compound, away from their longhouse. The woman found this odd, but the mysterious man insisted.

At night he said a calm farewell and told her he would leave but would remain close by. The woman would be safe, he said, but he implored her to never leave their traveling tent under any circumstances. It seemed very important to him, so she promised that she would obey and not come out of the tent until he returned.

But she gets sort of lonely and bored. After all, this is the woman who could not be content with life in her own village, how was she supposed to handle being left alone in a tent? She decided to peek her head out of the tent. The moon was huge and full, and so she could see in perfect detail her mystery man, shedding his human skin and revealing his true form: a great serpent.

Horrified, she screamed. Looking around the tent she realized it was not what she thought, and the longhouse she saw in the distance was not a longhouse but many many enormous serpents the size of dragons. So she screamed and she ran.

Her former love, calls after her that she is safe and that she can join them, she can become one of them. But she kept running in fear and prayed to Heno the Thunderer, who throws lightning bolts, to stop the snakes from following her. She ran all the way home and thanked Heno for saving her. Once home she tells her story of her and Oniont the great horned serpent and Heno who saved her. She rededicated herself to her community having learned to appreciate the people who loved her.

A lot of people think that story is a type of cautionary tale. When translated into English it is often called “The Woman Who Could Not Be Content With Simple Things.” So the moral is a simple one: stay away from the dangerous and powerful serpents, even though they are so alluring, you’ll get turned into a monster, and no one wants that.

But recently I’ve started thinking, about that story of the woman who could not be content with simple things. The English version of that story comes to us from a post-colonial mindset as well and is definitely colored by Christian and western theology and their assumptions and their values.

Now the way I read it, it’s not so much about simplicity or modesty or staying in your place. It’s a cautionary tale, but it’s a cautionary tale about power. It’s about two ways of having power that we as Haudenosaunee women can have. (We are a matriarchal, matrilineal society, so when we say “women” it just means “people.” Nice change of pace.)

This story is a demonstration of the way that unchecked power of the sort represented by the Great Horned Serpent can turn you into a monster. It can make you blindly ambitious and uncaring, and it can separate you from what makes you human, which is your community. But there is another way to exercise power is to keep it focused, and always use power to the benefit of the community.

And so that’s what I feel when I think about the museum and the institutional art world. On the one hand, insiders in this world do wield tremendous power in the community. But there is always the risk that power can alienate us from our own values, to lose sight of the communities that we serve.

So that is where I am right now, thinking about how we can restructure the protocols and incentive structures and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, so as to keep the power focused on the communities where it can do the most good.

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Amelia Winger-Bearskin

Banks Endowed Chair AI and the Arts, Digital Worlds Institute, University of Florida | USDAC: Honor Native Land | studioamelia.com | She/Her | Artist