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Head cases and the subtlety of Smithsonian exhibits

Not so many years ago, a photographer with a sharp eye snapped a picture in the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum. There amid a display of stuffed birds was the plaster head of an American Indian, modeling a headdress as an example of eagle feathers. Nowhere else in the Smithsonian museums, as far as anyone could check them all, was humankind a showpiece for animal specimens.

Because the occasion of the visit was the Smithsonian's first-ever repatriation of American Indian remains it had collected in so-called times past, the display took on an extra layer of irony. The powers that be at the Smithsonian were going to keep us under observation one way or another, if not our bones then our likenesses. The one thing they were not going to do was respect us as one of their own.

Nowadays, the Smithsonian is more subtle about its collections. Nowadays, as Architectural Digest demonstrates in a recent article entitled, strangely, "Amazonian Tribal Art: The Head of the Smithsonian's Private Showcase," the powers that be at the Smithsonian keep their offensive collections away from public view, in closed archives where the public never encounters them or in private settings "for small, Smithsonian-related lunches and dinners," as the article has it. The space on display in the magazine holds "one of the largest collections of Amazonian tribal art in private hands, conserving many valuable examples of a folk art form that is rapidly disappearing."

What about the folk who practice the "folk" art form? We're still filed with the birds. "Nature has populated the Brazilian rain forest with the world's largest variety of parrots, and the tribespeople have a remarkable talent for using the birds' plumage to add color to their rituals and ceremonies," don'tcha know. And of course "they don't care" what becomes of material objects once a ceremony is over. Likewise, so we've been told by Smithsonian types for a century, our ancestors had no business minding what happened to human remains.

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The article's many points of unintended humor ? just hear the background strum of that flamenco guitar, just watch the "wood blinds and an arrangement of pivoting panels" as they "shut out the real world," just imagine that "poison dart fired from one of the long bamboo blowguns displayed along the wall," and here we even have "arrows with deadly-looking tips," I swear I'm not making this up ? would disarm the harshest observer if it were not for that real world out there, just outside the blinds (le mot juste if ever there was one).

Only miles away from this "pied-a-terre and private museum" in Washington, D.C., a football team takes the field under the ensign of an eminently collectible trophy head and the name "Redskins," a term of art for real skinned American Indians. The person who did the collecting was a senior executive "overseeing" the regional operations of a worldwide banking conglomerate. The acquiring was done in part "on trips to remote villages in north-central Brazil during the 1980s," when the Brazilian rain forests and Native cultures were under decimating assault from exploitive developers, and in part "from other collectors," a can of worms we'd better not open here.

Ghosts walk in this graveyard. We're still looking for the guy who supplied the plaster head.

Editor's note: Rebecca Adamson is president of First Nations Development Institute.