American Indian Museum: Tribute to an Unconquerable Spirit

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“Let me be a free man, free to travel, free to stop, free to work, free to trade where I choose, free to choose my own teachers, free to follow the religion of my fathers, free to talk, think and act for myself – and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty." – Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

On September 26, 2004, I visited in Washington, D.C., the newly opened National Museum of the American Indians. Situated on the south side of the National Mall, near the famed Smithsonian Air and Space Institute, it is an impressive, strikingly visional, mountain-shaped site of natural stone. It is colored in a brilliant yellowish tan and landscaped to represent the wetland areas and plants so indigenous to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay and environs. Its dome inside, inspired by the Indians’ love of the stars, soars majestically to 120 feet in height. The lines of anxious tourists waiting to get into the museum on the day I was there extended for blocks around the building.

American Indian leaders could have easily used this edifice to fully dramatize their long history as serial victims of mostly foreign-based interlopers. If they had wanted to, they could have done so with amble justification. There wouldn’t have been enough space in all of Washington, D.C., to house all the bloodstained exhibits dealing with the genocides. Heading the list of imperial wrongdoers would be nations, like Spain, Portugal, France, Great Britain, and of course, beginning in the 17th Century and going right up to the incident at the Pine Ridge Reservation, in 1973 – America!

Instead, the movers and shakers behind the museum chose to transcend the countless evils of the past and to celebrate, via multimedia presentations, the extraordinary cultural achievements over the last 10,000 years of the American Indians, stretching from Chile to Alaska. It also focuses heavily on the present existential realities of the tribes, such as the Seminole in Florida, the Kiowa of Oklahoma, and the Cherokee of North Carolina. The museum, which is at the moment showcasing the Native Modernism art of George Morrison and Allan Houser, is founded on an assemblage of more "than 800,000 works of aesthetic, cultural, historical and spiritual significance" central to the identity of American Indians. It is sourced, collection-wise, by the George Gustav Heye Center in NYC.

This doesn’t mean the museum is silent about the massive crimes of the past. It is not. The horrific story of the extermination of the indigenous peoples by predatory regimes for over a 500 year period is prominently told here in one of the permanent exhibits, entitled, “”Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories.” This theme, however, of death and oppression isn’t permitted to dominate the overall presentations found in the museum, some of which are conveyed by ceremonies and performances; others will be the subject matter of various programs and assorted educational activities.

The museum describes that tragic epoch in this way, “The main story of ‘Our Peoples’ focuses on the past 500 years of Native history and shows how the arrival of newcomers in the Western Hemisphere set the stage for one of the most momentous events in human history. In the struggle for survival, nearly every Native community wrestled with the impact of deadly new diseases and weaponry, the weakening of traditional spirituality, and the seizure of homelands by invading governments. But the story of the past five centuries is not entirely a story of destruction. It is also how Native people intentionally and strategically kept their cultures alive.”

Another theme of the museum is the American Indians’ deep love of nature and respect for their ancestors, along with their ethos of living in harmony with the world. Both are in abundant evidence here. The exhibit that features that part of their culture is called, “Our Universe: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World.” Eight cultural philosophies ranging from the Pueblo of Santa Clara (Espanola, New Mexico); to the Yup’ik (Yukon-Kuskokwim of Delta, Alaska); to the Q’eq’chi’ Maya (Coban, Guatemala) are highlighted. The "Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities" display features residents of Indian communities from California, Illinois, Virginia and Washington states; three Indian tribes in Canada; and one from the Carib Territory, Dominica, in the Caribbean. It underscores how these tribes "live in the 21st century" and struggle to "survive economically, save their languages from extinction, preserve their cultural integrity, and keep their traditional arts alive."

Remarkably, there isn’t any demonizing of long-dead villains in this man-made temple to heroic survival. There were also no hate-filled “Them vs. Us” motifs or revenge-seeking messages, despite the fact that U.S. governments have broken over 350 treaties that they have signed with the American Indians. In fact, the communications here are more about life, hope and reconciliation. For instance, after an Indian drumming group performed a joyful song on a stage located on the first floor, the audience was invited to join in the dancing, which many of them happily did. The next time you go to Washington, DC, check out the fantastic Museum of the American Indians (http://www.nmai.si.edu/). It is a fitting tribute to a great people, who have demonstrated here, their proud and unconquerable spirit.

I close this commentary on the new American Indian Museum with a telling quote from Russell Means, one of the unrepentant leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM) (http://www.russellmeans.com/index.htm). His portrait by the late artist Andy Warhol is also exhibited at the museum. Means, who was born an Oglala/Lakota, in 1939, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near the legendary Black Hills, South Dakota, said this:

"The United States Government will never have an effective Foreign Policy until it deals justly with the American Indians." Maybe, the new museum is a step, long delayed, in that direction. Another suggested step forward would be for the U.S. government to do the right thing and immediately free Leonard Peltier, an American Indian who has been languishing in prison for nearly 28 years for crimes that he didn’t commit. Amnesty International considers Peltier, "a political prisoner" (http://www.freepeltier.org/).

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