by Karina Prigge, Museum Studies Assistant
What Was Ours — co-produced by Jordan Dresser (MA Museum Studies ’15) — is a thought-provoking and beautifully illustrative documentary film. Presented on March 31, 2016 at University of San Francisco’s Human Rights Film Festival, it successfully captures how historical actions such as the assertion of the white society’s dominance over the Native Americans has shaped the conversation and possession of material culture. Many of the exquisitely detailed Native American artifacts are stored and displayed in museums around the country, while the Northern Arapaho and Shoshone communities in Wyoming are trying to bring these sacred artifacts home. They are having to fight for what was theirs.
Jordan, who was born and raised on the reservation does an extraordinary job uniting his culture and background with his passions for museums, art, and history. He sets out on a journey bring his people’s sacred objects back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to display in the casino’s lobby. Naturally, there is a lot disagreement about displaying important ancestral objects in a casino, but Jordan believes it is important to the community to bring back what was theirs and display it in a respectable manner. He and some other members of the Arapahoe and Shoshone community, Mikayla, a seventeen-year-old Powwow princess, and Filbert, an elder and a Vietnam veteran travel to Chicago’s Field Museum to look at the stored artifacts of their people. Their purpose is not being fulfilled and the spirituality of the objects go unnoticed.
“Natives are seen as relics of the past”, one Arapahoe member said. The Native American populations are like objects in a museum; transfixed in the past, and in “need” for others to take care of them. Jordan said, “The core of museums is to bring people alive and transform their lives.” The artifacts should be returned to the Wind River Reservation because that is where they rightfully belong. Luckily, the Episcopalian church on the reservation, has a collection of some artifacts started by Sister Edith who used to reside on the Wind River Reservation. Jordan is able to display the collection on loan, creating the Northern Arapahoe Experience Room. However, this is still problematic since the tribe is having to borrow objects that are theirs from the Church, but it was a huge step forward for the Northern Arapahoe community to “tell [their] story on [their] terms.”
One climax of the film, at least for the USF community, is when the film shows Jordan travelling to USF to begin his graduate studies here. At his graduate school orientation, USF student Rheilly Llanos interviews him about why he has decided to pursue his MA in Museum Studies. “You have come here to learn how to reclaim objects that belong to your tribe and were stolen?” she asks, incredulous at the injustice. Jordan’s mission to promote social justice and reconcile the inner conflict between chasing the American Dream and preserving his culture and people culminate in a rich, vibrant, proud community that as reclaimed “what was theirs” for the time being.
In the question and answer session after the film led by alumna Miriam Blumenfeld, Jordan stated while he was studying at USF that, “he learned the power of the museum” and it is important to “capture the knowledge.” We need to look into the past in order to shape a better future. Museums act as a bridge that connects the past with the present. Each encounter tells a different story. What Was Ours is a brilliant, moving, and hopeful film that inspires a deeper appreciation of museums and the stories that they hold inside.