A few weeks ago, when I was in DC for Museums Advocacy Day, I snuck away to the National Portrait Gallery for one of the most unusual and gratifying museum tours ever. Greeting me in the lobby was my guide, a tall, smiling gentleman named DeLessin George-Warren, “Roo” to his friends. With his Stetson hat and bear-claw amulet, Roo cut a distinctive figure. His tours, as he told me rather gleefully, fly under the radar, tolerated by the powers that be, but not necessarily condoned.
Roo is many things: opera singer, dramatist, activist, queer person, member of the Catawba Indian Nation. But on this day he was my tour guide, walking me through the maze of homages to “Great People In American History,” reinterpreting them for me through the lens of Native American experience.
First he took me to see Ralph E. W. Earl’s portrait of Andrew Jackson. “Old Hickory” was celebrated for his military prowess and the rough-hewn frontier spirit that epitomized the country’s relentless western expansion. Posed regally in the classical style, Jackson in the painting is a man of great power, a power, Roo reminded me, he used to sign the 1830 Indian Removal Act that dispossessed native communities, forced them onto reservations, and began America’s great genocide.
Next on the tour was a bronze of George Washington, the venerated “Father of Our Country.” Roo recounted Washington’s painful legacy with regard to indigenous people, starting with his grandfather, John Washington, whom the natives called the “Taker of Villages” because he constructed Mount Vernon on tribal land without compensation. Washington himself earned the sobriquet “Devourer of Villages” because of his orders to destroy native communities during the Revolutionary War.
One stop on the tour was a group of 19th-century George Catlin works depicting Native Americans. Catlin, who labeled himself a scientific explorer in addition to artist, created more than 500 paintings of American Indians and their culture, documenting them in the likelihood they became extinct at the hands of American progress. The portraits Roo showed me were reminiscent of John Jacob Audubon’s bird paintings: a taxonomical rendition of an “exotic species.”
These portraits, a white artist’s interpretation of the “otherness” of his indigenous subjects, were a fitting capstone for Roo’s tour. Fundamentally, American policies and American history have treated Native Americans as others and oddities, marginalizing them, and conscribing them to reservations: places that can be controlled, but which are outside of mainstream society.
Of course, our country’s policies have marginalized more than indigenous people. African Americans, the Irish, the Chinese, the LGBTQ community, the mentally ill, Communists, Jews, Mormons, and Muslims are just a few of the identities that have borne the brunt of exclusionary politics. As Roo put it to me, we celebrate the notion that we are a “country of immigrants,” the famous melting pot symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, but that notion ignores the fact that there were people here before immigration and millions of so-called immigrants were brought here in slave ships against their will.
Marginalization is so tragic. It’s tragic obviously to the folks who are marginalized, who are kept “in their places” and not allowed to reach their full potential. But it’s tragic also to everyone else, even those in power, because it does not allow society to reach its full potential.
Hidden Figures makes this point elegantly. The film highlights the essential achievements of three African-American women who contributed their incredible minds to the U.S. space program against the backdrop of 1960s Jim Crow segregation. Much like Jackie Robinson, who broke through baseball’s “color barrier” a decade earlier and set the stage for racial progress in sport, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan helped advance the idea that innovation is a recipe that requires a variety of ingredients.
After Jackie Robinson, integrated baseball became a much more competitive and exciting game because now, for the first time, it recruited the extraordinary talents of a global talent pool, not just those of white men. With Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan (and their cohort of African-American “human computers”), NASA recognized that success hinges on having the best people on the job, period. When society marginalizes people, it does itself a disservice. It does not field its A-Team.
Roo is definitely part of that A-Team: intelligent, articulate, passionate, a leader. Our world is better for his unorthodox tours of a very orthodox museum. He challenges authority and opens eyes, which I believe are ways museums can and should engage new audiences. Although we are for the most part a progressive field, we can also be fiercely conservative, protective of the status quo. I say museums need to relax and welcome the Roos of the world into their spaces to shake things up, share hard stories, elevate voices that society has historically silenced. Only in this way will America make itself great.
My tour and interview with DeLessin George-Warren will air in an upcoming Museum People podcast during Season 4 later this year. Stay tuned.