Mrs. Fowler goes to Washington
Anthropologist Catherine Fowler
Reno anthropologist Catherine Fowler‘s latest accomplishment isn’t just stellar, it’s consistent with the high level of achievement characteristic of her 45-year career—a career quite possibly as monumental as the Great Basin native cultures she’s studied, loved and served. She’s been appointed to the Board of Trustees for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Fowler’s curriculum vitae is impressive, locally and nationally. With a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, she is professor emeritus of UNR’s Department of Anthropology, an Outstanding Researcher, a Silver Benefactor and author of scholarly publications. This is a re-appointment for Fowler, also on the NMAI board from 1995 to 2001. Fowler is retired—after 39 years—but by no means reclining, though she is taking it easy following a recent knee surgery, before resuming work on Southern Paiute culture.
“I’ve been interested in documenting the American Indian life ways for most of my career, and in documenting their languages,” Fowler explains. “That means their uses of the land, relationship with the land, the cultures as they were prior to the time of disruption by Europeans, and how people have survived, until today. [My focus also includes] the revitalization of languages and cultures, which has been going on, most recently, for the past 20 or so years, particularly with the endangerment of languages, and trying to get languages back again.”
Fowler says she’s also compelled by museum studies. Her sensitive contributions should be an asset during her three-year term as trustee of the Smithsonian’s highly visible gem on Washington’s National Mall.
“Museums have not always been friends to native people,” she notes. “They’ve been more colonial with reference to representation. It’s been the museum people who’ve told the world what Indian people were all about—rather than Indian people having a chance to tell their own stories. The NMAI was to be a new paradigm within museum studies: where native peoples have the primary voice. So that has been particularly intriguing.”
According to its website, NMAI was established by an act of Congress in 1989. Along with UNR anthropology professor emeritus Don Fowler, her husband and longtime colleague, Catherine attended the Sept. 21, 2004, opening, where thousands celebrated America’s first cultures through prayer, music and dance.
“There’s no museum comparable to it, dedicated to Native American people. It’s very fitting that it should be on the National Mall, at the base of the Capitol … sitting right next to Congress, as a continual reminder, to Congress, of the debt that’s owed to indigenous peoples, and the contributions [they’ve] made to this country. [It] was a very joyous occasion. As my husband’s often remarked, ‘Normally what you see is somebody protesting something, and people are angry.’ But in this case … [they] were very happy, marching up the Mall in total celebration.”
Explaining that, “by law, more than 50 percent of the trustees must be American Indian,” Fowler is one of the few non-Natives there, and says she, too, is ready to move forward.
“I hope to see the museum get really serious on its scholarships, and making the general public aware of those contributions of Native people—and I don’t just mean in terms of objects … and art, but the intellectual side as well. And I think that will come.”