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November 24, 2010

StoryCorps Interview with NMAI's Ramsey Weeks (Assiniboine/Hidatsa)

This week the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is sharing the stories of five Native staffers as part of American Indian Heritage Day and the StoryCorps' 2010 National Day of Listening, a holiday started by the nonprofit organization StoryCorps in 2008. Both holidays fall on the same day this year—Friday, Nov. 26.

Ramsey Weeks So far, we’ve heard from KJ Jacks (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) and Terry Snowball (Prairie Band Potawatomi/ Wisconsin Ho-Chunk).  Today’s interview is with Ramsey Weeks (Assiniboine/Hidatsa). As one of the museum’s Cultural Interpreters, Weeks leads daily tours and education workshops, offering visitors a chance to see the museum through Native eyes and learn about the museum’s objects from a Native perspective. 

His job often involves challenging long-held stereotypes about American Indians—no easy task.

“People will come up and say, 'Did Indians make that tipi or real people?' Well, that’s a great opportunity for education. You have just told me who I really need to target in this group of people in front of me, and who I really need to focus on to make sure they get something out of this,” Weeks said during his conversation with Molly Stephey, of NMAI’s public affairs office. And often, Weeks can pinpoint the moment during his tours when he makes an impact on students. “I don’t see a light bulb so much as a light in their eyes. Their eyes open really big, that a-ha moment. And for me, if I get that just once a week, that is reason enough to continue in this job.”

Before joining NMAI in 2008, Weeks worked at a Living History museum in Colorado.

On using objects and photographs to dispel myths during tours:

Ramsey Weeks-School Tours (Click to Play)

EXCERPT: “I have this wonderful picture of me dressed up in traditional clothing. I like to hold that, “Who is this? Is this person more Native than me?” And most of the kids will look at that traditional clothing and say, “Yep, that person’s more Indian than you.” And then they’re very shocked when I was, “That is me!” It’s a great little learning moment for them to see that clothing doesn’t make a person Native, it doesn’t make a person more or less Native.”

EXCERPT:  “One of my favorite objects is actually part of our permanent gallery in “Our Universes.” It’s a small pin cushion done by a lady of Mohawk descent in 1902. It actually has what appears on it a beaded swastika. We get more questions about that item in the museum than any other single item. I actually find it a really useful item to talk about ideas of cultural perspective, the cultural lens. Because we look at that item, we have that feeling come up -- swastika, what are these Indians doing with a swastika? -- but then we’re able to explain that it actually represents the North Star. From my own culture, it’s the coming together of the four winds, it’s a whirlwind symbol.”

On working at a “Living History” museum:

Ramsey Weeks-Living History (Click to Play)

 EXCERPT: “There was the stereotype that, as Native people, we should obviously know all of the things that traditional Native people knew, like tanning hides. I have never learned to tan a hide. You throw one down in front of me and tell me to tan it, I’m going to give you a very odd look. This is not something I know.”

On lesser-known Native beliefs and traditions:

Ramsey Weeks-Two-Spirit Society (Click to Play)

 EXCERPT: “I do like talking about two-spirit societies in particular. One, it’s just a part of culture that a lot of people don’t know exist. It’s a part of culture that’s really fascinating and amazing and there’s just not a lot of public knowledge about this ... The two-spirit of course, the way I generally preface it is to say, the two-spirit—in my culture we call them “wikkitan” —were men who dressed as women, did the work of women, were treated in all respects as women, even to the point that they could marry other men.”


The National Day of Listening is an effort to encourage all Americans to honor a friend, loved one, or member of their community by interviewing them about their lives. StoryCorps has created a free do-it-yourself interview guide with equipment recommendations and interview instructions available online at www.nationaldayoflistening.org.


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Wow loved the article for me its great to challenge beliefs and values that form our identity. I have now been doing this for myself for at least 10 years consciously, what has happened as a result of educating myself and embracing the different cultures is I have beome very flexible and tollerant to other people behaviour.

I try to remember that "the behaviour is NOT the person" its often just a mirror reflecting their internal though processes which are created by beliefs and values, when I also see others gently questioning other people beliefs it amazing its the only way we will adapt and learn to work in a world where we have many multi cultural societies.


It's surprising how similar fashion is across the globe! We realize that most of the trends you have at AUC are prevalent here at Stanford as well. On the other hand, your description of styles at AUC seems to be influenced mainly by European styles whereas the "Californian" style is more dominant here at Stanford.

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Thank you for this, my grandfather is actually full Cherokee. So I really have a passion for the culture of Native Americans. Ramsey definitely provides a lot of great insight.


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