Decolonizing Museums and the Autry’s ‘Reclaiming El Camino’ Exhibition

In early December, the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles opened an ambitious new exhibition, “Reclaiming El Camino: Native Resistance in the Missions and Beyond,” dedicated to exploring the history of the El Camino Real, the 600-mile route connecting 21 Spanish missions from San Francisco to San Diego—from an Indigenous perspective.

The new exhibition, guest curated by Coastal Chumash scholar Deana Dartt, works to recenter Native lives and resistance in the story of California and its Missions, which, she told ARTnews, have been all but completely absent from mainstream histories and education about the period until recently.

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An antique theater painted blue with grey horizontal stripes.

Covering hundreds of years and spanning a vast geographical area, the exhibition blends history and contemporary art—featuring works by Native artists like Gerald Clarke (Cahuilla), James Luna (Puyukitchum/Ipai/ Mexican American Indian), and others—to engage museum-goers in the deep legacy of the Mission colonization and its relevance today.

“There were living Native people who were fighting against that regime the entire time,” Dartt said. “I use the artwork of living Native people who are fighting against the regime now to engage in each of those eras. Then, we show all the things we are doing to assert ourselves, despite that. I feel like it is ultimately celebratory, but it doesn’t shy away from what happened to us.”

ARTnews spoke with Dartt to discuss the new exhibition, her activism and scholarly work aimed at decolonizing museums, and the difficulties in bringing this history to a wide audience.

This interview has been edited lightly for concision and clarity.

ARTnews: How did you get involved with the Autry, and where did the idea for this exhibition get started?

Deana Dartt: As a Coastal Chumash woman, I have lived in Southern California all my life. I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, a little bit away from Chumash homeland. It’s on my mom’s side, and she was born and raised in Montecito, not far from our ancestral village. I was raised in the Valley and I went to public schools in Los Angeles and we never learned about California Indian people, nor did we learn anything about the Native experience in the Missions. Nor did we learn anything about the Native experience of the Mexican period or the American period, or where Native people are today. I initially went to graduate school for my tribe and I was just preparing to do cultural resource work for my community. But I started taking classes in museum studies, and I started seeing how critical analysis of museum representation, especially from Native scholars, was really intriguing to me, because I grew up in a place where there was no public representation of California Indians.

My dissertation research looked at how Native people along the central coast of California are represented. Namely, this area from San Francisco to southern Orange County, where there are no federally recognized tribes. And that’s also the swath of the Missions. I did a critical analysis of the museums—the natural history, history, and art museums and the 19 operating Mission museums—and then I interviewed Native people from that same region about what stories they would they tell if they had the resources to have a tribal museum. They’re two entirely different sets of stories and experiences and perspectives. That is the foundation of this exhibition. In my conclusions for the exhibition, I said, clearly, the museums and the Missions aren’t going to do this work. They haven’t done it to date. There has to be an intervention by Native people.

The Autry is the closest thing to a Native American museum in California, with the exception of the tribal museums. But tribal museums are not as well-attended as mainstream museums. I really wanted to stage this exhibition in a mainstream museum. … The Autry has Native staff and leadership and so it was a viable place for this project. There are not a lot of mainstream museums that would have taken on a project that uses genocide to describe what happened in the Missions, even though 90 percent of Native people refer to the El Camino Real and the Franciscan missions as sites of genocide. It’s still controversial among white historians who didn’t actually live the experience and within the legacy. We’re still living within the legacy of the Mission genocide and that is evident in the fact that there are no federally recognized tribes on the coast from San Francisco to San Diego. There’s a lasting impact.

The goal of the exhibition is not only to retell and recast this history, but to invite Californians into a position of allyship, of standing with us, seeing us, reconciling with this history, and supporting us in our efforts to be seen, to regain land, and to attain sovereign status as Indian communities.

A painting showing a Franciscan monk as an alien holding a cross. A group of people, as in a Renaissance painting, surround him.

Katie Dorame, Neophyte Baptism, 2014, oil on canvas.

Courtesy the artist and the Autry Museum

Is this new Indigenous perspective already reflected in the contemporary historiography or is that something you had to generate through the research that went into the exhibition?

There are writers now reconciling and critically analyzing that period. But that doesn’t translate to the public in formal learning environments. We just haven’t seen it. Who, among mainstream Californians, are actually reading scholarly manuscripts? There are several Native and non-Native historians that are taking the Missions to task. But the museums aren’t at all. For me, as a visual learner, the incredible, edgy contemporary art that is in this exhibition really engages people in a way that a history book usually can’t.

Even the K–12 curriculum has come a long way, where schools today usually introduce Native American history in third grade and then the Mission story in the fourth grade. I don’t remember them doing even that in 1971, when I was in school. But, at this point, a lot depends on the teacher. The curriculum is written in a way that allows teachers to use creative agency to tell the story in a more critical way, but not all of them do. The impact I really want to make is on these children, because the number one audience for this exhibition is fourth graders, learning about the settlement of California.

If you went to school in California, you probably made a little sugar cube Mission or a little Mission replica. They’ve been doing that for decades, glorifying those places. They’re so glorified. The Missions host convenings and weddings and have opulent gardens in the former workspaces. Those central quads were sites of slavery and now, they’re fountains and roses and people get married there. It’s really disgusting.

[In recent years, the sugar-cube replicas of Missions have been eliminated from California curriculums, amid a wider shift in how the Mission period is taught in public schools, as KTLA5 reported in 2022.]

What are the different strategies you use in the exhibition to teach this history to people who might not otherwise engage?

We use multimedia. There are several videos of contemporary artists talking about the Mission legacy. There’s a lot of text, of course, but then there is the juxtaposition of historic materials that come from the Autry’s permanent collection. Some of the contemporary works come from the Autry’s permanent collection, some were acquired for the exhibition, and others are on loan from the artists or their galleries. It’s a dialogue—a dialogue between scholarship and contemporary artists. It’s very immersive. I really feel like I set up the story in words and then the artists bring it home with some image or object that really exemplifies what I’m talking about. In that way, it’s very powerful.

Stephen Aaron, the director of the Autry, likes the use of materials to tell a story. The beauty of museums is that we’re using objects and art to engage the visitor. There are a lot people who don’t learn from words. I feel like you could go through this exhibition without reading a single text panel and understand perfectly what’s happening. I think we’ve pulled it off.

It’s a big topic, both geographically and temporally. We cover from pre-Contact, through three colonial eras, across a geographic span from Baja [California] to San Francisco. We cover all the laws and all the movement of Native people and the diversity of cultures. It could be a whole dissertation. It could be a whole series of books. It was really challenging to get it down to 100 words per panel. But it’s fun for me, as a scholar, to take what I’ve written and then make it available to a broad audience. That’s my jam.

Did you bring in contemporary art in order to compensate for a lack of historical objects? Or was there another motivation?

The motivation was really to emphasize the present day and to amplify these incredible artists so that they could tell this story. They are all individually grappling with the Mission legacy. I wanted to bring them in concert together with the historic materials. I didn’t want to use historic materials.

The hat that we borrowed from the British Museum was one historic object I wanted because it pulls a lot of things together. The hat-weaver was a Chumash woman incarcerated in the Missions and made to or requested to—we don’t know—weave a hat for the Padre with a big wide brim. Ever since it left California in 1792 to go to the British Museum, it’s been called the Padre hat. But when I saw it in person, five years ago, I knew immediately that it was a Chumash women’s work hat. It became a Padre hat because she was incarcerated and forced to make it. During the Mission period, Chumash weren’t even allowed to wear their own hats or regalia. And, so, she had to give what would have been an important item to the person who was incarcerating her.

We had a ceremony when we uncrated the hat, welcoming her back home after 230 years across the sea and placed her in the vitrine with several other women’s work hats. This beautiful hat represents not only the complexity and sophistication of the art form, but also the resistance and resilience of carrying on traditional practices. A glimpse of a time where, even under them most opporessive conditions, Native people found ways to adapt and survive. As we returned her to community among those other hats, she left behind the British Museum’s designation as a “Padre” hat and returned to “Sumelelu”,  a women’s workhat with a brim. The documentation going forward for this relative will reflect her role in the long line of women’s traditional weaving along the California Coast, and the teachings she shared with her fellow weavers when she came home. 

Curator Deana Dartt (L) with curators from the British Museum during the installation of the Sumelelu, Chumash women’s workhat, at the Autry.

Courtesy Deana Dartt

That reminds me of LACMA’s 2022 exhibition of Colombian Indigenous art, “The Portable Universe,” and how it took pains to contextualize objects and place them in conversation with one another. There was a lot of talk around that show about the proper way to present an Indigenous exhibition, both in its presentation and the direct involvement of tribal members. It feels like a frequent question in institutional spaces and the art world, given the long history of museums as repositories of colonial knowledge extraction. When you’re working on an exhibition like this, do you ask yourself that question?  Do you feel that inherent contradiction?

Absolutely. It’s half of my work, really. My business, Live Oak Consulting, does decolonization trainings. I started doing them only for museums, to start liberating the art and materials from those colonial institutions and making them more accessible to communities, but also making those ivory towers more amenable or workable for Native people who are employed within them. Part of my work is making an intervention from the back end. And then this curatorial work is trying to make an intervention from the front end. But it’s all about decolonizing the museum, recognizing that these are storehouses of our most precious relatives and belongings and that we need to be interfacing. Those are our incarcerated ancestors and, while museums don’t generally see them as living beings that have to be in contact with their descendants, we see them that way. We need all types of activism, right? We need grassroots activism—people protesting in the galleries and throwing paint on statues—but we also need professional activism that gets a foothold institutionally, so that we can shape policy that’s more inclusive. That’s the work that I do.

Last year, we released standards for museums with Native American collections, written by Native scholars and vetted by 70 Native professionals and allied professionals. Now there’s a set of standards for those museums that hold our materials. It has no teeth to it. People are going to do what they’re going to do, but now there’s a field-wide bar to strive to. And hopefully, there’ll be some peer pressure among the major museums to comply.

What you see at the Autry is my own tribal history, in the context of many of my relatives all along the coasts, including in Mexico. And also it complicates that history of our connectedness to Mexico. There are a lot of Indian people who no longer remember that we’ve actually been traveling up and down that coast and intermarrying long before there was a border. Doing this in 2024 was important to me, because 1824 marks the Chumash revolt. So it symbolizes that we’ve been pushing back against colonialism all along. And 1924 marks the American Indian Citizenship Act and the year that they started manning the US-Mexico border. That year codified American Indians at the same time it codified Mexican Indians. Putting a border between them so that forevermore we’ve been seen as two separate peoples. We’re not two separate peoples. … There’s DNA research published just a couple of months ago in Nature that says that Chumash Island and mainland DNA is the same as Northwest Mexico and Baja. For 7,000 years, we’ve been intermarrying with people in Mexico and moving up and down that coast. We need to remember our connections to the land and to each other, as well as garnering support from potential allies to help us do that work.

Weshoyot Alvitre, Toypurina: Our Lady of Sorrows, 2020-2022. Ink on paper in leather binding.
Museum purchase.

Courtesy of the Autry Museum

I recently wrote about Nicolas Galanin’s “Interference Patterns” exhibition at SITE Santa Fe. One thing that I really liked about his work was how the making of the work and the making of the exhibition itself was reparative, as in taking Indigenous objects back and recasting or recontextualizing them. That seems to me a through line in a lot of work by Indigenous artists and curators. The strategies seem to repeat.

It’s a concerted strategy. There are a lot of us doing this same work. Recently, I was at an Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums Conference, where we do a lot of this strategizing, and Cristobal Martinez, a Native artist [who is a member of the collective Postcommodity], said, “It’s time that we move from tactical to strategic.” We can no longer demonstrate on the fly. Doing this work as a force, as a movement, requires us to be in concert with one another. And there are a lot of us at this point. I’m engaged in decolonizing strategies and doing so through art and alternate forms of engagement, not just scholarship. Scholarship engages a small number of people. These bigger, more visual—more visible, highly amplified—interventions is how we’re going to get the attention of potential allies.

One of the things that always strikes me when you listen to decolonial theorists is their insistence that decolonization must be material—as in, actual objects and land returned. When I interviewed Nicholas Galanin, I got the sense that sometimes it’s not what institutions wants to hear. Is that a dynamic you’ve come across?

Oh, absolutely. You should’ve heard how many of us were telling the curator from the British Museum that the hat needs to stay. It’s here for a year and a half, but my dearest Elder, who we brought down from Santa Barbara so she could be in the presence of the hat, said that right away, and she struggles with her words because she had a stroke a couple of years ago, but she said, “This stays.” The curator responded, “I understand. I understand a lot of people feel that way.” My auntie was very matter of fact: This stays here. It happens in very practical ways and it happens in trying to move the canon in a certain direction and moving people’s hearts and minds in that direction.

The Land Back movement is even now gaining more strength. There’s parcels of land going back to Native communities all over the country. And that is part of the change in visual culture. People have seen that that’s happening. They see Lily Gladstone winning the Golden Globe [for Killers of the Flower Moon]. And Reservation Dogs on TV. There’s a growing awareness of contemporary Native life and what we’ve endured and what we’ve overcome. It’s a celebratory story at this point. You can’t jump over the trauma and genocide. But people are reckoning with it. That’s why I do the work I do. I believe that these exhibitions have the capacity to reach a lot of people and move them to be allies, move them to support Land Back, move them to stand up against their church telling the wrong story or whatever. But it’s always people that have to make a decision to be different. And there’s only so much we can do as Native people on our own.

I imagine in making the exhibition that there’s a difficult line to thread in terms of trying to represent accurately and fully the violence and devastation that the Mission system had, while also creating a narrative that returns agency to indigenous life. How do you achieve that balance?

Throughout the exhibition, there’s a dialogue of impact and response. From the arrival of the missionaries, there was resistance and revolution. We have a timeline of revolts that shows from the first impact by colonial forces that there was resistance and revolts. In San Diego, they killed the priests and burned the Mission down. The Missions don’t generally talk about that, but Native people did not passively accept this change and the domination that came with them. I really focus on Native agency throughout. There is contemporary work throughout, too. I don’t just show the Native artwork in a “We’re still here” section.

There were living Native people who were fighting against that regime the entire time. I use the artwork of living Native people who are fighting against the regime now to engage in each of those eras. Then, we show all the things we are doing to assert ourselves, despite that. I feel like it is ultimately celebratory, but it doesn’t shy away from what happened to us. That’s what it is. There’s always tension between presenting that really hard, grim story and then tacking on the “But we’re still here” section. But I don’t think the exhibition does that. This is something I’ve been grappling with for 25 years.

As far as the contemporary art, how did you decide which artists were going in? And did they create works specifically for the show? Or were you picking things that they had already made?

It was a combination. We did commission a couple of works. There wasn’t a huge budget at the Autry. But there were artists who I knew who are engaging in this subject matter like Gerald Clarke. He’s Cahuilla, a little bit inland so his people were less impacted by the Missions than us. But he’s a notable contemporary Native artist in California and a great guy doing amazing work. I wanted to include him. And he didn’t have something that represented the Mission legacy, but he had an idea about a work that he wanted to do so we commissioned it, and the Autry purchased it. Also Leah Mata’s Church Pew—that was a work in progress and the Autry purchased that before it was done. But then there are others like the Cara Romero photograph, Oil and Gold. She had just released that body of work two years ago. It really references this period and she regularly engages with this topic. So it was a mixture.

Two Indigenous women in traditional dress stand in front of a oil plant at night.

Cara Romero, Oil & Gold, 2021.

Courtesy the Autry Museum

Some of these artists were obvious because of their engagement with the Mission legacy. Some were obvious choices because they’re emerging artists from Tongva territory, from Los Angeles. We feature several of those artists. James Luna, [who died in 2018], was working 25 years ago on this topic, so we acquired a work by him that speaks to the identity and the MexicanIndian dichotomy. Mostly the notable artists are artists who are working and producing art that relates to California, being Native California, and being part of this historic legacy. And then a bunch of Tongva artists who are at various places in their careers, but who speak to being Indigenous to Los Angeles, which is a brutal reality, having 20 million guests in your homeland.

“Reclaiming El Camino: Native Resistance in the Missions and Beyond” is on view at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, California until June 15, 2025.

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