Distinguished Staff Award
Polly Olsen (Yakama)

Polly Olsen (Yakama)

Tribal Liaison, Burke Museum

Nominated by Julie Stein, Executive Director, Burke Museum

Awarded 2020

Please accept our nomination of Polly Olsen (Yakama Nation) for the Distinguished Staff Award. Polly’s service to the University of Washington spans nearly 20 years, first through her work at the School of Medicine’s Native American Center of Excellence and Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, and as an advisor to the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ project, and then as the Burke Museum Tribal Liaison beginning in 2017. Polly is the first-ever Tribal Liaison for the Burke, and she arrived at a critical time, as the museum was developing exhibits and preparing to open a new facility that strives to promote a more open, honest, and accessible relationship with Indigenous communities.

Polly is a leader in cultural diversity training, program development, education, health and administration. Her understanding of bi-lateral learning between traditional and western systems helps her simultaneously support the goals of an institution and the resiliency of Tribal communities. She engenders respect for the diversity of Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing, and is always listening as she advances the Burke Museum’s mission.

In her first months with the Burke, Polly served on the working group developing a new mission statement for the museum, where she made an impassioned case for working “to heal” the legacies of colonialism at the Burke. She also agreed with including “feel joy” because the creations of our ancestors fill us with that emotion. The final mission statement reads: “The Burke Museum cares for and shares natural and cultural collections so all people can learn, be inspired, generate knowledge, feel joy, and heal.” By setting the Burke on this path–as an institution, and through her own work–Polly makes a profound impact on the Burke and the University of Washington.

In her work to create space for healing at the Burke, Polly is a constant advocate for equity, inclusion and cultural sensitivity. She started at the Burke as a team of one, and challenging the status quo can be isolating. She has, however, remained undaunted, forming partnerships and building understanding so that, over time, inclusive practices become woven into the fabric of the institution–accepted and promoted by many rather than championed by one. She is no longer alone but has rallied the entire museum. The Native land acknowledgement she developed, in consultation with local tribes, which is now displayed at museum entrances and on its website and spoken at every meeting and gathering, is a perfect example of this work. She consulted with dozens of tribes and more individuals, and after six months, developed the statement we now display at our entrances.

Leading up to the New Burke Grand Opening, Polly created channels of communication that set the standard for meaningful and respectful collaboration–partnerships that honor the time, wisdom, cultures, and perspectives of individuals and work toward a greater good. These partnerships resulted in nearly a dozen Tribal ceremonies performed by Elders and community members who worked to ensure the people, objects, ancestors and buildings were honored and protected during construction, moving, closing the old museum and opening the new facility. They informed the design of New Burke exhibits, connecting the knowledge of master artists with designers and fabricators. They blossomed into new partnerships, like the connection she forged between the Snoqualmie Tribe and Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center, which grew 70,000 native plants for the New Burke and occupies the Tribe’s ancestral land.

The culmination of these partnerships was the New Burke Indigenous Preview, where more than 800 Indigenous people were welcomed as first visitors to the new museum. Not only did this event honor the critical role cultural stakeholders play at the Burke, it was a moment that fulfilled another key component of the Burke’s mission: to create joy.

Polly is a former recipient of the UW Diversity Award for Community Building. As an advisor to the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ project she created an “elder engagement model”, used there and continued here. I am honored to work with her in her role at the Burke, where she continues building deep connections, healing the wounds of colonial practices, and sparking joy.

I am honored to nominate her for the Distinguished Staff Award

Julie Stein
Executive Director, Burke Museum
Professor of Anthropology, University of Washington

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