NMAI at a crossroads


The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is celebrating its third year of operation, having completed its initial building phase and entering a time of transition between leaders. Not only do the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere look to the NMAI to represent their voices, but other museums, governments and the non-Indian general public have interests in the NMAI's future vision and programming. The museum will play a significant role in representing Native voices to the general public, while assisting Native communities by way of its so-called ''fourth museum'' to reclaim and renew their own cultures, histories and futures.

The national Indian museum will face many of its greatest challenges in the years ahead. What role will the NMAI serve by representing Native voices to the general non-indigenous public, museum world and policy-makers? At a reception following the Native Voices media conference hosted by Pechanga and sponsored by the NMAI last week, outgoing museum director W. Richard West introduced the trailer for ''Broken Promises: Indian Trust,'' a documentary that examines the history of the strained relationship between American Indians and the federal government. The museum's support of the film is an example of the commitment to educate both Native and non-Native audiences using various media. Like films and television shows, the NMAI is a window to a large non-indigenous audience, and can educate and influence perceptions and understanding of Native identities, histories and cultures.

The problem with multiple audiences is they have multiple visions, goals and preferred ways of doing things. Within the same organization, community or nation, there may be multiple visions of the best or right way to proceed or to understand the past, or even to evaluate the goals or ground rules of the group. Often such differences can be mediated by discussion, voting or leadership. The issues of representing Native voices, however, do not lend themselves to such straightforward solutions. There are many Native voices in thousands of communities in the Americas, and there are numerous non-indigenous cultures and historical interpretations. The diversity of Native cultures, one of the lessons of the NMAI, is but one major issue. The differences between Native cultures and Western cultures or nation-state cultures rooted in Western understandings present even more difficulties. Native voices include moral lifeways and understandings of human and non-human relations that do not conform to Western secular or religious views or understandings. The significant absence of common cultural ground, or common social political rules, sets the stage for significantly differing interpretations of history, and future possibilities.

The NMAI occupies a place that is sanctioned by the U.S. government and the people of the United States to bring the history and culture of Native peoples to the general public, and is meant to give respect and honor the Native peoples. At the same time, from the point of view of indigenous peoples, the value and success of the NMAI will depend on how well Native voices are understood, represented and, if necessary, defended. As a public institution created to serve the general good, the NMAI cannot solely advocate Native visions and understandings. Rather, the NMAI has the task of fostering the development of common ground and understanding between cultures and peoples who often do not understand each other very well. Native peoples should have significant influence over images and narratives told at the NMAI. It is the only way to tell a true, unfiltered story.

Consequently, a path toward greater understanding about and respect for contemporary and historical indigenous communities is more likely in an environment where Native voices can be heard, and where non-indigenous peoples are respectfully invited to share some of the wisdom, knowledge and history of Native peoples. The NMAI needs not only to assist in the renewal and representation of Native cultures and voices, but should also engage the non-indigenous world and peoples in a dialogue leading to greater mutual understanding that builds ground rules for consensual relations and that recognizes indigenous peoples as an integral part of the long-term future.