Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Wyoming
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All in a day’s work with Hunter Old Elk

All in a day’s work with Hunter Old Elk

An interview with a Curatorial Assistant at Buffalo Bill Center of the West

By Katie Jackson

A school bus pulls up to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The Curatorial Assistant for the Center’s Plains Indian Museum immediately recognizes it. It’s from her alma mater. Several years ago, Hunter Old Elk attended St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana. A few years ago, she accepted a full-ride Native American scholarship to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Today, Hunter is one of the greatest assets of the Plains Indian Museum, which partners with St. Labre’s schools for a museum studies and culture program. Hunter recently, and graciously, took time out of her busy day (she’s tasked with planning the museum’s annual powwow) to talk about what she does. More importantly, she explained why she does it.

Hunter was 14 years old when she first visited the Plains Indian Museum.

I remember being incredibly overwhelmed by all the pieces, the ambience, and the audio-visuals. For many years prior to that, my grandparents were actively involved with the museum.

Collage of images displaying Native American art, Native American culture and Native American history, including photos of Hunter Old Elk, the Curatorial Assistant at the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming
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Three of Hunter’s grandparents are still alive. She calls them almost every week!

My paternal grandparents are Daniel Old Elk, 79, and Carlene Old Elk, 75. My maternal grandmother is Carolyn Brown, 70. We lost my maternal grandfather Anthony Earl Sanchey at age 74, in 2016. My grandparents are most proud of the Plains Indian Museum’s commitment to inclusive and authentic voices. Many times, I will do research or have a question about Plains culture and one of them has the answer, a related story, or a resource.

They want future generations to continue to practice their culture.

My grandparents also instilled in us at a very young age the importance of remembering the oral history of our people and knowing our relatives. I wake up every day proud that I come from two resilient tribes, the Crow and the Yakama.

Hunter’s parents also taught her a love for their tribes’ history and culture.

Separately, my parents’ own passions have contributed to my career. My mother, Kris Johnson, is a vintage and antique specialist. She comes from the Yakama Nation in Washington. My father, Devereaux Old Elk, is a traditional Native artist, and he comes from the Crow Tribe of Montana.

For more than 50 years, the Old Elk family has participated in Montana’s annual Crow Fair, now in its centennial year.

My grandfather, grandmother, father, and aunts are master beaders and craftsmen. My love of cultural objects comes from watching hours of their meticulous art making—beadwork, dress making, drum making, leatherwork, and featherwork. I think those experiences help me to be a better arts administrator because I can break down the construction of a piece and see every little detail. When I was little, I never realized I was being taught; it was just a detail of the everyday experience.

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The Plains Indian Museum also hosts an annual powwow, now in its 37th year.

The powwow attracts visitors from all over the U.S. and Canada. It’s the Center of the West’s longest-running public event. I’ve been a registered dancer in past powwows, but now I’m responsible for helping coordinate. In the six months leading up to our powwow, I probably spend close to 300 hours planning! In 2017, we had more than 2,000 attendees. This included 200 registered dancers (competitors range in age from infants to seniors), 13 drums (with at least five singers each), and 45 arts vendors.

The powwow, always the third weekend in June, is the only one hosted by a leading museum.

Most powwows take place on tribal lands or are associated with tribal colleges. The energy, excitement, movement, and expression of this powwow are accentuated by the Plains Indian Museum’s exhibits, artifacts, and interpretive panels. For example, in the Learning Tipi, spectators learn about powwow songs, dances, and other traditions in Plains culture. Students are encouraged to touch and feel the different materials that make up the dancers’ regalia.

Hunter’s passion for education is just one of the reasons she was recently awarded a diversity fellowship by the Western States Arts Federation. In November 2017, she attended the organization’s Emerging Leaders of Color Professional Development Program in Denver.

My biggest takeaway is the impact that persons of color (POC) have, and will have, on the climate of museums. POCs create relationships between marginalized communities, which foster relevant spaces for ideas and healing. It’s also a sustainable move to focus on minority visitorship because they have a 130 percent purchasing power. Unfortunately, many cultural institutions are failing to attract minorities. I think they’re losing out on a lucrative demographic.

Hunter’s job duties include something surprising—shopping!

I’ve been involved in some of the galleries’ change outs—everything from cradle boards to dresses and contemporary art. The process begins with a little “shopping”—which, for us, is visiting the online collections and vaults, and then looking at specific pieces. We ask questions like “Is this piece in excellent condition?” or “How will the object fit within each case story?” Then, we look at the object record and decide if we want to put the piece on exhibit. In most cases, the piece needs a custom mount so we work with the exhibition team to build and mold those. Next, we write labels and send those to the graphics department. When all that is complete, the object goes on exhibit, usually replacing a piece that needs a rest.

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Personally, Hunter is a big fan of contemporary Native American art.

It’s a bit forward thinking, but contemporary art will be the historic art in the future. Many of my personal collections include art from relatives and friends, and some of my pieces are from Steven Paul Judd, Kevin Red Star, and John Isaiah Pepion. I’ve done a lot of reflection and concluded that I’m not an activist, but rather an advocate for the arts. I enjoy contemporary Native art because it encompasses styles such as beadwork, quillwork, Plains Indian graphic art, paintings, sculpture, mixed media, and photography. Both the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Plains Indian Museum have comprehensive contemporary collections.

Museum work and caring for collections isn’t always glamorous, but it’s always rewarding. 

One day we’re meeting with tribal representatives. The next? We’re on our hands and knees dusting cases and “Swiffering” the floors. Galleries and exhibits don’t just pop up. Exhibits and change-outs are heavily involved: It’s submitting ideas for approval, finding funding sources when budgets are limited, e-mailing with colleagues and supporters, meeting with different departments, and measuring spaces, cases, and objects. Why do we do it? Because we want to share our passions with visitors.    

I welcome the noise from children and school groups. I like to hear their stories and see them working on their school papers while they’re in the galleries. In my culture, children are pure, and their thoughts and prayers are pure.

One of the best mediums for sharing culture outside of the museum setting? Social media.

I created the Plains Indian Museum’s Facebook account, which launched in 2017 just in time for the Powwow. I hoped that social media could be a positive place where we tell the significant story of Plains Indian people, their cultures, traditions, histories, and contemporary lives. I’ve operated with a goal of sharing collections, photographs, and articles about Indian Country. I also post regularly on the Center of the West’s website with our blog “Plains Indian Museum.” We get very encouraging feedback from the online community.

Hunter’s personality and creativity shine the most on Instagram.

The Plains Indian Museum’s Instagram account debuted in July 2017. Plains Indian collections and photographs are powerful, vibrant, and colorful. Looking at samples of art and photographs invokes all kinds of emotions. To be honest, I’m proud of our Instagram page. It has even achieved recognition from some really incredible influencers in the Native community. I think that speaks volumes about our collections and what we’re trying to do as an institution.

Discover more about Hunter Old Elk’s work at the Plains Indian Museum.