In this “report from the field,” we write from two perspectives, as a curator and as an advisor, on the process of interpreting Native American documents in the 2016 American Philosophical Society Museum exhibition, “Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America.” We share insights into our curatorial and representational goals, and reflect on the challenges of interpreting Indigenous heritage and traditional knowledges in materials that have been captured in colonial collections. We show how archival documents tend to silence as much as showcase ephemeral encounters, and how power in museum environments often remains embedded within the routine structures of colonial settler institutions and practices. We critique our own exhibition by noting how, despite our best efforts, inherent tensions among Indigenous histories, decolonizing ideals, and colonial archives shaped the process and resulted in irreconcilable omissions. Yet, we argue that cross-cultural collaboration is essential when working in colonial archives. Only by inviting Indigenous people into the process can we make progress toward restoring living relationships among past voices and contemporary communities. In concluding, we offer advice on practical approaches to working with Indigenous collaborators and advisors.

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