Marroquin Norby untangles the narratives of cross-cultural encounters

Inaugural leadership role at Met requires a keen eye and sense of empathy
Patricia Norby

As the inaugural Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Patricia Marroquin Norby (PhD '13, American studies) became the first full-time Native American person hired for this position in the museum's 150-year history. She previously served as senior executive and assistant director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian-New York, as director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at The Newberry in Chicago, and an assistant professor of American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. An award-winning scholar of Native American art history and visual culture, in Water, Bones, and Bombs (forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press), she examines twentieth-century Southwest art production and environmental conflicts among Native, Hispanic, and white communities in the northern Rio Grande Valley. In the midst of her role shaping and positioning the museum’s new Native arts program into one of the most transformational collections in the world, Patricia took time to reflect on what inspires her and her time spent in CLA.

Describe what you see is important about untangling the narratives of cross-cultural encounters and exchanges between Native and non-Native artists and communities?

Listening. More specifically, listening without always responding or asking questions is a very important skill. Indigenous communities have their own voices, experiences, and perspectives to share when it is appropriate. As academics, we are encouraged to ask smart questions, investigate, and seek out information and answers. Historically, scholars have been very privileged in this regard and, at times, have entered into spaces uninvited. It’s important to realize that sometimes there is information that is not ours to know or not ours to share. We need to respect these boundaries when building relationships with Indigenous communities and other communities outside our own.

What was one of the surprises you encountered while working on your forthcoming book Water, Bones, and Bombs?

I originally began my doctorate program in American studies with a topic for my dissertation. I believed I knew exactly what I was going to write about. However, by the time I engaged in the actual research and began working with Indigenous communities in northern New Mexico, the focus of my work completely shifted based on those relationships and early conversations. This taught me about the importance of being open to possibilities and letting go of my own preconceived ideas. 

How can we make certain communities and organizations do more than “virtue signaling?”

Following through with action. For example, it’s extremely important to back up land acknowledgments with a plan of action clearly stating specific steps of what you will do and how you will do it. Don’t give land acknowledgments just because others are doing them. Don’t make promises you do not intend to keep. These are empty gestures.

Staying with that example, there’s a broad misconception that land acknowledgments are about “honoring” the original communities whose land and waters you are now benefiting from. That’s one important part of them, but that’s not all. Land acknowledgments are also about settler individuals, institutions, and communities openly acknowledging and taking responsibility for the problem while recognizing their own complicity with ongoing colonization processes. Acknowledging that you’ve benefited is the first step. Now, what are your second and third steps going to be?

What can an individual do to advance cultural understanding? 

Talk less. Listen more. You will not only be surprised by what you learn but you will also likely be surprised by what you learn about yourself. You don’t always have to be the expert in the room. No one can know everything and that’s okay.

From where or whom do you draw your inspiration or gain energy and perspective? How did you find that source? 

Talking with and learning from Indigenous community members about their priorities, needs, and hopes. I once spent some time in northern New Mexico with an Abiqueño community member and elder. All we did was walk every evening together at sunset. No agenda, no expectations, no questions. We just walked and allowed our conversation to flow. It was a very meaningful experience. Now, whenever I return to New Mexico I reach out and we plan to go for a walk. Also, sharing conversations and experiences with colleagues, other Indigenous curators, artists, and scholars are incredibly motivating. I always enjoy making these connections.

What formative experiences did you have as you were growing up that set you on your path as an art historian?

Growing up in Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago was very important to me. In grade school, we took a field trip there. My mother came along as one of the parent chaperones. I remember being very excited on the bus as she sat next to me. While at the museum she suddenly became ill and had to leave. I remember feeling very frightened because I was not allowed to go with her. Instead, my teacher took my hand and we walked around together looking at the paintings. Looking at the artwork was very comforting and soothing for me. It still is. I can stand in front of a painting and feel my whole body relax. I also have a deep affection for ceramic pots and baskets. When I look at a pot I feel its presence. Pots embody all the natural elements: earth, water, fire, air. When I study a basket my hands automatically want to make the motions of the technique used: twining, coiling, plaiting. I’ve always been a very visual and tactile learner. I'm a trained fine artist. My studio training has helped me to understand art-making processes and materials.

Also, my family is from a marginalized Indigenous community. Although there is documentation of Purépecha people migrating to and from what is now the United States as early as the 16th century and also our history of relationships with Southwest Native American communities, including linguistic connections, it’s only recently that we have gained recognition and acknowledgment in Indigenous Studies and other scholarly organizations.

I’ve had many experiences of being the only BIPOC person in the room. There have also been many instances when, as a graduate student, I was the only Purépecha in the room or had to explain to my Indigenous colleagues here in the US who the Purépecha are. These disconnects are a direct result of settler-colonialism, specifically the imposed international borders. When you come from a marginalized community you develop a keen eye and sense of empathy for excluded voices and perspectives.

Now there are more Purépecha scholars including Gabriela Spears-Rico, PhD, who is an assistant professor in the Department of American Indian Studies in CLA. This is thrilling to witness!

As an Indigenous woman working with Indigenous communities, you understand the answers are right in front of you in the creative and cultural expressions. They’re embodied materially and visually in the art. They’re in the stories and histories. They’re in the agricultural practices and in the land and waters of our homes. As a museum administrator and now as an art curator, I am deeply committed to foregrounding Native American and Indigenous voices, experiences, and perspectives as they relate to collections, exhibitions, and programs. I am honored to work with sovereign Nations and Indigenous communities and learn the best and most appropriate ways to present their art and creative expressions. For me, there is no other way to do this work.

What do you wish our current students knew about this world in which we live? Another way to think about this question is, what do you wish you could have told your younger self? 

Your perspective and your voice are important and needed. It’s going to be hard, perhaps even overwhelming at times. But you are here for a reason. You can do this!

What was the most meaningful experience in your CLA life? 

I had amazing professors and graduate school colleagues. I started taking graduate-level classes at UMN one at a time, as a non-degree seeking student. But two of my professors, Patricia Albers and Brenda Child, encouraged me to apply to a doctorate program. They helped change my life.

Once accepted, I had the opportunity to also work with Jane Bocker and Jenn Marshall in the Department of Art History. There were moments when they saw something in me and in my research that I couldn’t see because I was so buried in the work. The connections and friendships I made in graduate school have now lasted for many years. 

What gives you joy? 

Gardening and growing as much food as possible for my family every summer on our Wisconsin farm. I’m also very interested in caring for and raising monarch butterflies particularly because they migrate each autumn to the region in Michoacan, Mexico, where my mother’s community is from. Currently, I’m cultivating milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants in order to help increase their populations. If I wasn’t working in museums, I’d be running a monarch sanctuary.

What’s something people don’t know about you?

I struggle with mild dyslexia. I am a slow reader. This is something I'm now open about with my colleagues. Also, several years ago I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to past trauma. This was a long-term medical condition that I did not even realize I had. I was in a constant state of emotional hypervigilance which was very exhausting and isolating. Finally being officially diagnosed was a blessing. I learned strategies for managing my stress levels and how to better care for my own physical and emotional health—important and necessary skills to know and to practice especially when working in demanding professions. Being honest with myself about my health and getting the medical support I needed was not only empowering, but it also gave me a personal sense of freedom I had never experienced before. 

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