The National Museum of the American Indian

Review

of an Exhibition

by Devora Liss

Published on March 17, 2011, Modified on March 18, 2011

  • Description:

    The National Museum of the American Indian is rooted in two very challenging assumptions. The first is that all Native cultures share enough “Indian-ness” to justify the mantle of peoplehood. The second assumption is less specific to the Natives – that a living and dynamic culture can be successfully be captured in a museum.

    The NMAI incorporates Native peoples from across the Western Hemisphere. While cultural boundaries are never hermetic, there are, nevertheless, difficulties in claiming that all Native cultures are part of an overarching community. The one commonality all Natives share is being decisively not Europeans, and experienced conflict with colonists and their subsequent nation-states and governments. The exhibition Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories opens with a text panel written by Paul Chaat Smith, a community curator from the Comanche tribe. He describes life pre-Contact: “The people who live here are engineers and artists, cooks and dreamers, hunters and students. … They aren’t “Indians.” They have never heard of “America.”” In other words, the category ‘Indian’ was created through Contact. While recognizing that centuries of conflict have been deeply embedded into Native cultures and psyches, its political roots cannot be ignored. This begs the question: as the nation-state formed on Indian land, as the country whose early settlers killed entire Native communities, whether intentionally with weapons of unintentionally with germs, as the government that has reneged on innumerable land treaties, can the United States sponsor a truly Native museum? In striving to sponsor representations of Native identity, can any Western institution face up to the reality that what all Native people share, is brutal, violent, ongoing persecution? America’s current cultural discourse promotes tolerance and embraces diversity. This is a shift away from the melting pot paradigm, which implied that smaller cultures were forced to adapt and blend in. America today is more like stew; distinct entities, which may exchange flavor among them. Conveniently, this paradigm shift absolves America of facing its horrific past; it can now maintain a munificent self-image as it beckons all cultures to the table (or National Mall).

    Yet the Native peoples have clearly not forgotten this encounter. This is evident through the re-occurring references to survivance found in the exhibition. This first strikes the visitor in the mottoes in the entrance to each tribe’s display. The Chiricahua Apache state, “We Are a Peaceful People,” which reflects the content of their display: their tribe being taken and held as prisoners of war by the United States Army between the years 1886-1913. A video screen shows footage from a journey the tribe made in 1986 to the various holding sites and cemeteries from the incarceration era, with the underlying message of tribal survival despite the hardships. Pre-contact history is never mentioned. The Kiowa tribe declares, “Our Songs And Our Ceremonies Enable Us to Carry On.” Their display covers problematic land agreements with the United States government alongside the revival of many cultural practices such as the o-ho-mah War Dance that had been banned in the 1880s and the revival of the Gourd Dance in 1953, after it hadn’t been performed since the late 1930s. Additional mottoes include the Cherokee’s “We’re Still Here,” the Wixarika’s “The World of Our Ancestors Endures” and the Nahua’s “Our Lives And Way of Thinking Shall Continue.” The fact that survivance permeates each of these exhibitions is indicative of the extent to which Contact and its aftermath still weigh down on Native peoples across the continent.

    These mottoes bring us to the second challenge the NMAI faces: capturing a living and dynamic culture within museum walls. Plenty has been written about the attempts to shape the NMAI as an Indian institution, both in form and content. The museum is defended as an attempt to (re)present Indian ways of knowing, even if this confuses the Western visitor. The central questions seem to be: who is telling the story, and who is the audience? Our Peoples suffers from a double incoherency regarding both the speakers and the audience, which results in an unsuccessful portrayal of Native culture. The aforementioned mottoes are a perfect example. As one of the few features that uniformly appears in all eight displays, one cannot but suspect that museum curators or designers demanded this feature; flattening an an entire culture into a pithy saying, even when augmented by artifacts, seems less like a Native notion and more like a Western one.

    Another confusing aspect is the “spine” that runs through the gallery, comprised of four cases. The first starts with stone and clay vessels and figurines, transitions to gold objects interspersed with corn, and ends with swords. The second contains guns and rifles, dating from the 1650s-1980s. The third has a collection of bibles translated into 75 indigenous languages. Lastly are treaties between Native peoples and the US government. While the curators may have been striving to present tools of Western power over the Natives, this isn’t readily conveyed. The gestalt effect draws the viewer in – especially the gold, which is simply bedazzling, and sets the tone for the other cases. Such an amassment of items removed from their context is suspiciously along the lines of Western collecting and display. The weaponry display thus becomes a gun show as visitors admire the historical breadth of rifles and pistols on display.

    Both these are examples of how the Natives’ story gets confused and befuddled by Western museum techniques. The NMAI prioritized the Native voice over a strong curatorial voice, resulting in an exhibition that covers everything from origin myths, tipi traditions, ancestral homelands, dances, symbolism of colors, and much more. Although the three permanent exhibitions demarcate which aspects of Native life each will cover (Our Universes – cosmologies, Our Peoples – history, Our Lives – contemporary life), a common thread is lacking within each exhibition. Thus, a paradox is revealed. On one hand, the Native populations didn’t (or couldn’t) offer anything but muted celebrations of survival, clean of any blame. On the other hand, modern museum technique didn’t interfere or direct the Native voices. (Questions about interpolation are for another paper). The result is an insufficiently coherent exhibition, both in terms of a Native story and professional curatorship. This is the dark underside of a museum as contact zone (Clifford).

    This begs the question: Was the NMAI set up for failure? No. Museums are able to portray culture, but this requires interpreters from both inside and outside the culture to explicate the culture’s inner workings without oversimplifying or essentializing.

    There are two alternative approaches the NMAI could have taken. The first would be to eliminate the conceptual categories running throughout the museum, and allow each culture to (re)present itself however it wished. By asking an open-ended question tribes would have more freedom in determining exhibition content, and perhaps certain themes wouldn’t have emerged over and over again. Community and museum curators could have worked together to develop displays comprehendible to all visitors. The second possible approach would be to explore a particular part of culture across tribal lines, such as domestic space, festive dress, or life cycle ceremonies. This method could in fact highlight the cultural affinities among neighboring tribes.

    Despite the aforementioned problems, the NMAI’s significance is less what it contains and more its existence on the National Mall. The Ka’apor tribe’s motto seems like an apposite closing: “If You Listen to Me I Will Strengthen You.” Without recognizing Indians as a distinct culture, we cannot even begin to examine the past. The NMAI is a first step in the right direction.

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