Alison Jane Edwards’ 2015 dissertation on the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian sits at the intersection of law, sociology, education, and critical race studies. It examines Indian human, civil and cultural rights struggles against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, and particularly the explores the controversy over Indian claim to Indian remains, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.
Background. The Indian rights movement came of age alongside that of Black Americans, in the 60s and 70s. One major point of distinction between general civil rights activism and the Indian rights activism is that, at all times, the sovereign rights of Indian nations were preeminent, deemed more important than those of individuals. Presumably this is because Indian nations with robust sovereignty could ensure the rights of individuals in a more meaningful and culturally appropriate fashion than the U.S. government.

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Cultural rights fit within the fight for sovereignty, because contemporary claims on museum goods scholars and policymakers thought of as “primitive” and “historical” forced the dominant culture (in possession of greatest cultural power) to see Indians as real people, here today, with rights guaranteed them under treaties with the United States. The National Museum of the American Indian [NMAI] grew out of this struggle.

Statement of the Problem. This dissertation reviews the impact of grassroots activism on policy and practice within educational institutions, specifically, museums. The author explores how a “public museum, as an educational agency, can transform itself in response to the demands of some of its patrons for social justice” (Edwards, 2015, p. 6). The inquiry stems from a desire to understand: (1) how educational institutions can become agents of change rather than of the status quo in matters of social justice; (2) how activism can make progress against institutions of the dominant culture; and (3) how U.S. law can be used to reform itself and the institutions it supports.

Objectives of the Study. The aim of this single case study is to examine whether or not, why and how Indian grassroots social activism was successful in bringing about the passage of the NMAI Act. Further, Edwards reviews whether or not the NMAI’s foundational policies embodied the stated goals of actors within the movement.

Significance of the Study. Edwards’ dissertation is significant on a number of grounds. First, it provides a scholarly model for applying Willie’s tripartite theory of grassroots social action (discussed below) to other cases. Second, it offers an example to other grassroots movements of a movement that achieved a tangible result that can be assessed and evaluated for their own use. Third, for public educational institutions wishing to transform, it illuminates a pathway. Further, the study shows that: the value of reform for both dominant and subdominant groups (p. 266-70); and the transformed institution is an interstitial space that provides a setting for mediation of competing interests (p. 270-78).

Research questions. The research questions relate directly to the theoretical lens provided by Willie et al.’s Grassroots Social Action (2008). Willie et al. identify three stages of grassroots social action: initiation, legitimation, and implementation. For each phase, Edwards asks whether and how the Native cultural rights movement meets the criteria Willie et al. have defined for success for that stage: initiation—selecting appropriate leadership and identifying goals of the movement; legitimation—inclusion of stakeholders, building horizontal and vertical connections, and neutralizing opposition; implementation phase—further inclusion not only of those who sought reform, but those who the reform sought to protect, and elements of the earlier phases are continued.

Research methodology. Edwards interviewed participants in the grassroots movement and members of the museum staff. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim except in one case where the interviewee declined to be recorded. Edwards reviewed the documents relating to the NMAI Act and the founding of the NMAI, as well as all of the congressional testimony relating to both. The documents and transcription were analyzed for themes and then for relation to the stages and criterion outlined above.

Review of the literature. Edwards identifies three major gaps in the literature. First, in reviewing museum studies literature, she finds that there is insufficient attention to grassroots social movements and their potential effects on policy and practice. Second, in reviewing “repatriation literature,” that is, literature on repossession of cultural property by Indian groups, she finds there has been little discussion of the leadership of the movements and how they achieved the goals identified by them. Third, despite the large body of literature devoted to the NMAI, she finds there has been very little research on the formation of the museum’s policies.

Discussion. Chapters 1-2 deal with background and research design, discussed above. In Chapter 3, Edwards discusses protections afforded Indian cultural rights prior to the NMAI Act, under the Constitution, federal and state law. She also examines the need for greater protections, focusing on the scientific and museum practices that led to and cause violations of those rights, specifically the institutionalization of “scientific” racism. Chapter 4 examines the initiation phase, first reviewing the rise of the “cultural rights movement” and then profiling an exemplar leader—Suzan Shown Harjo NMAI trustee and activist, several pan-tribal organizations, and an overview of the goals of the movement. Chapter 5 turns to the legitimation phase, exploring how activist leaders pursued their agenda, specifically how they obtained approval and neutralized opposition. It discusses the leadership of Walter Echo-Hawk, analyzes Congressional hearing testimony to highlight strategies and goals of the movement drawing out four key themes, and then presents a chronological narrative of the passage of the act with elements of Willie’s success criterion for the stage highlighted. Chapter 6 moves on to the implementation phase, offering a close look at the creation of the museum. Edwards reviews the NMAI Act, the NMAI policy and planning documents, and a profile of the museum’s director W. Richard West. It specifically looks to the goals identified in Chapter 5 to judge the effectiveness of the movement and of West’s leadership.

The findings. The research found that the Indian cultural rights movement met the criteria for success outlined by Willie’s theory in bringing about the NMAI Act and the NMAI. The author stresses that it is neither perfect, nor finished, however, the primary successes can be seen in the fact that the law was passed, there was and is Native participation, alliances were formed and the museum exists.

Conclusion. Edwards has examined an enormous amount of material, rigorously analyzing it with a careful eye to maintaining objectivity. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the study is limited by the theoretical lens and many of the critical insights of the dissertation are buried as themes and sub-themes of the research. Further, the organization of the material requires constant iteration and reiteration of things that could have been established upfront, or left for individual chapters. It’s clear that Edwards knows her material, but the exacting application of her thesis advisor’s theory makes it an excruciating slog with very little reward in terms of a unique contribution.

  • Edwards, Alison Jane. (2015). Grassroots Social Action and the National Museum of the American Indian. Harvard DASH Repository. (