In 2016, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Historic Preservation Research Associate Jennifer Byram reached out to the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac to inquire about possible Choctaw items in their museum collections. This outreach to institutions was part of creating the Chahta Imponna Database, a virtual collection of skilled works that showcases Choctaw production techniques not commonly in use and that are held in museum collections in the United States and internationally.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 41-72-10/19
The database preserves ancestral Choctaw knowledge by providing our community members access to Choctaw items originating from what is now known as the Southeastern United States. This contact initiated a working relationship between Paz Núñez-Regueiro of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac’s Americas collection and Jennifer Byram of Choctaw Nation that led to an exchange of information and a consultation regarding a number of the museum’s exceptional items from the 1700’s. During that time, a collaborative exhibit was proposed. Those early conversations created a dialogue that paved the way for this collaboration that harkens to the historic diplomatic relationship between Choctaws and the French.
When Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto first met Choctaw warriors in 1540, Choctaws proved to be a powerful player in world politics. As Choctaws, other Indigenous nations, and Europeans increasingly interacted in North America, Choctaws established a trade relationship with the French. Throughout this era, French explorers brought back Choctaw items to elite French collections. While France was a respected ally that upheld treaty terms to a greater degree than their imperial counterparts, the taking of Indigenous nations’ items from their homelands and their placement into European royal collections and museums epitomizes the complicated relationship between Choctaws and France.
Acquiring knowledge about Indigenous communities was integral to European empire-making and Choctaws were no exception. This era of rapid imperial expansion also contributed to the early stages of what would become salvage anthropology in the 19th century; such collecting sought to give testimony of Indigenous communities before the Euro-American civilizational project assimilated Indigenous peoples and their cultures. Across the globe, European empires collected items and featured them in curiosity cabinets and later in museums and universities.
Indigenous community members and scholars have long critiqued the colonial origins of many collections and advocated for institutions to collaborate with Indigenous communities (and repatriate items in some cases). U.S. laws like the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act have also raised awareness about items in collections and spurred such collaboration. Today, Choctaws are working to reconnect with the Choctaw items living outside of our community to reclaim and revitalize our ancestral knowledge and traditions.
Map by : Ryan L. Spring, Megan Baker & Jennifer Byram, 2021
Just as our ancestors, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma carries on the legacy of maintaining Choctaw culture and sharing our rich history with the world. The third largest tribe in the United States, Choctaw Nation has renewed its political and economic power and become a powerful presence and force in American life today. Despite removal from our ancestral homelands beginning in 1831 and massive changes to our political structure due to U.S. colonialism, Choctaw people have persevered and maintained our lifeways into the present. Today the Choctaw Nation Historic Preservation Department provides educational programming in arts and traditional lifeways like pottery, hide tanning, textiles, foodways, games, and language.
Our new Choctaw Cultural Center will be opening in spring 2021. The beautiful new facility near our Tribal Headquarters in Durant, Oklahoma will serve as a hub for these activities as well as exhibitions and programs. Key to this work has been locating Choctaw items that are now housed at institutions and private collections across the world. These items contain information about the techniques that our ancestors used to make them – which we now learn from in order to revitalize traditional arts. This process of relearning connects us to Choctaw ancestors as far back as 500 generations.
This research collaboration on the Choctaw collection held in Paris as well as the exhibition project at the Historic Library at Versailles between the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac are a testament to the historic relationship between Choctaws and France as well as the complex relationships between colonialism, museums and contemporary communities. The Choctaw items in the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac collection have had long, storied lives and served many purposes during their journey from the former “Louisiana” region of the 1700’s to the present. These items embody the relationships between diverse peoples from the eighteenth century and the journeys made across thousands of miles and hundreds of years. They also serve as a bridge for us and those who shared the same world and time as these items and the relationships with the distant nations that took them to Paris.
By reconnecting with Choctaw items, we are also reconnecting with our ancestors who made and used them. Not only have these items helped us reinvoke our diplomatic, nation-to-nation relationship 250 years later but they also illustrate how Choctaws have an enduring sovereignty that we have continually asserted throughout history. These items crucially remind us that Choctaw politics are inherently international and are not solely defined by our relationship with the United States.
As part of this website, the Choctaw Nation team plans to reflect on the complex histories that this French Royal collection raises. Holding these histories together helps us to establish a new chapter in our diplomatic history with France, a crucial ally throughout the 1700’s. By collaborating with the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac on this research project and exhibit, we revisit these histories and its legacies, recreate new relations, and reconnect the items of our ancestors with our community. In doing so, these objects from the past will gain a new life in the present by helping us develop a better and more equal relationship with the French. Additionally, we will also highlight ongoing Historic Preservation and cultural revitalization work within the Choctaw Nation today. This collaboration will help us to show our communities that the materials and relationships involved in this exhibit are situated within the particular histories, traditions, and material practices of Choctaw people of the Southeast and how they have brought us to who we are as Choctaw Nation today.
On behalf of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, we are honored to be a part of the North American Royal collections’ research project and the exhibition titled “A Prince’s Curiosity,” a joint project involving the Historic Preservation Department and Choctaw Cultural Center.