Dr. Daniel Swan has served as Curator of Ethnology of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and Professor of Anthropology, University of Oklahoma since 2007. Dan received his PhD from the University of Oklahoma in 1990 and has spent his career working in a variety of museum settings, including the Oklahoma Historical Society, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the Gilcrease Museum. He joined the staff at the University of Memphis in 2003, as the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum and Chucalissa Archaeological Park. As a museum anthropologist, Dr. Swan has worked over the past 35 years to develop exhibitions and publications in collaboration with Native communities to address academic and community heritage agendas.
Dan’s research has focused on the history and expressive culture of the Peyote Religion in diverse tribal and community contexts. His dissertation research, conducted in collaboration with the Osage Indian community, provided the first comprehensive treatment of Peyotism from the point of initial trial and acceptance to its maximum geographic and demographic diffusion. In 1999, Dr. Swan curated the national traveling exhibition, “Symbols of Faith and Belief: The Art of the Native American Church,” that examined the traditional and fine art traditions associated with the religion. Dr Swan worked for twenty years (1996-2015) to document the expressive culture of Navajo Peyotism. His recent research focused on the history of traditional Osage weddings and the incorporation of their material culture into the contemporary “Paying for the Drum Ceremony” of the Osage Ilonshka dances.
My introduction to Dan came from another ground-breaking cultural heritage leader I’ve had the privilege to interview, Ing-Marie Munktell of Cultural Heritage without Borders. Ing-Marie presented Dan with the 2017 University Museums and Collections Award from the International Council of Museums. Dan accepted the award on behalf of the Sam Noble Museum for its Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair (ONAYLF), a celebration of language diversity and cultural heritage that was created in 2003. Elder and teacher Geneva Navarro (Comanche), Indian educator Quinton Roman Nose (Cheyenne) and the museum’s first Native American Languages curator, Mary Linn, sought to recognize the Native language teachers and students in Oklahoma. Native communities have always valued oratory skills, and the Fair provides a venue for youth to use their Native languages publicly; the 2018 Fair featured over 1363 student participants.
In this conversation, Dan offers some context on the meaning of culture broadly, as well as shares fascinating insights into the symbolism, mysticism, ceremony and creative expression of Native American culture. I know you’ll enjoy learning about Dan’s work to honor, study and preserve important traditions and practices of Oklahoma’s Native Nations.
Meg: How do you define "culture"?
Dan: The concept of culture, a foundational component in anthropological theory and interpretation has been hotly contested in recent times. A culture as a definable set of commonly held values and behaviors assumes that uniform templates for human behavior and interaction both exists and are demonstrable through the enterprise of anthropology. We know this to be false. Culture is a web of constantly changing relationships, perceptions and beliefs that is impossible to fully describe and operationalize. I prefer to use the concept of heritage to describe the importance of the past to inform actions in the present.
Meg: Why is culture important in terms of the sustainability of communities?
Dan: Heritage is a vital component in contemporary community life. As an important arena for social interaction heritage allows people to draw from the traditions of their ancestors as an important component in defining the contemporary identities of individuals, families, and communities.
Meg: Your career has been spent in the realms of anthropology and ethnology. For those not acquainted with those disciplines, can you share what each encompasses, how they are inter-related/different..and why they are fields that are relevant to day-to-life?
Dan: Anthropology is a course of study focused on understanding the human experience, past, present and future. Anthropology is grounded in a holistic perspective and methodology. Anthropology is a relatively recent academic discipline, with the first PhD in Anthropology awarded in the United States by Franz Boas at Columbia University in 1907. The discipline is divided into four sub fields; cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, archaeology and anthropological linguistics.
Ethnology is a 19th century term for cultural anthropology, literally defined as the comparative study of cultures or societies. It remains in general usage in museums with anthropology collections. I do consider myself an ethnologist based on my activities as a curator of ethnographic collections and a cultural anthropologist who undertakes collaborative research to address selected aspects of the heritage agendas of Native American communities.
Meg: For 35 years, you have worked as a museum anthropologist to develop exhibitions and publications in collaboration with Native communities to address academic and community heritage agendas. Are you a member of a Native Community? What drew you to this work?
Dan: I am a European American with no indigenous ancestry. I grew up in rural New York State and learned about the Iroquois Confederacy in Jr. High School. I was fascinated. This interest coincided in my participation in American Boy Scouts where many programs emphasized an appropriated form of “Indian Lore”. A trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, USA at age 14 initiated a fascination with the American West and an opportunity to interact with Native Americans. As a high school student I became engaged in the national American Indian Movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970s.
The American Indian Movement was founded in Minneapolis in 1968. AIM is a civil rights organization dedicated to social justice issues for Native American communities and their members. AIM has successfully defended the sovereign treaty rights of Native Nations and actively expanded social and political programs in Native communities.
I discovered Anthropology as an academic discipline in Junior College while training to be a radiographic technician. I abandoned a two-year professional degree to earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from SUNY Binghamton followed by graduate school at the University of Oklahoma where I earned a PhD in 1990. My training at OU emphasized collaborative research agendas with Native communities and a methodology grounded in extended and intensive fieldwork.
My generation of museum-based scholars joined the profession in largely serendipitous manners. There were no museum studies programs. I “discovered” museums during my graduate studies, when I entered into contract employment with the Oklahoma Historical Society. What I first thought of as a different sort of summer job, developed into a potential career track. I enjoyed the collections based research and embraced the potential for public education through museum-based anthropology. I remained with the OHS for 11 years, serving in a variety of capacities.
As I approach 40 years in the business I had the opportunity to serve as a curator and administrator in a variety of museum settings, including a historical society, community cultural center, science center, art museum, archaeology site, and a museum based natural history museum. My favorite aspect of my work was the production of exhibitions and their associated programs.
Meg: What do you see as the key academic and community heritage agendas in Native communities today?
Dan: This is an interesting moment in the relationship between academia and Native American communities. The agenda of various disciplines has taken a strong turn toward collaboration and the incorporation of an indigenous research methodology, grounded in respect and reciprocity. At the same time Native Nations are working to protect their intellectual property and monitor academic research in their communities. Many have established formal systems to officially review academic research proposals with the power to grant and deny approval. Native Nations are also increasingly represented in the academy and its associated literature. Native scholars working in Native American academic pursuits bring a much need voice to the academy.
Meg: Could you speak to the issue of cultural appropriation, and offer suggestions on how people can adopt dimensions of another culture that they admire without infringing on that culture's rights?
Dan: Cultural appropriation occurs when beliefs, practices and material culture are removed from their original contexts and used in inappropriate manners. Cultural appropriation violates protocols in the source community that govern the use and circulation of ideas and their symbolic representations. A feathered bonnet type of headdress is a good example. In many Native American communities that headdress is a symbol of leadership, wisdom and bravery. Not everyone in that community has the right to wear this bonnet. When non-community members take this head dress and use it as a Halloween costume or a fashion statement it is offensive and violates the cultural property rights of indigenous people.
Meg: Your research has focused on the history and expressive culture of the Peyote Religion in diverse tribal and community contexts. This sounds intriguing. Can you describe the religion, and share some of your experiences?
Dan: Peyotism is a Native American religion that coalesced on the reservations of southwest Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) in the 1860s-70s. The religion follows a basic creed of right living and seeks a source of inspiration and guidance through prayer and reflection. Peyote is a holy sacrament used in the ceremonies of the Native American Church as a source of divine insight and instruction. Mr. Harding Big Bow was a member of the Kiowa Nation and a talented artist (painter). He was raised in the Native American Church and became a Roadman, or ceremonial leader. He was elected as the President of the Native American Church of Oklahoma.
My work with the Native American Church (NAC) has taken a number of routes over my career. I have worked with numerous communities to document the history of the religion among their members. In particular my early research produced an ethnohistory of the religion among the Osage Indians of Oklahoma. During the course of this work I developed a close professional and personal relationship with a congregation of Black Dog Peyotists in Hominy, Oklahoma and in particular with Mr. Preston Morrell, Roadman (Pastor) at his family’s Church. Mr. Morrell also served as a Priest for the NAC of Oklahoma for several years. Mr. Morrell and I shared a friendship for over 25 years, 8 of which I lived three miles from his home and spent almost every day with him in one manner or another. These were some of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my career.
Through a close collaboration with Mr. Harding Big Bow I became interested in the expressive traditions that evolved in connection with the Native American Church. Wherever the religion was adopted certain expressive forms quickly developed including song composition and performance, use of the rattle and water drum, techniques to construct and decorate the ritual instruments and personal accessories. A robust fine art movement often emerged soon after the adoption of Peyotism with an emphasis on painting. Mr. Big Bow and I co-curated a national traveling exhibit (1999-2003), Symbols of Faith and Belief and published a catalog of the same name. I continued my research (1996-2014) working to document the development of localized aesthetic forms and innovative artistic approaches in various communities in Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Lastly, I have worked with the formal organizations of the Native American Church in their efforts to comply with the state and federal regulations that govern their religious practices. My work in this area is often at the local, chapter level, but I have collaborated with the Native American Church of Oklahoma on a number of projects. At various points in my career I have developed resources to educate state law enforcement officers (District Attorney Investigators) and federal agents (US Customs) on the legal rights of Peyotists.
Meg: The national traveling exhibition, “Symbols of Faith and Belief: The Art of the Native American Church” examined the traditional and fine art traditions associated with the religion. Can you describe the exhibit, and share what you learned in creating that exhibit and what you sought to communicate?
Dan: While Senior Curator at Gilcrease Museum, in collaboration with Harding Big Bow and other members of the Native American Church of Oklahoma, we produced the national traveling exhibition, Symbols of Faith and Belief, a 3000 square foot exhibition of the artistic traditions associated with the Peyote Religion and the Native American Church. The University Press of Mississippi published a book in conjunction with the exhibition that provides definitive treatment of the expressive culture of the Church. The exhibition opened at Gilcrease Museum in January 1999, traveled to Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Sam Noble Museum and completed the tour at the Navajo Nation Museum in Windowrock, Arizona in June 2003.
Symbols of Faith and Belief explored the ways the religion has assisted Native peoples in developing and preserving these identities while assisting in their adjustment to new social, cultural and economic circumstances. Key to its emergence, acceptance and dissemination are the ritual, theological and artistic traditions that have developed within the Church. The understanding of the emergence of these expressive forms provides insight into the changing nature of American Indian life during the 20th century. The Native American Church provided a structure for the continued practice of earlier religious traditions and beliefs. Many of these focus on the interpretation of natural elements (Sun, Moon, seasons) and the rites of passage through life including the naming of children and the funerals for the dead.
The interpretive content of the exhibition provided historical, social and anthropological contexts for the traditional and fine art forms associated with the Native American Church. Staffs, fans, rattles, jewelry, drumsticks and other objects used by the members of the religion were juxtaposed with narrative and symbolic paintings inspired by the theology and ceremony of the Native American Church. These art works were combined with historic and contemporary photographs, narrative text panels, supporting graphics, and audio programs of the songs and musical instruments that are central to the ceremony. The narrative content of the exhibition incorporated quotes from leaders, officials and members of the Native American Church, derived from archival sources and oral history interviews.
Meg: Your recent research (2010-2016) focused on the history of traditional Osage weddings and the incorporation of their material culture into the contemporary “Paying for the Drum Ceremony” of the Osage Ilonshka dances. Can you share an overview of the Osage culture and what you learned about the wedding traditions and the melding of intangible and material culture?
Dan: My research, with Jim Cooley, a Research Associate in the Ethnology Department at the Sam Noble Museum, on Osage Weddings examined the role of gift exchange, motivated by the values of generosity and hospitality, as a critical factor in the preservation and perpetuation of Osage society.
The Osage Nation is located in modern day Osage County in north central Oklahoma, USA. The social and political life of the contemporary community centers around three named geographic groups commonly referred to as “districts.” These are identified with the modern towns of Pawhuska, Hominy and Gray Horse.
Our analysis begins with an in-depth examination of the Mízhin form of marriage, or holy matrimony. At an early point in their tribal history the Osage people developed a form of sacred matrimony called Mizhin. This form of marriage was arranged between the families of a young woman and a young man who had no previous contact prior to their betrothal. Mizhin weddings involved strict incest prohibitions, extensive negotiations and elaborate gift exchanges. These weddings included an elaborate process of consideration and negotiation that consisted of four days of intensive social interaction between and within the families of the prospective bride and groom. Extended kin groups in both families worked to accumulate the food, horses, bridal outfits and other materials exchanged in the ceremony. Similar patterns of social relations governed the distribution of these materials following their exchange. Considerable respect and status was extended to individuals who placed their personal interests aside and married to benefit their extended lineages. This elevated status extended to children produced through these unions. Mizhin marriages were central components in the reproduction of Osage society and their cessation in the 1930s relegated this role to other domains and settings in Osage community life.
The decision to enter into a Mízhin form of matrimony was truly a decision to bind two extended Osage families together for economic, biologic, and social reasons. While marriage might be a very personal event in a value system predicated on romantic love as the foundation, a Mízhin wedding was intended to produce value for a much larger segment of society. Weddings also provided opportunities to promote and support familial and community cohesion through the enactment of socially defined mores, values, and roles.
After the cessation of arranged Mízhin we trace the movement of Osage bridal regalia into the “Paying for the Drum” ceremony of the Osage Ilonshka.
The Ilonshka is the Osage variant of the Plains Grass Dance, a nativistic movement that spread throughout the Plains and Prairie regions of the United States in the 1890s. The Ilonshka has been an important part of the cultural life of Osage people for over a century. The dance and its associated organization provide a spiritual charter for the survival of the ancient Osage physical divisions, or “districts” as they are called today.
This process of re-chartering elements of material culture and their associated meanings represents an example of the propensity of the Osage people to adapt their cultural values to changing economic and political conditions. At the core of this evolutionary trajectory is a broad system of social relations predicated on status, reciprocity, and cooperation. Through Osage weddings and the Ilonshka dance the Osage people reinforce and strengthen the social relations that provide a foundation for their respective communities.
We worked to create a narrative that draws heavily from Osage oral tradition and ethnographic memory. A major objective of our research was to produce a North American compliment to ethnographic documentation of exchange systems in other regions of the world. Our work provides a detailed examination of the re-chartering of material culture in multiple social and historical contexts. We demonstrate that exchange systems continue to provide a means to produce social relations in conjunction with full incorporation in the dominant market system and a history of relative wealth. Osage bridal attire provides a strong example of Native Americans using the tools and materials of colonialism to develop new forms of expressions of identity and sovereignty.
Meg: I was intrigued to learn the creation of the Sam Noble Museum dates to the days when Oklahoma was still a territory and not a state. Can you provide an overview of the Museum's history and some context about its mission in its cultural landscape?
The founding of the Sam Noble Museum dates back to 1899 when a transitional territorial government was laying the groundwork for statehood and creation of state institutions. At the time, Native American culture was often perceived to be part of natural history, creating a complicated legacy of balancing forms of knowledge, physical artifacts, and representations of nature/culture that continue to be negotiated. The contemporary Sam Noble Museum—a state-of-the-art building opened in 2000—foregrounds the natural and cultural history of Oklahoma. While the official full name of the museum is still the “Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History,” the actual programs and partnerships of the museum reveal a much broader framework. In particular, the Departments of Ethnology, Archeology, and Native American Languages use the spaces and resources available to them to highlight the Indigenous histories and cultures of Oklahoma, in close dialogue with Oklahoma tribal representatives. The project we are currently proposing follows the efforts of culturally oriented curators to transform institutional practices through engagement with Native communities.
The museum is not only concerned with representations of the past, but also the present and future of Native Oklahoma communities. The museum works to provide sites to mediate between public and tribal audiences, including the annual Native Crossroads Film Festival & Symposium, now approaching its fourth year. In collaboration with media specialists at OU and at institutions across North America, the free festival has brought films, filmmakers, community members, scholars, and students together for a week of screenings and panel discussions. People travel from across the state and across the world to attend, and the cultural energy at these packed events is palpable. The event is guided each year by a thematic focus, and Native music will certainly feature as a central focus in the coming years. As a separate event in 2013, the museum hosted a free screening of the 1977 film “Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope” dubbed into Navajo, a project resulting from a collaborative agreement by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department, the Navajo Nation Museum, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox and Deluxe. Like all institutions, the Sam Noble Museum continually changes according to the needs of the peoples it serves. Ongoing processes of tribal consultation and collaboration are essential to these changes.
Meg: In 2003, the Sam Noble Museum founded the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair (ONAYLF). Can you talk about how and why the idea came about, and what some of the original goals were--and offer cultural context for those?
Dan: ONAYLF began in April 2003 at the Sam Noble Museum. Elder and teacher Geneva Navarro (Comanche), Indian educator Quinton Roman Nose (Cheyenne) and the museum's first Native American Languages curator, Mary Linn, sought to recognize the Native language teachers and students in Oklahoma. The Fair has encouraged and supported the efforts of Native communities in Oklahoma and the surrounding region to document, revitalize and perpetuate their ancestral languages. While many of our original goals are the same, they have grown as the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair has grown. We feel that the Fair supports individual and community goals in language maintenance, revitalization and renewal through its unique structure and format. The Fair relies on panels of Native speakers, elders and educators as judges to gauge language use, fluency, spirit of performance and stage presence. This places authority back in the communities to balance academic and community interests. The ONAYLF has also worked to promote the value of language diversity in Oklahoma. The museum and its curatorial staff have been instrumental in working with tribal communities and the Oklahoma State Education Department to develop standards and a credentialing process for Native Language teachers in Oklahoma public schools.
Meg: Can you talk about the role of oratory skills in Native culture and the impact of outside cultural influences on that skill and subsequently on the community?
Dan: Native American Societies were historically oral societies. All forms of traditional knowledge were transmitted largely through the transmission of oral tradition. Oratory skill in both ceremonial and secular contexts remains an important virtue in contemporary Native American societies. The transition to a reliance on English language has impacted certain forms of oration, often requiring that “speakers” code-switch between an indigenous language and English.
Meg: Can you give us a snap shot of the kind of activities that take place at the Fair, and describe one or two moments or experiences that might crystalize its impact for readers?
Dan: The Fair has evolved to better reflect and support community agendas in language maintenance and revitalization. The Fair has expanded and adjusted in response to changing student interest and motivation. A seminal moment in the history of the Fair occurred with the addition of a “Modern Song” category in 2010. Cherokee Nation Immersion School’s 3rd-5th grade choreographed performance of “My Girl” followed the next year by the Chickasaw Nation Language Program’s 3rd-5th grade performance of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”© transformed the Fair into a vehicle of student-driven new expressions. The addition of a “comics and cartoon” material submission category provides an additional example of our efforts to keep the Fair relevant in the ever-changing nature of youth culture. A significant increase in the number of individual spoken word entrants over the past three years necessitates the addition of a fourth performance venue at the 2018 Fair. We interpret this as evidence of increased confidence and competency among student language learners as they move beyond the support and security provided by group performances. Insight into the evolving nature and agendas of language revitalization across the state and region is an important component in the work of the NAL Curator. This is a critical element in our on-going efforts to sustain and expand the level of community engagement at the core of the Fair.
Meg: Last year the Museum received the 2017 University Museums and Collections Award from the International Council of Museums because of this initiative. Can you talk about how the Language Fair provides a valuable model for similar events that address cultural diversity, language revitalization and heritage preservation?
Dan: The Language Fair provides a valuable model for similar events that address cultural diversity, language revitalization and heritage preservation. The Fair provides multiple examples of the museum’s varied approaches to engaged scholarship and institutional collaboration with indigenous communities. Our partnerships function at multiple levels of engagement and include a first language speaker and educator employed as Fair Coordination, an inter-tribal steering committee comprised of language teachers, tribal officials and second language learners, Native American student interns, and community volunteers who act as judges and program assistants at the Fair. While our work in this area is highly contextual to Oklahoma, it does provide insight into larger issues of power-sharing and community authority. Our work with tribal governments to identify mutual agendas and funding strategies would be relevant in a number of institutional and programmatic settings. In the direct transfer to other situations of language revitalization and the education of second language speakers the Fair provides potential for direct transferability at varying scale. The same model is highly applicable to family, classroom, community, regional and national contexts. The budget for the Fair is a product of scale and can be revised for any sized group, requiring relatively minimal direct funding.
Meg: Can you share your thoughts about the implications the Fair has for the local community and the world at large?
Dan: The Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair is a signature public program at the Sam Noble Museum and is the museum’s largest annual engagement with Native American Communities. The Fair generates a tremendous amount of pride and positive recognition for the University of Oklahoma and creates a singular opportunity for students and teachers from dozens of Native American communities to gather and exchange ideas, methods and accomplishments. In many ways the Fair creates a diverse language community for student interaction and engagement, often difficult to achieve in educational and community contexts. The Fair thus produces an important social context for language revitalization; it establishes a vibrant environment for presenting Native languages and promotes the acquisition and refinement of conversational and literacy skills for second language speakers. Curators and staff establish connections with community members that develop into collaborative initiatives in curriculum development, resource preservation and language documentation. Through its material submissions the Fair provides support and outlet for various genres of expressive culture, particularly visual and literary arts. The Fair now includes teachers who were student participants in past Fairs, and numerous instances where past students pursued higher education in a range of disciplines including linguistics, anthropology and education.
Meg: I had the privilege several years ago to interview linguist Michael Krauss, who served as the director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until his retirement in June 2000. In his 1991 address to the Linguistic Society of America, Mike was among the first to create an awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. In talking with Mike, he made the point that just as we have learned that our planet needs biodiversity to survive and thrive, so too we of the human condition need intellectual diversity. Do you have a point of view on the importance of preserving linguistic heritage for both the local community and for the world at large?
Dan: Every loss of an indigenous language represents the loss of a word view, a unique understanding of the universe based on millennia of experience and practice. The knowledge represented in this ontology is invaluable. The loss of each endangered language diminishes us as a species. At the community level the retention and perpetuation of a native language is at the core of modern identity and represents the major heritage concern in Native American communities.
Meg: The roles of museums within communities is evolving significantly. How would you describe that role in the early days of your career, and today?
Dan: Over my career I have witnessed a significant shift toward community engagement and collaboration. Museums, and in particular museum-based anthropology has been dramatically transformed over my career. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act transformed the relationship between American museums and Native American Communities. Native communities are today full partners in determining the disposition and use of ethnographic objects in museum contexts. Museum interpretation has shifted from one of the authority of the academy to an interpretive partnership where native authority is appreciated and incorporated in the planning and production of exhibitions, publications and public programs.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.