I have been wanting to write this letter to our Indian community for a long time but time passes so quickly.
On Dec. 10, 2000 the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened a new exhibition in its facility in New York City titled "Beauty, Honor, Tradition: the Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts." The show is special to me for many reasons: it tells an Indian story from the buffalo days to today, and it is told with an Indian voice. It is beautiful and powerful. These are standard requirements with the NMAI, but what makes this exhibit so personally special is that it was curated by my son Joseph, who is a curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and me. I am also a curator and a senior counselor at the NMAI, where I have worked since 1993.
For more years than I care to remember I have been associated with museums in some way. My longest tenure was as curator of the Plains Indian Museum of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. There, along with our Indian advisory board, I had the opportunity to do some good cultural things for nearly 12 years. It also was there that I realized because the American Indian people are rarely a part of a school's curriculum, the general non-Indian population doesn't know much about us and tends to view us in stereotypes or as curiosities, but seldom as real people. We all pay the price for this negative view, but our children bear the brunt of this exclusion. Just living every day is often a struggle in the face of misunderstanding and mistrust.
If we cannot be part of the public schools' agenda, then American Indians must find another way to teach others about us. Sadly, maintaining the status quo means we will always suffer the consequences. One of the ways to change this situation and to enlighten and educate is teaching through museums. This is the dedicated and sometimes slow course that a small number of Indian museum curators have followed over the years.
Recently, I have observed the Indian world changing, in many cases, for the better. When I heard that a national museum for the American Indian would become a reality, it was an answer to our dreams. Through these international portals we could really tell our story to the world. So, I kept a close eye on its development and eventually took an active part in it because we wanted it done correctly and realized we would never get such an opportunity again. Clearly it was a time to stop complaining and do something positive about this situation.
After surviving a heart attack and then open heart surgery I moved back to my reservation, Fort Belknap in Montana, waiting to cash in. I found myself urging other Indian people to take part in the new National Museum of the American Indian, even if it meant the sacrifice of leaving home for a few years. After a three-year wait, a senior position became available at the NMAI. Then I realized that, although I have been urging others to become actively involved, I had not. I decided that I probably wasn't going to die right away, so I filled out the government job forms and was eventually was offered the position. After some soul searching, I accepted it for a two-year period in, of all places, the Bronx, N.Y.
Establishing a museum is never easy in the best of times, but this effort was more complex than most. One major restriction is that this museum, as a vital part of the Smithsonian Institution in both the nation's Capital and New York City, is on the Eastern Seaboard and in a large metropolitan center. How would Native people from Indian communities ever leave their homes to work in this museum in two of the nation's largest urban centers? Their participation was and is vital to teaching the others of Indian values, living cultures, humor, honor, pride, ancestors, tribal histories and all the rest. They are living, breathing reminders that Indian people are not abstract, that we are real.
It was and is a very exciting time for the Indian people. After consulting with Indian people across the country, we prepared the collection for its move to a new and appropriate home in the Washington, D.C. area.
We inventoried the collection, assisted researchers and Indian artists, visited with tribal delegations, assisted tribal repatriation efforts and tried to maintain some elements of our tribal ways as best as we could. Some of these early efforts are becoming our standard practices today, such as "feeding" and smudging parts of the collection and the staff, as well as inviting tribal spiritual people to come to our museum and pray for us. The museum's administration is always cooperative and even takes part whenever possible.
Today, as we move the collection from the Bronx into our new facility in Suitland, Md., our activities have not lessened. Not only is this unprecedented move progressing at a good pace, but we have departments dedicated to repatriation and to community services.
We have developed and participated in projects in many diverse states, ranging from teaching photography to Indian high school students in Montana's Fort Belknap to conducting a museum conservation workshop in Oregon. Whenever we do research for new exhibitions, we visit several communities to talk with the elders and others. While putting the Plains Shirts show together, my son and I visited and filmed at the Blackfeet, Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Pine Ridge reservations to get the story correct. That is the way we have operated and I am proud of this record.
Within the last three years, a senior staff member has visited all of the reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and most of Oklahoma to talk with tribal officials and others and to tell them of our museum and its programs. We learned much more about the reservations as well. We do this and carry out many other programs to keep close to our constituents so we won't lose touch. Last summer yielded valuable visits to Canada's First Nations.
Keeping an "Indian Direction" or a "Community Indian Truth" is not easy out here. There are not enough available people from "Indian Country" with enough knowledge, confidence, credibility and the desire to work for us on the East Coast and to assist us in a meaningful way. We have to maintain our Indian "base" so we won't be swallowed up or absorbed by the mainstream culture around us.
Being an Indian museum with strong credibility within a federal institution is a constant struggle on many fronts, but luckily we are blessed with a wonderful staff. Most of our people are truly sensitive to the Indian people as well as their culture. Our Indian staff from Native communities in the United States and Canada represent tribes such as the Lakota, Ho-Chunk, Kaw, Pueblo, Navajo, Cheyenne, A'aninin Gros Ventre, Lumbee, Plains Cree, Seminole and Potawatomi.We are fortunate to have other Native peoples from Mexico and Latin America working here as well. A majority of the staff, particularly the Indian people, consider it an honor and a privilege to care for and to be in the presence of the hallowed items of our ancestors.
The entire project is so interesting and productive that, after extending my tour of duty, I am now a permanent employee. In 2004, when the NMAI opens on the National Mall, many of us will return to Indian country knowing that we kept the faith and told the Indian stories as best we could. We truly hope that other Indian people will step forth to assist this museum in any way they can over the coming years.
George P. Horse Capture is Senior Counselor to the Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.