National Museum of the American Indian deserves support from Indian country

Author:
Updated:
Original:

The National Museum of the American Indian is a tremendously important project whose vision and mission should help unite all tribal nations of the Western Hemisphere. This major Smithsonian Institution project, which will complete the complex of museums to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a wonderful step forward for the recognition of American Indian culture and contemporary existence. All American Indians ? individuals, their clans, families and nations ? should consider making appropriate contributions to its construction and to its public educational programs.

The NMAI is a very different kind of museum and carries within it the seed of real change. It emerges after a period of very serious activism by Native people who have advocated a more respectful approach to American Indian cultures and their patrimonies. Established by law in 1989, it has since been characterized by substantial consultations involving thousands of Native cultural and political opinion leaders from several hundred Indian communities in the United States, Canada and Latin America. The new museum's mission, philosophy and practical applications emerge from these consultations ? a completely unique and innovative approach that has helped turn museology on its head.

The NMAI is governed by a 23-member board of trustees, 12 of whom are American Indians. The museum's founding director, W. Richard West, is Southern Cheyenne and there are other Native professionals among the ranks of some 250 staff. It is a museum for, by and about American Indians, with a mission statement that defines it as an institution "of living cultures dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native People of the Western Hemisphere."

The same process that led to legislation setting up the new museum ushered in legislation to ensure more clear and strict respect for Native human remains and funerary objects gathered by American institutions during the 1800s, or the "Century of Dishonor" that turned into the "American Century." This was a period of history when American Indians were said to be "vanishing" and collectors were empowered to gather all objects possible from our ancient cultures, before the waves of "civilization" that would make them "disappear forever."

Perhaps the most disrespectful of such collections came at the hands of the Surgeon General of the Army, who ordered approximately 4,000 Indian human remains to be taken from battlefields and burial sites to the Army Medical Museum. These were later transferred to the Smithsonian Institution. As many as 14,000 additional human remains were gathered through archaeological excavations, individual and other museum donations.

For too many decades, Native people's objections to the inherent disrespect by scientists and collectors for their human remains were completely ignored. Items stolen or collected under duress and economic hardship during that period of abject misery, many of which were important ceremonial objects, languished in museums, while the people to whom they belonged suffered the pain of separation and loss. Now, thanks to the policies ushered in with the establishment of the NMAI many of these items and remains have been repatriated to their proper homes. A range of spiritual ceremonies that had been partially negated due to the absence of these sacred objects can now be fulfilled. Many human remains also have been reburied, often to the great relief of their communities of living relatives.

The annihilation predicted for Native peoples at the closing of the 19th century did not occur, although as museum director Richard West has stated, "it came perilously close." One hundred years later, however, the new museum is set to represent the cultures of "more than a thousand Native communities inhabiting lands from the Arctic Circle in the North to Tierra del Fuego in the South." For the first time, asserts West, "Native peoples are telling their own stories and participating collaboratively with a national museum of Native history and culture." Rising proudly next to the Capitol building the NMAI's National Mall museum will become a powerful symbol of Indian survival, a monument to the continuity of tribal governments and a welcoming home to active and creative living Indian cultures.

The results already have included hundreds of collaborative projects with Native communities ? in training, research, travelling exhibitions, creation and improvement of community-based cultural centers, archives and museums. Cultural exchanges between both domestic and international publics and American Indian weavers, storytellers, artists and other producers are a constant practice. By perusing through the pages of the museum's quarterly magazine, American Indian: Celebrating Native Traditions & Communities, readers will find example after fascinating example of contemporary creativity.

For example, the current issue of the magazine describes the repatriation process underway with Comanche elders from Oklahoma as well as a visit by a Kuna delegation from Panama. The Kuna reviewed their tribal materials housed at the NMAI and obtained information on their project of establishing a Kuna community museum and research institute. These are exciting and fascinating processes that can only grow and mature into a new and more humane value system for such work.

The National Museum of the American Indian is designed to signal to all Americans and, indeed, to the international community, that American Indians are a contemporary people whose cultures will never "disappear." We are in fact vibrant peoples capable of great contributions to the United States and all of humanity. The NMAI's emerging Mall museum and its two other existing facilities, the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, are designed to hold up to one million cultural objects. Some 800,000 currently in the collection were gathered from Native communities by the Heye Foundation over nearly a century of collecting.

Once the construction phase is finished and the NMAI opens on the National Mall in the fall of 2004, it will host up to six million visitors from around the world each year. The potential positive impact is hard to overestimate. It opens the door to a true self-interpretation by Native culture-bearers and scholars, shifting position strategically and necessarily from being "objects" of study to defining the "subject," to a position of protagonism held with depth of content and clear intelligence.

American Indian sovereignty and inherent rights to self-governance are completely based on the distinctiveness and legitimate documentation of the first peoples, societies and governments in the Western Hemisphere. The principal adversary of American Indian sovereignty is the general ignorance of the American public about how this reality predates the United States and yet is also founded upon a solid historical foundation, including the U.S. Constitution. We believe the National Museum of the American Indian to be exceedingly important to the ongoing education of both Native and non-Native peoples. It is particularly relevant in this day and age of great cultural upheaval ? when a global melting pot appears to be increasingly destructive of many local cultures ? that Native communities are engaged in regaining or securing control of their own identities and community futures.

We urge all tribal government leaders, indeed, all American Indians, regardless of economic status, to consider some level of contribution to the National Museum of the American Indian. Some among those who have more resources, such as the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the Mohegan Tribal Nation and the Oneida Indian Nation, have each contributed $10 million to the construction of the Mall museum.

Funding by these three Eastern American Indian nations exemplifies their profound understanding of the necessity of educating the American public about the origins of their peoples and governments. American Indian sovereignty is best illuminated by tribal support of policy and educational research institutions. Yet by no means should these substantial gifts to the NMAI displace or otherwise restrict other important philanthropic and developmental endeavors in Indian country.

These donations to the NMAI are themselves appropriate expressions of Indian sharing and tribal sovereignty. Although empowered and subsidized by the federal government, the Smithsonian Institution was established as a non-governmental charitable trust in 1846, independent of the government itself, guided by a board of regents and secretary of the Smithsonian. In this respect, tribal gifts to the NMAI are fitting examples of government-to-government relations, a multilateral effort that best demonstrates how America's first peoples and its more recent can accomplish great things through mutual affirmation.

It is vitally important that other tribal governments now come forward to express their support for the NMAI. This is a project meant to be owned by all Indians, collectively, with a united force that will declare to the United States and to the world that American Indian peoples, working together, can build something truly magnificent and lasting. We urge all tribes, indeed all families, to give something to help build this important institution, so that our children may be able to say that at the beginning of this century "our Indian peoples accomplished something great."

Let us make the new National Museum of the American Indian a shining example of American Indian success.