A group of Native American women who were in Washington, D.C. to take part in the Native Nations Rise March are asking for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to increase cultural sensitivity training for its workers after the women were forced by staff to remove their jackets, which were adorned with patches and pins supporting water protectors and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The patches said, “Water Is Life, Mni Wiconi.” Some of the women had spent time on the ground at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation as water protectors protesting the controversial pipeline and enduring freezing weather, tear gas, verbal abuse, and harassment from law enforcement.
Jolie Varela, a Tule River Yokut citizen who was raised on the Bishop Paiute reservation, told ICMN that it was a security officer who asked the women to remove their jackets. A front-desk worker would not give the women the name of the guard, nor would she point them to anyone in leadership at the museum to whom they could speak about the incident.
“I didn’t want to call the security officer out on her rudeness,” Varela said, “but it was very hurtful.”
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Varela shared that she and her friends had just left the closing ceremony of the event on March 11 when they went to the museum for lunch and to view its exhibits.
“As a Native woman, when I first entered that museum I was excited and proud,” she said, noting her feelings of justice at having just participated in a historic march for indigenous rights. “Shortly after I was shocked and hurt.”
Varela said a front-desk worker told her that her jacket was a “protest banner,” which is not allowed in the museum. She added that she was told by other Native attendees of the museum that day that they, too, were told to remove their water protector clothing before they could enter.
Native Americans who work at the museum were unhappy when they heard about the incidents involving water protectors.
The women “were eventually allowed into the building; however, they were incorrectly asked to remove their jackets,” said NMAI spokesperson Eileen Maxwell.
“This situation has been clarified with our officers,” Maxwell added. “It is not the museum’s intention that people—and certainly Native people—ever feel unwelcome or unacknowledged here.”
Maxwell further noted that 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 misinterpreted this rule,” Maxwell said.
The incident comes at a time when some Smithsonian leaders had hoped that President Donald Trump might soon visit the NMAI after his recent trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also located on the National Mall. There is a standing invitation to the White House from the Smithsonian to visit the NMAI, which no U.S. Presidents have accepted to date, according to Bethany Bentley, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian.
Varela said the situation “ruined” her visit to the museum, and she has been saddened to receive messages on social media saying that she shouldn’t have spoken out about the situation, which she did in videos posted to her Facebook page, along with other Native women water protectors.
Still, she made the best of a bad situation. “I felt like I had to hold my ground and put my jacket back on and see the museum anyways,” Varela said, noting that she and the other women ultimately sang a “women’s warrior song” at the NMAI that “really empowered all of us.”
Varela is now calling on the museum to train its staff in “cultural competence” and require that they walk through the museum to actually learn about the history and culture there. She has also heard from a friend, Pennie Opal Plant, that the museum may apologize, which she would welcome.
“I don’t think they grasp how traumatic a situation like that is for indigenous people,” Varela said. “I’m still dealing with how I feel because of this ordeal.
“Maybe in the future the museum will be more delicate in situations like this. I hope so. But I really do think that this all happened for a reason.”
Varela vows to return to the museum, and when she does, she will wear her water protector jacket.
“I will wear it proudly,” she said. “I am honored to have endured that time I spent at Standing Rock with all of my relatives. My jacket is a badge I’ll wear with pride.”