Museum Reviews

 National Museum of the American Indian

(“National Myth of the American Indian,” Claremont Review, 2005)

By Diana Muir

The National Museum of the American Indian is an architectural triumph. Walking close to the walls conveys the vertiginous sense of hiking the rock canyons of the American West. The galleries inside are punctuated by windowed spaces offering spectacular views of the National Gallery and the United States Capitol, and prism windows near the top of the dome paint rainbows on the walls of the atrium. Step a hundred yards away from NMAI, however, and the building turns into a yellow sandstone affront to the white granite unity of the National Mall. As with the container, so with the contents. It is as though the architect and curators together are saying, “You want to know how much respect we have for your European heritage of architectural symmetry, historical causation, and scholarly standards of evidence? None.”

The permanent exhibits are arrayed in three large halls, each featuring eight kiva-shaped spaces in which one of the Indian Nations tells its story. Our Lives features “survivance,” a term coined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor to mean, “doing what is necessary to keep our cultures alive.” Our Peoples is about “how eight communities understand their cultural identities.” The third hall, Our Universe, which is the place where most visitors will begin, explains how “Traditional knowledge shapes our world.” None of the three halls portrays Indian history and life with anything resembling the kind of scholarly standards envisioned by James Smithson when that gentleman, chemist, mineralogist and Member of the Royal Society, left his fortune for the foundation of an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Our Universe is a marvel of a-historicism. In it, visitors learn not only that Indian “ceremonies, celebrations, languages, arts, religions, and daily life” are timeless, unchanging and unchanged for thousands of years, but that contemporary Indians continue to believe in and practice the rituals of an animistic faith in which “Everything in the…world is alive. Everything has a spirit and everything is interconnected.” Contemporary Hupa Indians of Northern California believe that “three ceremonial dances…keep life in balance.” And “In our songs and dances we (K’apovi Indians of New Mexico) call on the clouds, the directions, and the Mountain Spirits to help us.” The exhibit places each of the eight featured tribes on a helpful map. Displays then mix photographs of contemporary Indians performing timeless animist rituals with artifacts collected a century ago and artifacts produced yesterday, depicting both beliefs and rituals as though they were unchanging since the beginning of time (“During the Jump Deer dance the spirits of the ancestors watch from behind a cedar-plank house”), and still the focus of Indian worship (“Sasquatch teaches honesty…. His honesty encourages people to be honest with themselves”).

Only one of the eight Indian Nations featured in Our Universe is depicted as having encountered Christianity. The Yupik explain that “Just as we believe in God, our ancestors believed that everything we received from the land came from Elam Yua.” A visitor to the museum who explores all of the twenty-four rooms featuring Indian nations, will see, in addition to the Yupik exhibit, only a panel describing the coming of the Jesuits to the Tohono O’Odham tribe, along with a panel describing a contemporary Anglican Indian church in Chicago, to balance an overwhelming array of photos, music, and voices depicting a Indian world of practicing, believing animists. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey conducted by the City University of New York found that the religious profile of Indians in the U.S. is actually about the same as for white, non-Hispanic Americans: 20% of American Indians self-identified as Baptist, 17% as Catholic and 17% indicated no religious preference. Only 3% indicated their primary religious identification as an “Indian” or tribal religion.

The 80% of Indians who identify as Christian are given very little voice in this museum. Where they do appear, as in a lone panel on the San Xavier Mission at the Tohono O’Odham reservation, Christianity is paired with animism, in this case a panel headed, “Birds Teach People to Call for Rain,” and viewed from the animist perspective: “For a long time our people had a hard time understanding Christian ideas. To us, the house of God is the whole environment. But Kino told us the mission church was the house of God. How could the Church be the only place to make contact with God? Our people were persecuted for practicing our religion and ceremonies.” “Kino” is a reference to Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Kino who arrived at Tohono O’Odham in 1687; in many circles he continues to be admired as an evangelist, explorer, and agriculturalist who introduced numerous Old World crops to the Southwest. He built the San Xavier del Blanc Mission, the White Dove of the Desert, a masterpiece of mission architecture, its dazzlingly carved, gilded and painted interior presumed to have been the work of Tohono craftsmen. There is no hint in the exhibit that San Xavier del Blanc is the sort of active parish that runs a flourishing parochial school and requires three masses on Sunday to accommodate all its congregants. Such facts would not fit the timeless, animist world of the NMAI.

The melding of past, present and future into an unchanging whole is deliberate. “Europeans,” an exhibit informs us “emphasize a sequential presentation of events or ideas,” but “for Native nations of the Americas…the circular manner of perceiving past and present, rather than seeing one event simply following another, is most important as a way to think about Native American history.”

No scholar understands the past as “one event simply following another.” Quite the contrary, historians regard the sequence of the past as revealing complex chains of causation. They insist that evidence-based study of the past is a powerful tool for understanding both the past itself and why contemporary people define themselves and their communities in the infinitely varied ways that they do. Eschewing any sense of historical development, NMAI curators refrain from asking why things are the way they are, or how they came to be that way.

Museum Director Richard West explained to a conference at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra that he has deliberately rejected control by the “narrowly defined and largely self-appointed museological priesthood,” more usually referred to as to scholarly curators. His is a “museum different.” Curatorial voices are confined to a reservation of several long showcases displaying artifacts. The cases mix artifacts from every era and region. Some are labeled. Others, like the long case displaying a mixed multitude of objects with animal themes, require the visitor who wishes to know if a particular carved animal is a 3,000-year-old artifact, or the work of a modern sculptor, to use a computer display, requiring a minimum of three clicks to find information on any one object. Back click and at least three more forward clicks are needed to find a second object. And even then it’s not easy, since the need to match objects with black-and-white schematic drawings makes the search for information take on the quality of a round of “Where’s Waldo.” I observed few visitors willing to go to the trouble, perhaps because the rewards were so meager. The computer will tell you where and when the object was made, not how it relates to other objects, what it meant to the people who made it, or what features make it worthy of admiration. This effectively reduces the cases of children’s dolls, statuettes, swords, cult objects of uncertain application, mixed arrow, spear, and dart heads, and bits of unidentified gold, to so many meaningless things.

A long case displaying Bibles, treaties, and guns is the only part of the museum to put artifacts into a context that enables the visitor to learn something a scholar could regard as a well-supported by the evidence from the objects on display. It was put together by curators and displays both a sense of historical development and the application of careful scholarship. It is given about the same amount of space as is devoted to the Pamunkey Nation and its devotion to “Tribal sovereignty,” defined as “Native people’s inherent right to self-government.”

The latter exhibit explains that the Pamunkey Nation consists of “thirty-five households of closely related extended families” living on a reservation in Eastern Virginia recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia, albeit not by the federal government. It is clear that the Pamunkey themselves view their heritage as something that is both real and worth preserving. And, certainly, the idea that self-defined cultural or national groups have an inherent right to control or “govern” institutions of cultural perpetuation is compelling. The great difficulty seems to be identifying what is meant by Indian culture.

According to the exhibit, the entire distinctive cultural heritage of the Pamunkey Nation consists of pottery making. “Pottery is our identity. From the very beginning we made pottery and we’ve never stopped. Very few eastern tribes can say that.” A display case shows pieces of unglazed nineteenth and early 20th-century earthenware with incised decorations, and contemporary pots with brightly painted glazed designs. I could perceive no continuity between the designs of the two eras.

Panels and a film playing on a television monitor explain that in 1930 the Virginia Board of Education established the Pamunkey Pottery School. Although the exhibit does not say so, it appears that this was an attempt to alleviate poverty on the reservation by producing something that tourists would buy. We are informed that the Pottery School introduced the Pamunkey to painting and glazing techniques, developed “a new style of Pamunkey pottery,” and “gave potters…a stronger sense of community.”

A look at the two tribal web sites reveals that in addition to the Pottery School, the reservation has both a new museum and the Pamunkey Indian Baptist Church. The web sites make clear that Indian identity in recent centuries has largely consisted of “a subsistence lifestyle centered around pottery-making, fishing, hunting and trapping,” with cultural cohesion assisted by isolation before the first good road was built in the 1920s. What will define Pamunkey culture in an era when almost everyone commutes to jobs in Richmond or Williamsburg is not clear.

The cultural heritage of most Indian nations in the United States consists of a language that is no longer spoken, attachment to a particular land, a few handicrafts, some customary foods, and an array of traditional ceremonies with costumes, songs and dances. According to the Kumeyaay, the Nation’s “bonds” consist of “singing, dancing, basket making, and pottery making.” And, in the words of one Kumeyaay, “We don’t even know the meaning of some of our Bird Songs anymore….”

The young people featured in the NMAI displays are dedicated to sitting respectfully at the feet of their elders to learn how to preserve these cultural traditions. In the real world, it is exceedingly difficult for small cultures to hold onto their youth. Unlike the model youngsters in the exhibits, real teenagers choose between learning the Kumeyaay Bird Songs and joining a rock band.


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The complexity of defining Indian culture in a time when Indians live in cities, attend universities, and own televisions is only one of the many issues that this museum ignores. According to Curator Gabrielle Tayac, some Indians take the position that only those who follow traditional lifestyles are Indians. “Can you be an indigenous person and have a university education? Some people would say no.” But that was in a Washington Post interview. The Museum exhibits do not grapple with such issues. Nor does the NMAI offer an informed introduction to Native American history and culture; the topics covered here are narrowly focused and idiosyncratic. The purpose of this Museum, according to a billboard-size panel in the Our Lives hall, is not so much to showcase Indian culture as to serve as a “Call to the People,” to make us all understand that “We are ancient nations seeking recognition and respect from modern nations.”

It is hardly unusual for nations telling their own stories to omit the distasteful and embarrassing episodes. When the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa first opened, I walked through an elaborate suite of galleries displaying the history of Canada in which the French discover and settle Canada, then British officials appear. I did a double take and walked back through the rooms. Sure enough, the curators had omitted the British invasion and conquest of Canada. Too hot to handle. France is simply replaced by Britain with no explanation offered, and certainly no exhibit on the conquest of French Canada. In this context it is not surprising that American Indians have produced a museum in which no mention is made of Indian Nations that practiced slavery, cannibalism, or human sacrifice. Nor did I notice any hint that, long before Columbus, Indians used natural resources to supply short-term needs in ways that resulted in species extinctions, deforestation, and other forms of environmental degradation.

At NMAI, the omissions are joined by myth. Salient among the myths is the portrayal of all Indians as “manag[ing] our environment to make sure it provides for us today and in the future.” Not only are all Indian Nations depicted as model environmentalists today, not only are they all shown as having been model environmentalists since the beginning of time, but environmentalism, according to NMAI, is actually central to Indian religion. Nation after nation in the permanent displays makes a statement like these: “The Yakama Nation is a leader in the protection and restoration of resources. We’re a leader, not because we want to be, but because the Creator put us on this landscape to be just that—stewards of the land.” “Every time the elders talk, they tell us we were given responsibility to look after Mother Earth. That’s our job, the Anishnaabe people.”

This is fictionalized history of a kind common to all national revivals: think of the Scottish invention of the clan tartan and of the elaborate regalia of the full kilt costume. But national myths can play important roles in shaping national character. The impoverished, young Dick Whittington, having failed to make his fortune in the big city, was walking home defeat when he was stopped at the edge of London by the sound of the Bow Bells which, instead of merely chiming, distinctly spoke to him, saying “Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London.” Napoleon’s “nation of shopkeepers,” was shaped by generations of British lads who walked to London in the hope of making their fortunes, some of them surely inspired by the story of Dick Whittington to keep trying when prospects looked bleak. Making environmentalism a central pillar of Indian culture and anachronistically claiming it as a central tenet of traditional Indian religion, gives Indian nationalists an ideology far more appealing to modern sensibilities than animism. If the legend of How Raven Stole the Sun cannot compete in the contemporary marketplace of ideas, the idea that Indians have a unique calling as guardians of the environment just might.

And if an evolving dedication to ecological ideals and a conviction that “each new generation is responsible to ensure the survival of the seventh generation” produces young Indians with a particularly high value for the ecological health of the planet, that is surely a good thing. It is not, however, the same thing as pretending that ecological values have characterized native American culture since the Year One. We do know, after all, that the three-term Lord Mayor of London was not quite the “poor boy” of legend. Whittington was the younger son of Sir William Whittington, Lord of the Manor of Pauntley in Gloucestershire, who arranged a very good apprenticeship for his younger boy with a prosperous London mercer—the equivalent of a modern parent sending a son to Columbia and on to a consulting job with Mackenzie. Knowing this undoubtedly robs the myth of the Bow Bells of some of its power; does that mean that we should refuse to know it?

What we know about Indian religion is that it has as many variations as there were tribes, but few of them had anything that can be stretched to resemble modern ecological ideas. According to Sam D. Gill, Mother Earth: an American Story, the concept of Mother Earth entered Indian religion in the 1960s, as part of the Indian national revival. Archeological evidence reveals that Indians depleted resources, were constantly forced by growing population and diminishing resources to eat further down the food chain, and not only drove species such as the flightless California duck (Chendytes) to extinction four millennia ago, but depleted ecosystems in ways that caused such populous, complex societies such as Anasazi and Cahokia to collapse. In short, Indians behaved pretty much like people everywhere, with the caveat that in most of the Americas Indian populations were sparse enough and had sufficiently limited technology to preclude ecological devastation. Indians, moreover, had that deep empathy for nature characteristic of animism; they perceived naiads in the streams and dryads in the forests. To put this forward as proof that pre-contact Indians thought in terms of ecosystems and sustainability is intellectual laziness, or a deliberately anachronistic falsification of history—a falsification of a kind familiar to nationalist movements worldwide.

The insistent claims in room after room at NMAI that the Indian Nations “preserve and protect natural resources in keeping with our ancestors’ traditions” should be placed in a category with Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic, the invocation of Demosthenes and Pericles by the leaders of the Greek War of Independence, and the role of Jeanne d’Arc and Marianne in the emergence of a French nation. Such constructs are the building blocks of nations; as constructs they are the appropriate objects of scholarly study. The fact that nations can be touchy about having their myths analyzed does not mean that scholars should not proceed with such study. Except, apparently, in the case of Indians.

One of the leading works in this field is Shepard Krech III’s 1999 Ecological Indian: Myth and History. Some critics of Krech’s work attack not his scholarship but his right to apply scholarship to the constructs of Indian identity. According to Adrian Tanner, Professor of Anthropology at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, “The kinds of claims made about ethnic identity are not appropriately treated as hypotheses put forward as historically verifiable.” Indians, in other words, are entitled to assert, as fact, that ecological principles have been part of their religion and culture for thousands of years, and scholars cannot legitimately examine the historicity of the claim because, according to Tanner, Indians were politically oppressed by their European conquerors. “If the Ecological Indian is a social construction, it was constructed partly by, and by reference to, the colonizers….” And so we have a National Museum of the American Indian where modern social constructions by contemporary Indians are anachronistically projected into the remote past and these assertions, constructs of Indian nationalist ideology, are presented as historical fact.

Not presented is the story of Indians as comprising nations that changed over time, aside from descriptions of their disastrous encounters with Europeans. Omission of the frequent disappearance of Indian cultures when neighboring cultures developed superior technology is particularly notable. In the NMAI, the Dorset people do not vanish from the Arctic when the Inuit arrive with dogsleds, large boats, and the ability to hunt bowhead whales. The acquisition of guns from fur-traders does not enable the Lakota Sioux—who had a reputation as fierce warriors even before they acquired guns—to abandon their ancient homeland in the spruce-poplar forests of the Great Lakes, and move onto the plains, where they attacked and defeated the Omahas, Pawnees, Arikaras, Mandans and Hidatsas, driving them from their homelands, slaughtering the men, carrying off the women and girls to become secondary wives, but permitting some conquered tribes to remain in diminished numbers as long as they paid a useful annual tribute of corn to the buffalo-hunting Lakota. This warrior tribe conquered the entire Great Plains east of the Missouri, before being halted at the Missouri by the agricultural Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa, who had themselves acquired guns and horses, and surrounded their villages with well-defended stockades. In the Lakota exhibit at the NMAI we learn only that the Lakota are victims of history whose reservation “is a tiny fraction of their traditional lands, which once encompassed much of the Midwest.”

But it is not only the negative that is omitted here. If the Indians in this Museum do not fight wars of conquest, neither do they develop a sustainable, three-crop system of horticulture in which beans fix nitrogen in the soil to nourish corn planted in the same field. The Navajo do not develop a matrilinial society in which a boy’s mother’s brother serves as a stable, nurturing role model whether or not a marriage endures. The Inuit do not develop arctic technology superior to those developed by the peoples of northwestern Europe dwelling above the Arctic Circle. To remove historical development from the presentation of a culture is to remove human agency and human accomplishment. The effect is not merely a museum that bizarrely skews that reality of AmeriIndian culture, it is a museum that makes Indians boring.

Washington Post museum critic Paul Richard calls the exhibits “vapid” but allows that “Grand museums often take years to find their way.” This misses the point. The National Museum of the American Indian is not lost. It has found its way with verve and confidence to a place where subjective personal narrative is privileged above factual evidence, and the deliberate myth-making of an active national revival trumps scholarship.

The Museum has no exhibit discussing evidence of how Indians came to this hemisphere. Current scholarly discussion centers on the questions of when the first comers arrived, whether they walked over a land bridge or came by canoes along the coast, and how many waves of migrants there were. Evidence on these points is conflicting, but all scholars agree that humans evolved in Africa and reached America later. It is not that the Museum decided that, with limited space, they would do an exhibit on Indian religion instead of one on Indian origins; it is that scholarship on Indian origins cannot be presented at this new Smithsonian Museum because, as Curator Bruce Bernstein explained to the Washington Post, such scholarship would conflict with the belief of native peoples that they have always occupied the land.

Imagine an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History explaining that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” and that after six days of creation “God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.” This imaginary Smithsonian exhibit would present Genesis not as a culturally influential story, but as a factual account of creation. This is precisely the approach of the new Museum of the American Indian, where in place of scholarship, we are given a story of creation as an Indian Nation sees it, presented as fact. The Tohono O’odham explain how, long ago, Earth Medicine Man and I’itoi, Elder Brother, made the world, including all plant and animal life, and everything else that the world comprises. Elder Brother created the people out of clay and told the Tohono O’odham to remain where they were in that land which is the center of all things. And there the desert people have always lived. They are living there this very day.

And that, O Best Beloved, is how the First Nations came to be, not only in America but in a federally-funded Smithsonian Museum building on the National Mall.