NEW YORK - The National Museum of the American Indian opened in triumph on
Sept. 21, giving a whole new face, look and feel to Native presence the
world over, and quite possibly setting a new standard in museology for
years to come.
Somewhat unusually for Washington, this is one political triumph that won't
arrive half-forgotten already as events heave forward, eclipsing the
purpose of any previous achievement in the piling-on of present activity.
Planners have worked hard to provide space for savoring within the museum
itself, and time for savoring also in the streets outside, during a Native
Nations procession before the grand opening and six days of festival
Native peoples intend to deliver an unmistakable message of staying power
and revival to the very heart of the Americas, within sight of the U.S.
Just as the museum intends to acknowledge the tragic past without wallowing
in it, so the celebration will find time for many a lingering look back as
people call their ancestors to witness. No one will have to be told that
without the commitments they made, in their time, to future generations,
Sept. 21 would not have been possible.
In that spirit, a look back is in order at the embattled history of the
Heye Collection, which forms the core of the current museum's holdings.
It's not clear whether the collection was ever in danger of perishing
physically, but it was in imminent danger from other directions for almost
20 years, from the late 1960s to 1987. The primary threat of those years
was not to the physical collection but to the heritage it represented. If
at any point in that long span of time a determined handful of trustees,
directors, consultants and miscellaneous allies had stood down from their
attempt to rescue that heritage from white "anthro" hands, the National
Museum of the American Indian would not be what it is today. Most probably,
it would not even exist, not at least as an independent institution.
The Heye Collection takes its name from George Gustav Heye, a collector on
the classic 19th century model who happened to live until the mid-20th
century. He was indifferent, for the most part, to Indian people;
collecting Indian objects was his passion in life, plain and simple. But
what a passion! Heye may have collected a million "Indian" objects in his
lifetime. He collected literally everything he could of Indian provenance
(the old phrase "boxcar collector" fits him to a tee). In the words of
Roland W. Force, whose book "Politics and the Museum of the American
Indian: The Heye and the mighty" is must reading on this subject matter,
the collection "ranges from objects of great artistic merit to everyday
objects, even playing cards. Most university and museum anthropologists of
that era would have considered such things then as 'rubbish,' not fit for a
museum. Today, those items reflecting the process of acculturation are
recognized as invaluable.
"Heye was eclectic in his tastes ... Collectors, like museums, are inclined
to focus on the superlative - the oldest, the biggest, the most exquisite,
and so on. Heye did not restrict himself in this way. He most certainly
appreciated and collected masterpieces, but if items were Indian, that was
enough for him."
So perhaps, just maybe, there was more to Heye than half-grown passion. In
any case, in one of those ironic turns of history that seem to hold some
hard-to-figure message, Heye's passion for Native objects has turned out to
serve no one so well as Native people today.
That is only because Indians forced the issue. Heye didn't plan it that
way. If he ever harbored a suspicion that his collectibles were not
artifacts of his own passion but evidence of a greater life, he went to his
grave without expressing it. But in another ambiguous irony, his
possessiveness led him to reject any suggestion that the collection be
divided - in particular he turned down the American Museum of Natural
History, a key decision as events would prove.
At his death in 1957, his collection had bequeathed a Museum of the
American Indian-Heye Foundation to New York and the nation. But it was
poorly provided for, out of space, and badly located to improve its
In the late 1960s, a "deaccession" scandal involving museums began to go
public. Deaccession is museum jargon for trading or dealing away objects
from a collection (accession is the word for the process of legally
acquiring museum objects). The problem was so little noticed at first that
the "Indian Museum" (as generations of New Yorkers called it with more or
less affection) ignored several warnings about its policies. But soon
enough it found itself on the front pages. Priceless objects had been dealt
away, without proper valuation or notice. Others had been exchanged for
keeping in improper conditions, to the irreparable damage of some objects.
The documents aren't perfectly clear, but some of the deaccession profits
probably funded museum operations.
The larger point is that the collection began to be seen, by Indians at
least, as something else again - as an irreplaceable heritage for which no
substitute could be accepted. Among many Native people who took up the
challenge, for instance, Suzan Shown Harjo helped to form a coalition for
the protection of ancestors and sacred beings in museums and natural
settings, themes she would never leave in a long career that involved her
in advocacy, fundraising, and the drafting of policy for what became the
national museum. Much the same can be said for Vine Deloria Jr., just then
on the verge of world fame as an author. Both would be drawn to the Museum
of the American Indian board during the crucial ensuing years, along with
others (Indian and non-Indian alike) such as George Abrams, Roger
Buffalohead, Julie Kidd, Barber Conable, Norbert Hill, N. Scott Momaday,
Alvin Josephy, Clara Sue Kidwell, Curt Muser, Siobhan Oppenheimer-Nicolau,
Ernest Boyer, Joe DelaCruz, John Hunt, Robert Powless, Harold Pruner, Lois
Risling and Thomas White. Of course, countless other individuals, too
numerous to name here, contributed to the national museum without benefit
of a seat on the board.
But first, in 1974, the museum had to weather a lawsuit over its practices,
followed the next year by the near bankruptcy of New York City (it was
eventually bailed out by taxpayers).
These developments stranded the museum in its original building and
neighborhood at a time when concern for the museum objects had grown. The
building was in disrepair, but even in perfect repair it would have been
inadequate to the collection, portions of which were simply stuffed into
storage. The neighborhood, once a pleasant suburb but now a notorious
thicket of around-the-clock drug sales, shop-and-park prostitution and
street crime, was never going to draw the kind of attendance that would
lift its funding. And without more funding, the museum would not be able to
hire the staff needed to attend to the collection, or indeed so much as
house the collection safely.
Those conditions continued until 1977 when Force, first as a consultant and
then as director of the Museum of the American Indian-Heye Foundation,
began to get serious about a change of venue - something often discussed
but always opposed by New York City officials in the administrations of
Mayor Ed Koch. The old U.S. Custom House, a deteriorated historic structure
of great elegance, attracted Force and the MAI trustees, but city hall
wouldn't hear of it. Instead the city powers suggested the Museum of the
American Indian become part of the American Museum of Natural History, a
New York institution that Heye himself had rejected. New York's renewed
interest was pretty clearly an effort to absorb a unique collection at
minimal cost to the city. During the prolonged, multi-year negotiations
around the latest proposal, the new generation of Heye trustees also
eventually rejected it. But in the process, they arrived at a conviction
that Native heritage was the heart of the collection. Force related the
following minutes from meetings in 1984:
"Deloria: We have been discussing how large the annual budget of the MAI
should be - some saying four million, others three. I believe we have to
address more important issues first. I mean policy and program. We want
assurance that we are doing more than just transferring our collection." -
that is, they must also reach terms to protect and improve it.
Later, Deloria would compare the negotiations to a corporate takeover,
adding in Force's notes, "This is a struggle to control our collection ...
They have talked to the architect without our knowledge. We're shooting in
the dark, and if we continue we'll still be shooting in the dark ... All
we've talked about is when we will be taken over.
"MAI Trustee Julie Kidd interjected: I agree wholeheartedly with Vine. None
of us had any notion of merging ... We need to maintain our perspective.
Which is more important, location or mission? I think it is mission. She
[Force now continues in his own voice], like Deloria, was at the essence of
the differences that the MAI was not merely a museum with an extensive
collection, the MAI was a heritage ... I saw the session as a significant
turning point. I believe many of the trustees gathered renewed strength
from each other. They realized and accepted that the future was uncertain."
It would stay uncertain for three more years, until 1987. During that time,
several cities offered to host the Heye if New York wouldn't meet its
terms: Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Dallas ... the latter bid, backed by
billionaire businessman H. Ross Perot, then a national celebrity, made the
issue national and moved the city to put on a show of interest in retaining
its "Indian Museum" on viable terms. But it satisfied no one, and in 1985
the museum went to court in an effort to clarify its recourse in accepting
the Perot bid. On July 9, 1986, New York State Supreme Court Judge Martin
B. Stecher delivered a momentous decision in Indian history:
"It is abundantly apparent ... that the petitioner cannot remain in its
present situation and survive. If it is to be absorbed into its would-be
benefactor, the American Museum of Natural History, it will lose its
identity as a separate and independent institution and find its great
collection merged among the many artifacts of Natural History ..."
Force remarked, "While Stecher's decision was dated July 9, as far as I was
concerned it was Independence Day ...
"The judge didn't wear a black robe - it was white, and I thought I
glimpsed some wings."
This last was a clever reference to the oft-made remark in MAI circles that
it needed an "angel" to rescue it. But though rescue was at hand, many
hurdles would still have to be cleared with the city before the "Indian
Museum" would maintain a New York presence in the rehabilitated and renamed
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, an initiative mounted in Congress by
Rep. Morris Udall and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Moynihan had backed the
Custom House as far back as 1979).
By 1987, however, events had overtaken the city. In that bicentennial year
of the U.S. Constitution, a television producer sent then-Navajo President
Peter McDonald to the Museum of the American Indian, to film his comments
on the Constitution in a Native setting. From a McDonald associate, Force
learned of a proposal by a U.S. Senator to erect an Indian memorial on the
The proposal had been announced by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, the Hawaii
Democrat. Before the year was out, he would sponsor legislation to bring
the Museum of the American Indian to Washington as the National Museum of
the American Indian. In the process he committed these words to print, as
quoted by Force from the Washington Post: "In this city [Washington]
brimming with monuments to presidents, statues of generals and memorials to
heroes of American history you would search in vain for a single tribute to
the First People of this land ... I hope to change this ... The Museum of
the American Indian is now in New York City but in search of a new home.
"Legislation that I am preparing ... would establish the National Museum of
the American Indian as part of the Smithsonian Institution, to be built at
a site on the Mall between the Air and Space Museum and the Botanic Gardens
... The Mall has been described as our nation's 'Main Street,' and the
National Museum of the American Indian would be a beautifully designed
addition that recognized the historic grandeur of America's Indian people."
Complications would remain in abundance, and many others still had critical
roles to play in realizing the museum. But with public sentiment favoring
Indians after the museum's lawsuit and the publicity brought on by Perot's
involvement, Inouye's advocacy proved decisive. The New Yorkers, after
years of stalling in apparent hopes the museum would fall apart financially
and have to be adopted by the city, were routed by this new factor in the
mix, and the Smithsonian Institution would eventually see its way to
accepting The NMAI as an entity destined for the National Mall. With the
museum now strikingly in place there, just where Inouye said it would be
but even more "a beautifully designed addition" than anyone could then
imagine, it's impressive (and a little promising?) to remember how seldom
it is that our most distant, difficult, shared public visions are so