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NMAI exhibition will explore hidden histories of race

WASHINGTON - The full history of the Americas has been hiding in plain sight - as plain as skin color - for centuries, and under ordinary circumstances it might have stayed hidden for just a bit longer anyway.

''Generally, I think an exhibit at this phase - the cat would not be out of the bag,'' said Gabi Tayac, a historian with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. But word of an NMAI exhibition on the intersecting histories of blacks and American Indians has met with intense interest, and it has only snowballed in recent weeks, as NMAI finalized a lineup of essays on the themes of African-Native American race, community, culture and creativity, according to Tayac of the core curatorial team and Fred Nahwooksy, the project coordinator.

''IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,'' is scheduled to open in November 2008 with an exhibition of 20 ''bannered panels'' at NMAI in Washington. Media materials, a Web site with educational materials, and a publication will accompany the bannered panels - museum lingo for the tall rectangular panels that present graphic materials and written information in a more or less narrative manner across a number of panels.

Nahwooksy said the bannered panels approach is a good one for Native communities. ''In terms of low-cost, we're not worried about special museum environments in the museum at the tribal level - heat, air, dust, clean, all that kind of stuff - and so that's why this panel exhibit, or bannered as we call them, seems to be a workable format for tribal communities. It just so happens that this topic has such broad appeal that we are going to open it in our [NMAI's] two major cities of Washington, D.C., and New York, where we have facilities. And then it will go on from there.

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We expect probably there will be two, three copies of this traveling around, one that kind of goes to mainstream museums that SITES [Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services] will distribute, one that goes to Native communities, and African-American museum venues. ... We're considering a translation to Spanish, so that it can go to South America and certain Caribbean countries as well. That's all a matter of money, and we'll see how we do on the fund-raising. I expect we're going to hopefully do very well.''

If funding follows the interest NMAI has met with so far, even at the present early stage of development, Nahwooksy's confidence will prove well-founded. The issue of freedmen - descendants of slaves among modern tribes - was not a motivator for the ''IndiVisible'' exhibition, in development for roughly a year now, Tayac said. But with the fate of Cherokee freedmen making international headlines after tribal voters in effect expelled them in March (they have since been restored to tribal citizenship by a tribal court, pending further court decisions), there is no question the freedmen have sparked some of the widespread response the curatorial team has encountered.

There is also no question of treating the intersection of black and American Indian histories comprehensively - that would take at least 10 years of field work, Tayac said. But by meeting the issues of slavery, racial convergence, genealogy, family and community, ''being and belonging,'' stereotyping and adaptation head-on, Nahwooksy added, the traveling exhibition hopes to initiate dialogue others can add to. He gave the example of the Hampton School in Virginia, a historically Indian, then Indian and black, now exclusively black educational institution. If the bannered panels were to head there, the school history, archives, alumni and staff could yield a wealth of information and displays that would augment the exhibition. The same can be expected at sites and institutions nationwide, Nahwooksy said, again cautioning that a lot depends on fund raising.

But again - no shortage of interest. The topic has already proved an ''interest magnet,'' Tayac said. The early reaction, in turn, ''really I think will help shape how we're going to be able to tell the story, what are the different constituents involved, what are different people going to want to see. Because you know, there's different interest levels in the different communities. ... in the African-American communities, understandings about sovereignty and those legalities may have to be explained more. Racial law and policy might have to be explained more to the Native American community.

And then this is not just for those two constituents, but it also has to do with the very fabric of how this society in full was formed, and what that means. There's that whole other element of saying, 'What's that hidden history?'''