Lessons of Accountability
Below find the second of a series of guest posts offered in celebration on the occasion of our colleague and friend Daniel C. Swan’s retirement from the University of Oklahoma, where he has served with distinction as a Professor of Anthropology, Curator of Ethnology, and Interim Director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Reflecting here on an aspect of Dan’s work and his personal impact is heather ahtone, senior curator at the First Americans Museum. She served previously as James T. Bialac Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art. This series of guest posts has been organized in partnership with Michael Paul Jordan. –Jason Baird Jackson
Lessons of Accountability
by heather ahtone
As a young professional in 2012, Dan Swan was one of the first in the museum community who helped me feel like a professional. That may seem redundant, how does one not feel like a professional if one is? But I think that for many Native folks coming into the museum field, like myself, it is common to feel like an imposter. I came to my professional field as a matter of accidents and curiosity, with few mentors in the actual field. I didn’t have a cadre of Native folks to help me navigate the museum field’s history of colonialism, authoritarianism, and dismissal of Indigenous agency. Stepping into an institution as the only Person of Color at a level with some capacity for bringing an Indigenous presence into the conversation, I felt a significant amount of pressure. Those pressures were purely internally driven. I could have gone with the flow. But it was clear to me that I had a level of accountability. It would never be imposed by the institution but would always be present for me as a lone representative as I assumed responsibilities curating the collections representing all the brown folks (my position was as curator of Native American and Non-Western arts).
The first part of the lesson of accountability Dan taught was mutual respect. It was a hard lesson emotionally. I wanted to earn a doctoral degree and needed a committee member. I asked Dan to join my committee. He declined. In the most Dan-like way, he declined by expressing that as a respected colleague it was inappropriate for him to be in a position of power over my scholarly work. I can only say that I was broken-hearted by his decision. But I was humbled by his acknowledgment of me as an equal (of sorts – he will always be someone I look up to!). His expression of respect gave me a courage that became a driving force in my work. It made me see that I also had responsibilities as an equal to him–not as a measure of myself, but as a measure of all the goodness he has done for our Native community. That courage was needed to serve the Native folks who were not standing in those meeting rooms, sitting at the table, and having a voice (quivering as I often felt). His respect held me up on many days.
The second part of the lesson of accountability was service. As I assumed the responsibilities and provided leadership in my curatorial position, I pushed myself and the institution to meet the accountability I felt on behalf of the Indigenous community. This appeared to me as service, until the museum field response became an unquenchable demand for more. More work. More writing. More of my voice to fill the silence of Indigenous invisibility. And this was how I learned about my real service to the field. I witnessed Dan creating opportunities for his students, for his peers, and for me. I realized that my true service to the field would not come from the “doing.” Service would come from putting others forward and nurturing a broad voice from the community, not just my voice. He taught by example that the work could never be for myself, but always to serve the community. He wasn’t the only one teaching me this point, I have to acknowledge that I needed two teachers for this particular lesson, Dr. Gregory Cajete was the other. Between the two, I found that truly serving the community was found in nurturing a broader body of servants to our Native community.
The final part of the lesson of accountability was in speaking the truth. Dan has been a champion for my projects for a long while. During one project, fairly early in my curating path, Dan used my work as a teaching tool for his students. He was openly proud of the project, and I appreciated that. It was during a class visit with his students after visiting the exhibition that we discussed openly the successes and failures of the project. The successes were fairly public and I had more practice speaking to these. In conversation in front of his students, Dan asked questions about the failures. This was a challenge to me in the moment. I had less practice speaking to my failures openly. I’m not sure if I spoke the whole truth in that moment, I am sure I was incredibly uncomfortable. But the discomfort with the questions exposed to me that this was where the real learning rests. That when we can honestly assess our failures, we lay a path to confront them and genuinely improve our practice. I have since incorporated my failures with my successes as a part of my public speaking practice. The response to the failures has never ceased to be one of people embracing that truth as “refreshing” and as a moment of strength. My grandmother’s lessons on honesty laid a foundation that Dan’s lesson on truth have fortified.
With all that said, I have learned so many more lessons from Dan. I will always be grateful for his kindness, generosity, and support. He has never let me take the easy path. Our conversations are a source of personal joy and intellectual growth. I believe I will be learning from him for years to come. And if I have listened to what he taught well, I will be able to pass those lessons along to another generation for even more.
God bless you, friend, enjoy all the beauty that the world has to offer.