Museum opening on National Mall signals end to years of horror
WASHINGTON - Five unnamed victims of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre hold a
place of honor among the thousands of people contributing to the opening of
the new National Museum of the American Indian building on the National
Mall Sept. 21.
Nearly 40 years of planning and campaigning prepared the way for the
dramatic new building. The week of festivities surrounding its opening
signals that it is already being viewed as a major event in modern Native
history. But the Sand Creek victims, and a gruesome reminder of their fate,
stand out as the catalyst for the agreement that brought the museum into
being. Their story shows that the museum is not just another cultural
repository; it is meant to be nothing less than a revolution in the role
indigenous peoples play in the dominant American society.
The origin of the museum is closely bound with several landmark measures
reversing generations of cultural oppression. The intricate and prolonged
negotiations that produced the legislation for the NMAI also brought about
passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
(NAGPRA), which overturned the attitude of previous generations that
Indians had dead or dying cultures.
In August 1989, legislation to establish NMAI was pending in Congress, and
the trustees of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, the source
of the core George Gustav Heye Collection, were close to a final deal to
turn it over to the Smithsonian Institution. But the final sticking point
was the issue of repatriation. The Smithsonian held tens, maybe hundreds,
of thousands of Native human remains and funeral objects collected during a
century when Indians were dehumanized objects of scientific inquiry.
Throughout the talks with the Smithsonian, the trustees of the Heye
Collection were learning to their horror just how extensive the human
The writer and activist Suzan Shown Harjo, a trustee of the Heye Collection
and one of the principal negotiators, said, "We were dealing with the
Indian issues and we were dealing with the museum issues. It was all
intertwined. But the final piece of it had to be a repatriation agreement.
And the Smithsonian said 'no.'"
Harjo recalled that she had flown to New Mexico, where the Smithsonian and
the National Congress of the American Indians, which she also served as
executive director, had scheduled a reception at the Wheelwright Museum
during the Santa Fe Indian Market. "The purpose of the reception was to
celebrate the pendency of the National Museum of the American Indian and to
make the final push for legislation," she said, but the parallel agreement
on human remains and cultural property was still unresolved.
"So I told Secretary of the Smithsonian Bob Adams that we were out of time.
We had to have a repatriation agreement."
Harjo was making a long-distance call to Adams at his home in Colorado.
Before she left, someone, an inside source she still hesitates to name, had
given her a cache of documents about the source of some of the
Smithsonian's more gruesome holdings. During the call, she said, "I was
looking at bills of lading from the Anthropological Archives showing how
the remains of five of the Sand Creek massacre victims had wound up in his
A Southern Cheyenne citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nation of Oklahoma,
Harjo counts all the Sand Creek victims as her relatives. She still speaks
with a catch about seeing the bills of lading. "I just couldn't continue,"
"There it was. I was holding it in my hands, "One male Cheyenne crania..."
These were the bills of lading that went with each head.
"I said, 'I can't talk to you any more. We're out of time.'"
The continued absence of an agreement, Harjo said, meant that the Native
coalition would start filing lawsuits. "We had lots of lawsuits ready to
"He said how much time did he have, and I said, 'an hour.'" When he hung
up, Harjo called Walter Echo-Hawk, a Pawnee lawyer at the Native American
Rights Fund in Colorado, to get ready to file, maybe as early as the next
"But Bob Adams called back and said, 'We have a deal.'"
On Sept. 12, 1989, Adams and Harjo joined U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye,
D-Hawaii and U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., then a Democratic
U.S. Representative, to announce a revised Smithsonian policy on
repatriation that would be included in the NMAI bill. NMAI Director W.
Richard West Jr., himself Southern Cheyenne, said that Inouye was deeply
offended by the collection of human remains and insisted on the
repatriation language. Even Secretary Adams came to change his mind on
repatriation, said West, "because of the power of Suzan's negotiating."
President George H.W. Bush signed the NMAI legislation on Nov. 28. "Twelve
years were packed into 12 weeks," said Harjo.
But the turning point was the resurfaced evidence of the posthumous fate of
the Sand Creek victims, almost literally Harjo's ancestors. "These five
people were as much a part of the making of this museum as anyone living,"
THE SEED OF THE IDEA
Another decade and a half would elapse between the signing of the NMAI bill
and the opening of the building on the Mall, but it took almost twice as
long for the idea of the NMAI to grow into the legislation. Harjo
remembered that the true origin of the idea was "a coalition which formed
at Bear Butte in South Dakota in June 1967 and which began working on
several things at the same time."
One of the offshoots began working on protection of sacred sites, "which is
still going on," said Harjo. Another group talked about respect for human
remains and sacred objects and protection of burial grounds. "At that time
we still had lots and lots of dead Indians in museums," said Harjo, "and
many of the remains were on display.
"We were talking about very, very specific things without putting it into
sophisticated terms. We were talking about care and treatment of remains in
museums. We were talking about repatriation, although we didn't use that
term until much later, and we were talking about developing public
awareness through laws, developing public awareness through schools,
museums and the like.
"We were talking about superior treatment and respect for Indians
generally, living and dead, in society as a broad matter. And we were
talking about a place that we were calling a center, where we would do
these things in the right way."
One early result of this movement was passage of the American Indian
Religious Freedom Act in 1978. In its aftermath, Harjo joined the
administration of President Jimmy Carter to work on a Presidential report
mandated by the act. "Through 1978 and '79, we worked closely with the
Defense Department museums.
"We came to an agreement that the Defense museums would return upon request
Native American human remains, sacred objects and cultural patrimony. We
tried to encourage the Smithsonian to reach that agreement as well. They
balked. They said they weren't part of the federal government. It was just
hilarious, but we persuaded them to come along. So they had a weaker
position than the Defense museums, as one would expect.
"At that time, no Secretary of the Smithsonian had met with a living Indian
since the time of Lincoln, when Lincoln met with one of my ancestors, Lean
Bear and Black Kettle and other Cheyenne chiefs to try to convince them not
to take sides in the Civil War."
THE ACCUMULATIONS OF GEORGE GUSTAV HEYE
With the end of the Carter administration in 1980, Harjo was out of
government, but quickly found herself involved with the institution that
would become the nucleus of the NMAI. "My friend, the great author Vine
DeLoria asked me if I would go on the board of the Museum of the American
Indian with him and our other top writer, Scott Momaday. And that was one
way that working with a single museum and a single collection, we could
enhance our national repatriation work and create a better museum. And
that's what we did."
The Museum of the American Indian at the time was a private foundation with
a handsome building but an uptown Manhattan location off 125th Street where
relatively few visitors ventured. It grew from the obsessive life-long
collecting of the engineer and investment banker George Gustav Heye. A
six-foot-four bull of a figure, incessantly smoking large cigars, Heye
accumulated over a million Native objects from his first purchase of a
deerskin shirt in Arizona in 1897 to his death in 1957. The Smithsonian
Magazine acknowledges the ambiguity of his legacy. In spite of his
voracious quest for even the most mundane remains, he seemed to have had
little concern for contemporary Indian life. Yet he left behind the largest
collection of Indian artifacts, from both North and South America, in the
Harjo said he would collect with a front-loader, scraping up whole villages
and carting them back east in boxcars. By 1980, she said, his collection
"was rotting in a warehouse in the Bronx, I mean literally falling apart.
"No one was interested, and we were trying to get someone in Washington or
someone in New York or both, to show any interest at all. As part of the
prudence of being trustees, we had to figure out whether we could keep the
collection together and market it to someone, to salvage it, as well as
getting help to do it another way."
After a trustees meeting, she recollected, she and Vine DeLoria Jr. were
getting in a car with fellow trustees Charles Simon, a founder of the
Salomon Brothers investment house and restaurateur Peter Kreindler, on
their way to dinner at Kriendler's "21 Club", when Simon said, "I have a
crazy idea. What would you think if we started a bidding war, and have New
York and Washington try to outbid each other for the museum?"
Fine, they replied, but how?
Simon replied that he had heard that H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire
and later presidential candidate, wanted to found a world-class museum near
Dallas and wasn't particular about the class.
"We have a world-class collection," he said. "What would happen if we told
him we wanted to put it on the block and wanted him to make a bid on it?"
Simon went to Perot with the explanation that they needed the bid to start
the competition. "Bless his heart," Harjo said of Perot, "it had to be a
serious bid, because he might wind up with it.
"Simon told him he could be the butt of a joke, and reported that Perot
said, 'What's new?'"
The maneuver worked. "New York Mayor Edward Koch was on national television
saying the collection was a New York treasure, and people in Texas weren't
going to take it away. People in Washington were saying that it was a
national treasure, not just a New York treasure.
"So that was the point at which we actually had the makings of a deal."
FINDING A HOME
The long and complicated negotiations that followed eventually found a
three-part home for the National Museum of the American Indian, under the
aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. New York City kept a hand in with the
George Gustav Heye Center in the Old Custom House, a 1907 Beaux-Arts
federal edifice next to Battery Park, a popular tourist destination at the
foot of Manhattan. The Heye Center, in the first two floors of the
building, opened Oct. 30, 1994. The bulk of the collection, 800,000
objects, headed to the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md. This
facility, completed in 1998, provides conservation and research support as
well as traditional ceremonies for sacred objects. And after complications
worth a separate saga, the dramatic building on the Mall had its opening
Sept. 21, asserting the Indian revival to the center of Washington.
Harjo recollected the many sides of the dealing that led to this
arrangement. "There were lots of entities involved. There was New York
City, New York state, about 10 different federal agencies. When we were
talking about getting the Old Custom House in New York, we were also
talking about getting a historic site, so every brick in front of the
Custom House is protected by historic preservation. Every single site is
protected or should be protected by New York state or city or a federal
agency or all of them together. It was massive."
Importantly, Sen. Inouye and the staff of the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee became personally involved. Harjo remembered the museum taking
Inouye and Alan Parker, the committee chief of staff, to New York to review
the collection. They toured the storage facility in the Bronx shortly after
a flood. "The inventory index cards were laid out to dry, curled up like
Fritos," said Harjo.
"After that trip, we were standing on the balcony at the Senator's office
in the Capitol," said Harjo, "and we were talking about places in
Washington where we could showcase the Museum. We already had pretty much a
lock on the Custom House, through David Rockefeller. We knew that we could
locate a research center anywhere. We needed a place for the showpiece.
"Sen. Inouye hit on the solution while standing on the balcony of his
hideaway office in the Capitol," said Harjo.
"He pointed to the space next to the National Air and Space Museum and
said, 'What's that blank spot there on the Mall?" Parker, Harjo and
Patricia Zell, now Inouye's top staffer, researched the spot and found that
it was dedicated to the Smithsonian, but not yet authorized for anything.
Inouye and the National Congress of American Indians mounted a campaign to
secure the site. It had its grim side, but a light side, too. Harjo
remembered putting together a skit for a banquet at the Air and Space
Museum. "Our Average Savage Review' sang to Sec. Adams and other
Smithsonian dignitaries, 'Over there, over there, put the Indian Museum
over there,' pointing to the blank space that now houses the museum."
The museum campaign became inextricably entwined with the repatriation
issue, when results came in from the Smithsonian's inventory of human
remains, said Harjo. "It worked out to be 18,500 Native American remains
and 4,500 Indian skulls."
The skulls derived from the "Indian Cranial Study" ordered by U.S. Army
Surgeons General in the 1860s and '70s, in which soldiers in the field were
instructed to "harvest" heads from Indian graves or battle casualties. This
grisly research supposedly advanced the pseudo-science of phrenology, then
in its heyday, but it left an embarrassing physical legacy, which the
military turned over to the Smithsonian, and a folklore of horror, which
haunts Indian people to the present day.
"It must have been one of the earliest things I heard as a child," said
Harjo. "I don't remember a time when I didn't know about that.
"We all had oral histories of the beheadings of our people, but we didn't
have documentary evidence. The archival confessions were stunning.
"We deliberately married these issues," she said. "Repatriation agreement
with the Smithsonian and an Indian museum to be built on the Mall, with
these other pieces." The campaign drew strong support from editorial
writers around the country and from Congress. By the time of Harjo's final
confrontation with Secretary Adams and the August 1989 reception in Santa
Fe, the elements for the NMAI, the three locations and the repatriation
agreement, were all in place for the final legislation.
The location on the Mall took on enormous symbolic significance. "It was
the last place to be built," said NMAI Deputy Director Douglas Evelyn, "but
it had primacy of place in relation to the Capitol." Harjo sees it as a
constant reminder to the policy makers of Washington that the American
Indian is here to stay.
Harjo recalled another symbolic encounter from that week in August 1989,
subtler and more humbling. Immediately after the final deal and just as the
story announcing it was going to press at the New York Times, Adams,
Campbell, Echo-Hawk and Harjo had a celebratory dinner in Santa Fe. At Sec.
Adams suggestion, they met at the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe "which somehow
made it all wonderful and laughable," she said, "because the Coyote is the
Trickster who makes things happen in the right way.
"Just when we thought we had all done something marvelous, we were reminded
that it was all being done, and we were just the instruments."