Some Honest “Owyheean” Thoughts on This Year’s Conference

Halena Kapuni-Reynolds - 2019 Wanda Chin Scholarship Recipient

University of Hawaii at Mānoa

Acts of reclaiming native place on the streets of Boise.

     My first WMA conference, partially supported by the Wanda Chin Scholarship, turned out to be insightful and thought-provoking. I learned a lot about the organization and had a fantastic time meeting new colleagues and hearing about the innovative work that museums across the region are pursuing. I thought the conference’s attempt to provide spaces to address issues around Indigenous peoples and motherhood was necessary and timely, and I hope that the WMA continues to organize sessions like these in the future. I hope that those who attended the panel that I organized titled “Indigenous Perspectives on Museum Diversity” found it to be useful in one way or another.

     As a graduate student whose work intersects the fields of museum studies and Indigenous studies, and as a museum professional who works in Hawaii, I was a bit surprised to learn about the Hawaiian history of Idaho. I never knew that there were Hawaiian laborers who worked at Ft. Boise, nor did I know that the name “Owyhee” was so prevalent across Idaho’s cultural and political landscape. Everywhere I turned, I found streets, schools, candy companies, counties, and recreational parks that were named Owyhee. In some ways, seeing this name pervade Idaohoan signs and streets was a sign of comfort, a way for me to feel like I belonged to a place that I was visiting for the first time. But in other ways, I was left unsettled. The day that I arrived in town, I, along with some of my Hawaiʻi colleagues, drove up to Table Rock to see Boise in its entirety. There, we learned from an outdoor panel that the mountain range off in the distance is called the “Owyhee Mountains.” I wondered what the original Indigenous name of those mountains was. I wondered how Owyhee silenced those stories and place names. 


Boise as viewed from Table Rock. The “Owyhee Mountains” loom in the distance.

     It is amongst these questions and experiences that my visit to Idaho and the WMA conference is framed. In many ways, my positionality as a queer Hawaiian museum professional shaped my interactions with other colleagues and the various museums that I encountered. I point this out because none of us leave our identities and personal experiences at the door once we receive our packet from the registration table. As a matter of fact, they continue to shape how we interact with others and how we make sense of the information that glean from session to session.

     On Friday, I attended the Opening General Session & Keynote, the Opening Reception, and the Opening Party. Sina Bahram’s keynote on museum accessibility was powerful, demonstrating the ways in which museums have to do better to be more inclusive. Although he focused primarily on transforming museums into more welcoming places for individuals with disabilities and their families, his key points can be broadened to think about how we make museums more accessible and welcoming to Indigenous communities as well. His description of creating descriptive object labels is a case in point and is something that could be explored further as a tool for allowing Indigenous artists and community members to narrate how they would describe their belongings through their languages and worldview.

     The Opening Reception and Opening Party was also enjoyable. The opportunity to mingle with colleagues from home and from elsewhere was a great way to break the ice and to get to know more people during the conference. I did have some reservations, though, with regards to attending the Opening Party. I don’t think it was appropriate for us, myself included, to wine and dine at the Old Idaho Penitentiary, a former site of institutional trauma and imprisonment. Narratives of carceral punishment flavored by the laughter and merrymaking of museum professionals are distasteful.

     I hope that we can learn from these experiences and think more carefully and ethically about future conferences. As a new member of WMA, I am confident that these conversations have occurred and will continue to occur in future conference planning meetings. These conversations can be difficult at times, but they are necessary to have if we want to truly become equitable and just places. The roundtable session on decolonizing initiatives within museums highlighted this through the transformative power of truth-telling.

     In the end, the more honest that we can be with one another, the more change can occur (I hope). Thank you for this opportunity and for reading this story.


Halena Kapuni-Reynolds is a doctoral student in the Department of American Studies and the Graduate Assistant of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. He is a 2019 recipient of the Wanda Chin Scholarship.




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