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Mohegan museum gift carries on Native tradition of give-aways

A $10 million donation is a big deal in anyone's philanthropic books. The Mohegan Tribe's $10 million gift to the National Museum of the American Indian is a big deal, too, for what it says about the national character and history of the Mohegans.

The Mohegans matched an earlier contribution to the NMAI by its sister tribe in Connecticut, the Mashantucket Pequots. In 1994, the Pequots pledged $1 million annually for 10 years. The Mohegans will spread the gift they announced on June 5 over 20 years.

The two gifts are the largest single donations to the NMAI to date. Established by law in 1989, the NMAI is building its centerpiece museum on the National Mall, between the National Air and Space Museum and the Botanical Gardens. It is scheduled to open in 2004 at an expected cost of $219 million.

Both the Mohegan and Pequot nations were almost annihilated and survivors were driven from their homes by colonists and early Americans. The United States nearly obliterated all of the things that distinguish them as Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot Peoples - their languages, religions, customs and traditions.

After lengthy political struggles and paper chases, the Mohegans became a federally recognized tribe in 1994. The Pequots gained federal status in 1983. Both tribes bankrolled minuscule settlements into lucrative casinos. They retired the state's debt, became major employers of Connecticut workers and turned money back to the BIA for Indians with greater needs.

The Pequots and Mohegans set up their own funding programs. They quickly became significant political contributors, as well as patrons of the arts and sponsors of wide-ranging projects.

It is ironic that the largest beneficiaries of the Mohegan and Pequot gifts will be the federal government and non-Indians. A sufficient number of white folks to comprise a national outcry despised give-aways so much in the 1880s that the United States outlawed them for six decades. The Army and federal agents locked up Indians suspected of giving or taking away anything of value, even barring traditional honorings by mourners.

Give-aways are expressions of generosity, respect and the spirit. Give-away ceremonies and feasts to honor persons, events and seasons are a vital part of the traditions of most Native Peoples.

Many Native Peoples actively participate in give-aways and never abandoned the tradition. Some discontinued the practice and are picking it up again. Others are adopting the tradition as their own.

It is not certain whether the Mohegan gift revives or continues or begins a tribal give-away practice, nor does it matter any more. From this time on, give-aways are part of the Mohegan custom and tradition.

The Mohegan Tribe wants the NMAI to educate the public about Eastern Indians and sovereignty. "By doing this," says Mohegan Tribal Chair Mark Brown, "we think we can help other Native American nations."

The Mohegan leader is right in saying that NMAI needs to make proper information available. Here's one example to support his point.

In the early 1970s, not so long ago in government time, the Passamaquoddy Tribe asked the Interior Department to investigate its claim to lands in Maine. BIA Commissioner Louis R. Bruce, Mohawk, and Interior Secretary Rodgers C.B. Morton denied the request. Interior claimed that the federal government had no trust responsibility to Indians east of the Mississippi River - a popular misconception then and now, even among Indians.

The Passamaquoddy sued and won in federal court. The judge took Interior to task for misstating the law, finding that the federal trust had nothing to do with the relationship of Indians to bodies of water. The court ordered Interior to investigate the land claim, which led to a federal lawsuit and a 1980 congressional settlement.

Federal agents and Indian experts have long obscured truth and made up facts, resulting in non-Indian bias, discrimination and backlash against Indians. Sadly, Native Peoples often have the same misconceptions, stereotypes and prejudices about each other and sometimes, saddest of all, about ourselves.

But something important is happening today. Native Peoples are lifting the opaque veils of ignorance that separate big population tribes from small ones; nations with lots of land from those with precious little; treaty-tribes from others; rich nations from impoverished ones; Indians from non-Indians. New understandings and relationships are emerging from this, without being pre-determined.

The NMAI can perform a valuable service in Indian country by helping those who wish to document these changes and by providing a forum for Native Peoples to tell the world how things are and how they got to be this way.

Mohegans and other Indians in the Northeast are right to want their story told, including the onslaught by northern Europeans.

Indians in the Southwest and California are right to want their history portrayed, including the southern European invasion. Southeastern Indians are right to want the facts known about the assault by Europeans of all stripes. Indians in the Plains are right to want the record set straight about the murders and deceptions by the United States.

Every nation's history is important and needs to be properly acknowledged. In order to do its fundamental job of educating the public, the NMAI must tell the truth about the Native American holocaust.

Without this context, the achievements, contributions and rights of present-day Native Peoples cannot be fully perceived or appreciated. With it, NMAI and Native Peoples can begin to concentrate on the millennial history pre-dating non-Natives here and modern history post-dating wars and massacres.

The Mohegan gift comes at a time when some Smithsonian employees are predicting the end of the world because some big donors to other museums in the institution want their names in lights and have ideas about exhibits. It is the Smithsonian's history to name its museums and collections after big spenders and to commercialize some of its research and displays, so it seems hypocritical to object to the practices at this stage.

The current controversy in the Smithsonian should not be confused with the situation involving Native gifts to the NMAI. NMAI's enabling act contemplates a close relationship with Native Peoples, a consultative partnership in developing tribal information, collections and presentations to the public.

The Mohegans and the Pequots already have a say in exhibits about themselves and do not have to pay for that involvement. They have not asked for naming rights and have not imposed conditions on their gifts.

The Mohegans and the Mashantucket Pequots have acted in a good way to carry out the great Native tradition of give-aways. This speaks volumes about the kind of peoples they are and want to be. The only thing left for everyone else is to say, "Thank you."