A partnership for cultural revitalization and education
By Patti Jo King -- Today correspondent
SUITLAND, Md. - National Powwow festivities this year include an open house at the National Museum of the American Indian's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, the museum's modern research facility and archival library located eight miles from Washington, D.C. Doors will be open to visitors Aug. 9 and 13. Free shuttle transportation to and from the facility will be provided between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
According to NMAI founding director W. Richard West Jr., Cheyenne/Arapaho, the museum takes ''the permanence, the authenticity ... the vitality and the self-determination of Native American voices ... as [its] fundamental reality.'' Center visitors can experience first-hand the unique partnership that has developed between tribes and the museum's staff.
This distinct tribal perspective is what sets NMAI apart from other museums and helps provide visitors with a better understanding of the cultural significance of its collections.
Terry Snowball, Potawatomi/Ho-Chunk, has been the center's Cultural Protocol Unit coordinator for more than a decade. He says collaboration with tribes is critically important. ''Education is a big part of knowing who you are, knowing what the experiences of your people have been in the past, and what those experiences mean for you today,'' he said. ''We are stewards of the collections for the tribes ... we try to be honorable in how we represent each object.''
The artifacts of some 900 tribes are represented, and staff members work with community representatives to decide upon culturally appropriate methods for the care and presentation of objects.
In spite of the continuous staff efforts to identify and define objects, Snowball said visitor input is valuable and invited. Since much of NMAI's inventory was assembled from the Smithsonian collection of George Gustav Heye (1874 - 1957), many items were lacking their context. ''Ultimately it was good that [Heye] collected these pieces,'' Snowball said, ''but sometimes the misinformation or lack of appropriate information collected with them is troubling.''
This is where visitor input is helpful. ''We are in a cultural twilight now,'' Snowball said. ''Many of our older people are passing away. Part of our responsibility is education, but we also want to hear what people say about the objects. A visitor might see something that sparks a memory and might add valuable information about the piece. That's the beauty of the experience. It's about what comes alive in the people as well as what comes alive in the object.''
Snowball encourages families to view the collections together. ''This is a wonderful way for children to connect to their heritage with their grandparents.''
The Cultural Protocol Unit also works with tribes on repatriation of objects of religious, ceremonial and historic importance, helping tribes obtain inventories and images to help determine if they want to apply for repatriation of particular items.
The museum holds hundreds of thousands of articles of historic, religious and utilitarian importance, representing various views of Native people of the entire Western Hemisphere. The impressive collection encompasses over 800,000 pieces, arranged geographically by region, from the northern Arctic Circle to the southern Tierra del Fuego.
Visitors are sometimes surprised by the museum's extensive collection of Central and South American artifacts, and some may not appreciate the inclusion of artifacts from outside the United States. Snowball finds this attitude of ''insular indigeneity'' perplexing.
''It's an interesting polarity when you think about the fact that there are some 600 groups officially recognized in Canada and some 500 recognized here in the United States. In South America, there are huge numbers of indigenous people who still speak their languages and have intact cultures, but have no sovereignty or representation. [In the United States] we take those things for granted.''
The center is not only the hub of NMAI's preservation activities; it is also headquarters for community service operations. These include educational outreach, information and photo services. It is also an important training ground for budding Native museum professionals, and a culturally sensitive working environment for tribal, academic and artistic research and fieldwork.
The distinctive architecture of the center itself was also inspired by Native design and ingenuity. Its award-winning design was a collaboration of the staff, architectural professionals, and a diverse representation of Native people from throughout the Western Hemisphere and Hawaii. The building reflects the principles and environmental connections of various Native cultures, with an emphasis on the four directions. Visitors will also be impressed by the attention paid to appropriate landscaping, with native grasses, shrubbery and trees incorporated throughout the site.
Snowball remembers how ''an elder once said we constantly talk about culture being in decline. He said each person has to make the decision whether they do anything about it or not. By doing nothing, they show they have made their decision.''
If that is true, visiting the NMAI's Cultural Resources Center is a decision to participate in the ongoing effort of cultural revitalization.