A Monument to Survival

The new Museum of the American Indian is a place of pride and paradox

Cover Story

September 19, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

The National Museum of the American Indian, whose opening this week is expected to draw the largest number of Indians ever to visit the nation's capital, was positioned to face the rising sun, in accordance with Native American traditions.

The museum also faces the U.S. Capitol, which is not in accordance with anything at all.

In that old building, less than a block away, as recently as the 1950s - some might argue even later - laws were still being passed to strip Indians of their land and suppress their culture, the same culture that the new, government-supported museum has been built to preserve.

Whether poetic justice, jarring paradox, or both, the new museum's location in the shadow of the Capitol - in what some consider the last remaining spot on the National Mall - are just two of many ironies, both sour and sweet, that lay behind the sweeping curves of Minnesota limestone that form the facade of the latest addition to the Smithsonian.

It is, on one hand, as "Indian" a museum as there can be. Its exterior resembles a wind-sculpted, rain-carved mesa. Native American crops, such as corn and tobacco, grow on one side; on the other, waterfalls cascade on boulders blessed by Montagnais Indians before being shipped from Quebec.

Native Americans played major roles in the museum's design, in determining its exhibits, and in interpreting them. All is told from the Native American perspective.

More than two-thirds of the museum's 23-member board of trustees are Native American, as is about a third of the staff - from the director to servers in the food court, which features five distinct Native American cuisines, with no McDonald's or Starbucks in sight.

And yet, museums, like food courts and casinos, are a white man's concept.

Native Americans, traditionally, aren't prone to amassing material goods, aren't keen on public displays of their private rites and sacred objects, and they often see museums - as they do archaeologists and anthropologists - as having done more to disturb and destroy their culture than to document and preserve it.

From its inception, though, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) - a $220 million project, 15 years in the making - has been out to change that, both the perception and the reality.

"The history of the relationship between museums and native people has been a troubled one, no question about it," said Rick West, NMAI founder and director. "Native people love museums because we have their stuff, and they hate museums because we have their stuff.

"We've attempted to address that tension by trying to make sure native people themselves are thoroughly invested in this institution, by enlisting their voices directly."

The new sensitivity is evident not just in what has been chosen for display at the museum, not just in how it is presented, but in what the museum has returned to native communities - more than 2,000 objects, including religious and ceremonial artifacts, tribal property and other questionably acquired pieces. It has also returned about 200 human remains.

It's the right thing to do, West said. It's also, since 1989, the law. And it was part of the bargain that led to the new museum's existence.

The repatriation of human remains and artifacts wrongly taken from Native Americans was part of the same legislation that established the museum.

"Native Americans made it clear back then: `You can talk all you want about setting up the museum, but until this repatriation issue is resolved, don't expect us to be cooperative,' " said West, a Southern Cheyenne.

It's a long, elaborate, paperwork-filled process - continuing both at NMAI and other museums - but a worthwhile one, said West, who was able to see the end result at least once.

He was part of the NMAI contingent that returned about 80 ceremonial items to the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico.

"It's hard not to be affected by a highly emotional scene like that," he said. "It was deeply moving - a case of history circling back on itself."

The museum's inventory - 800,000 objects, representing 10,000 years of history, from more than 1,000 indigenous cultures - comes mostly from the collection of George Gustav Heye, a wealthy New Yorker who started assembling Indian artifacts in 1897.

A prolific, eccentric and, by some accounts, not entirely ethical collector who often traveled by limousine, Heye established a museum in New York.

In 1990, it became part of the Smithsonian. The Heye Center is now a permanent branch museum of NMAI, as is the Cultural Resources Center, the storage and research facility in Suitland where the bulk of the collection is kept.

West said some Native Americans have issues with museums, but he has heard little opposition in his 15 years as museum director, and expects none at the opening.

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