Artifacts head for Washington Indian museum

April 16, 2000|By New York Times News Service

A century ago, the plight of the Native Americans had reached a nadir. Their population had been decimated by war; their culture, in its way, was no less under assault. A single-minded man with a formidable appetite for collecting other peoples' treasures was buying up Indian artifacts, literally by the boxcar, in shopping sprees throughout North America and South America.

From ceremonial regalia to papoose carriers, from sacred weavings to towering totems, from long rows of dugout canoes to bow-and-arrow armories, a business tycoon named George Gustav Heye spent more than half a century accumulating a collection that is stunning both for its quality, touched with peerless beadwork and gold crafting, and for its volume.

Heye left more than 800,000 objects when he died in 1957, plus a photo archive of 86,000 images of Indian life. And now this treasure trove is being trucked from a Bronx warehouse to the Smithsonian Institution's new Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., amid the awe and scrutiny of specialists from the surviving U.S. tribes, whose population has rebounded in this country from 250,000 a century ago to nearly two million.

Renaissance at hand

A renaissance of sorts at hand with each truckload of cultural treasure and each visit from tribal scholars and elders, who can pause in their gratitude at the drifting smoke of a smudging ritual in one of the center's ceremonial side rooms.

Some of the truck deliveries are valued at $50 million by the insurers who protect this weekly cultural portage with security guards. But the Heye collection in its entirety is priceless as it arrives to become the core of the new National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open late next year on the Mall in Washington.

Over the course of time, Heye has come to be honored for his relentless, loving foray into Indian culture -- even, lately, by the tribal leaders who are helping to plan the museum. Their specialists are finding the objects in pristine condition, tangible evidence of a grand tradition. The growing excitement surrounding the new museum is personified by its founding director, W. Richard West Jr., a veteran Washington lawyer and Indian affairs lobbyist who is a member of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes.

"Heye has gifted a nation," West said, 40 years after first seeing some of the Heye collection. When he was a teen-ager making his first visit east from Oklahoma, his father took him to a small museum in upper Manhattan that only the most knowledgeable tourists knew to visit.

"I was almost overwhelmed by the volume and quality of the Cheyenne material I saw," West recalled. "But I also had this other impression of 'why is all this here and all of us Cheyennes out there either in Oklahoma or Montana?' And 'who is telling people about what this material means?'"

Last museum on mall

The new museum, the last the Smithsonian will build on the mall to tell the story of America, is being designed to answer those questions in close cooperation with the tribes. "We're just figuring out our answers," said West, who is overseeing the task of presenting, at the tourist crossroads of the nation, the story of more than 1,000 Native American communities in the Indians' words. The tribes encompass the hemisphere from the Arctic circle to Tierra del Fuego, as well as a history from the struggles of the past to those of the present.

Mapuche Indians up from Chile were working here Thursday -- two religious leaders and two scholars consulting on the extensive collection of objects from their tribal past. Visitors from the Lakota nation, one of 40 whose treasures will be featured in the opening exhibitions next year, have been working in another corner.

"It's a process of community curation," West said. "The native people themselves have something authentic and worthy to say about the objects in our collection.

"It will be through natives' eyes, minds and hearts that visitors are introduced to this vast store of cultural patrimony."

After the new museum opens, the Smithsonian will continue to operate the separate Heye Center museum, which has been open for the past five years in the historic U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan. In inviting close tribal cooperation, the museum board sought to ease long-running grievances by adopting a repatriation policy in 1991 so human remains and sacred material could be returned to the tribes, as well as objects illegally obtained in the Indian wars.

The research center in this Washington suburb is open to tribal specialists and limited numbers of casual visitors, who will soon be able to use computerized research rooms. The three-story building has state-of-the-art storage. It also has curatorial equipment to clean and itemize every object with bar codes and digital imaging.

The five-story mall museum will be faced clifflike with Kasota limestone and topped with a copper dome. It will cost $110 million, with the tribes contributing one-third of the money and the government financing the rest.

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