Native Currents

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The beginning of respect

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from a statement Dr. Barreiro gave April 16 at the Organization of American States negotiation on the draft Inter-American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Washington, D.C.

American Indian people, or American indigenous, which is perhaps more comprehensive, have suffered a lot in the United States, just like they have in every country in the hemisphere. American indigenous people everywhere have suffered infectious disease, war, enslavement, dispossession of territories, dispossession of natural resources and dispossession of self-determination. This has been a big piece of the common history of American Indigenous peoples.

The other side of the experience, or perhaps the central core of the experience, has been survival, has been tenacity in the face of major spiritual and physical insult.

Throughout the hemisphere, historically, indigenous people have been characterized by a resistant spirit and a resilient temperament. More recently, in many places indigenous people are strongly engaging the political process and achieving notable results. This emerging American Indian or American indigenous protagonism now joins the democratic dynamic head on. The American Indian nations face huge obstacles and problems across the Western Hemisphere, but because they are persisting, they are now beginning to gain on their historical losses.

In the United States, the Indian experience has a corresponding current.

The dynamic of democracy, worked with increasing involvement and sophistication, is propelling American Indian leadership to make notable gains. This is a process that has made possible the recovery of lands by a number of tribes. Additionally, strong reassertion of jurisdictional rights; rights of self-regulated government; rights of tribally regulated commerce; to a self-defined education, including Native language promotion - these are major gains of the past 30 years that would have been impossible to predict 100 or even 50 years ago.

In the cultural field, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, where I serve as assistant director for research, constitutes a most prominent victory for Indian peoples and communities. This national museum is an Indian-run institution, with a national board of trustees composed of Native intellectuals, chiefs and community culture-bearing elders, with an American Indian as director, Kevin Gover, member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and with many Indian people among its personnel.

Fully professional and inclusive, the museum is home to staff, consultants and visiting artists and scholars from the range of cultures of the Native Americas and of living cultures around the world. This institution becomes possible because of the activism of major Indian leaders and their successful alliance with partners in the civil society, the private sector and with important members of Congress. It emerges out of successfully engaging the dynamic of the American democratic process.

Established by an act of Congress in 1989, this museum, built on the National Mall next to the U.S. Congress, is an international institution of living cultures. We call it the beginning of respect. It is a place that the Indian communities are proud of and where they are consulted on everything from oral history to the meanings and proper treatment of their cultural resources. It is a place, at the political epicenter of national and international power, where Indian issues and voices can be heard.

It is a place of beauty, art, culture and power.

The congressional act of establishing the National Museum of the American Indian is one of two pieces of recent progress for the principle of cultural respect.

A second major gain is the legislation enacted in response to the presence of Native American human remains and funerary objects in museums and federal agencies. This second piece of legislation, Public Law 101-601, was passed on Nov. 16, 1990, and is titled the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It is a crucial part of this ''beginning of respect.''

As a result of NAGPRA and of the philosophy and practice prescribed for the museum by its Native elders, numerous human remains and funerary objects held by museums and federal agencies have been returned or repatriated to the living communities from which they came. Thus a long-held sense of disrespect for the human remains of ancestors among the Indian communities is addressed.

The victory and the joy that the NMAI represents for the 562 tribal American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in the United States cannot be overestimated. That a national institution of major intellectual and cultural foundation now exists in the National Mall signals to Indian country and to the world that Indian cultures and lifeways, languages and traditional knowledge, indigenous artistic perception and production, must have an equal and equitable place among the great traditions of the world.

As well, since the mission of the new museum is hemispheric, which the national Native leadership fully endorses, the signal is intended and continues to beam as well to the hemispheric indigenous nations and communities, inviting all of you to visit and to guide your way to an Indian space, here on the National Mall, where you will always be properly received as indigenous people of these American lands.

Dr. Jose Barreiro, Taino, is assistant director for research at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.