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Inaugural book elicits Native voice

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WASHINGTON - The "first person" voice of the National Museum of the
American Indian is sounding through print as well as through the material
exhibits of the new building on the National Mall.

Along with the opening, the NMAI is offering an inaugural book, "Native
Universe: Voices of Indian America", which it is promoting to millions of
potential readers through an unprecedented arrangement with National
Geographic magazine. Keyed to the opening exhibitions, the
richly-illustrated volume features a collection of essays written
exclusively by Native scholars.

"The Native people's voice needs to be front and center and needs to be
presented in various ways," said co-editor Gerald McMaster, the NMAI's
deputy assistant director for cultural resources. "And not just the fact
that Native people can write and speak, but that Native people have an
important perspective on many issues, and that Native people are the
authorities in many areas."

McMaster, Plains Cree and member of the Siksika Nation, edited the book
with Clifford Trafzer, Wyandot and director of American Indian Studies at
the University of California, Riverside. Building upon initial conceptual
work by Tim Johnson, Mohawk and currently executive editor of Indian
Country Today and NMAI Editor Elizabeth Kennedy Gische, they pulled
together a selection of interpretive pieces and literary excerpts from some
of the leading contemporary Indian writers, as well as a few historic
voices. Scholarly chapters by John Mohawk, the Seneca political thinker;
Victor Montejo, a leading authority on the Maya; and Vine Deloria Jr., the
venerable Standing Rock Sioux social critic, appear together with the
Alcatraz Proclamation and an oration by Tatanka Yotanka, also called
Sitting Bull. N. Scott Momaday contributes a poem, and Sherman Alexie
brings things sharply up to date with an excerpt from his screenplay "Smoke
Signals."

(In using the Alexie scene, the ride on the bus in which Victor Joseph
instructs Thomas Builds-the-Fire on how to act like a "real Indian," the
book signals convincingly that this is not just another stuffy museum.)

The book closes with Louise Erdrich's poem "Dear John Wayne": "Even his
disease was the idea of taking everything." The final image is a ceramic
statuette by the Santa Clara Pueblo potter Roxanne Swentzell called "Don't
Shoot." It is a Kossa, the sacred mockster, painted with a bulls-eye and
holding his hands in the air.

But this is hardly a gesture of surrender. It represents the sometimes
raucous streak of Indian satire that might be a revelation to the
mainstream culture (and maybe also a source of discomfort.) It should be
taken together with the scene that opens the introduction, the voyage of
astronaut John Herrington, Chickasaw, on the space shuttle Endeavor.
Herrington carried a Hopi pot on his 216 orbits, which is now part of the
NMAI collection. The introduction "A New Journey" quotes from Herrington's
letter addressed "To My Many Friends in Indian Country":

"We have looked over the horizon together and what lies before us is a
universe of possibilities."

The project is a laudatory collaboration between two of the largest
research organizations in the world. Initiated by NMAI Head of Publications
Terence Winch with his counterpart at National Geographic, Kevin Mulroy,
they combined their respective resources and talents to produce an
expressive, informative and beautifully-designed book.

If the book gives America a breakthrough look at the contemporary Indian
spirit, it will also reach an audience of unprecedented scope. As a
National Geographic book, it is being promoted to the magazine's millions
of readers. It will also be featured in the NMAI bookstore, as the first in
what will presumably be a long line of exhibition books.

(The George Gustav Heye Center in New York has also issued handsome volumes
in conjunction with its exhibits. These will also be available in
Washington, along with several new titles produced for the opening.
McMaster said the museum is also issuing a book about the new building, an
art book, "Native Modernists", to go with the exhibition of works by Alan
Hauser and George Morrison, and a cookbook.)

But the "Native Universe" volume takes on the task of presenting what the
editors call "eloquent Indian voices expressing our deeply held truths."
Their introduction quotes the mission statement of NMAI Director W. Richard
West Jr.:

"Native peoples want to remove themselves from he category of cultural
relics, and instead, be seen and interpreted as peoples and cultures with a
deep past that are very much alive today."

The book, McMaster told Indian Country Today, is meant not only to reach a
mainstream audience but also to encourage Indian voices to come forward. "I
think this museum can do that," he said. "It can encourage our people to
write more, to be critical, to write critical texts. I think it's an
exciting time, and I think 'Native Universe' does that. It's a really good
opportunity for writers to present not only themselves as authors but the
idea of hearing the Native voice talk."