The capital salutes its first nations
The capital salutes its first nations
America's native peoples finally have a tribute
to their culture at a new Smithsonian museum.
By Johanna Neuman
Times Staff Writer
Sep 18 2004
WASHINGTON Conch shells will blow from the
balcony of the Smithsonian's Castle. A procession
of 15,000 people, many in native regalia, will
march toward the U.S. Capitol amid an
extravaganza of drumming, singing and eagle
feathers. Four times marchers will pause to honor
cultures from each of the cardinal directions
north, south, east and west.
On Tuesday, Washington welcomes perhaps the most
unusual addition to its museum scene since 19th
century British scientist James Smithson
bequeathed his estate for "an establishment for
the increase and diffusion of knowledge among
men." Many museums later, on the last plot of
land on the nation's Mall, the National Museum of
the American Indian opens its doors to huge
"In the profoundest possible sense, this
institution speaks to all of us about cultural
memory, remembrance and future," said museum
director W. Richard West Jr., a Stanford-educated
lawyer and a Southern Cheyenne.
Noting the "long and often troubled past
relationship between peoples," West told the
National Press Club last week that the museum is
"a powerful metaphor for a seminal convergence of
the histories of this hemisphere that has the
potential to alter forever the cultural
consciousness of the Americas."
In other words, reconciliation of two histories
European and American Indian under one roof.
Everything about the museum whether the Kasota
limestone imported from Minnesota to suggest a
building carved over time by wind and water, or
the Mitsitam ("let's eat" in the Piscataway and
Delaware languages) Cafe that will serve meals
based on indigenous foods, such as buffalo meat
and roasted corn echoes the theme.
The museum opening begins a six-day celebration
of dance, music and storytelling that planners
are calling the First Americans Festival and
they take special pride in the irony of being the
last on the Mall.
"We are the last to be built on the Mall, but the
irony is we were the first on the hemisphere,"
said Jim Pepper Henry, the museum's assistant
director for community services and a member of
the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Muscogee Creek
Nation of Oklahoma. "This is a dream for a lot of
native peoples. We're not here just to focus on
the past and celebrate native culture. This is
also, as our director said, about
Across the street from the popular Air and Space
Museum, the new Indian museum is designed to
preserve and honor native cultures that were
threatened by an expansionist United States.
And now it sits within sight of the U.S. Capitol,
as West put it, "the very head of the national
capital's monumental core."
With its curving, flowing architecture, the
museum is in striking contrast to the linear
marble of nearby Neoclassical government
buildings. A 12-minute orientation film, "Who We
Are," showcases the diversity of Native American
communities nearly 3 million people in the
United States, according to the U.S. census
without dwelling on the wars with white settlers
that jeopardized the Indian way of life. A "Wall
of Gold" exhibits gold objects owned by native
people before they were coveted by Europeans, to
illustrate the wealth once held. Landscaping on
the 4.25-acre site includes plant life that
existed before the conflict with the Europeans,
including more than 40 large "grandfather rocks"
that, explained Duane Blue Spruce, an architect
on staff, speak to the longevity of the Indian
people. And the museum faces east, to greet the
rising sun, an important ritual to people who
were pushed west by conquerors.
The museum was approved by Congress in 1989, the
same year the Smithsonian took over George Gustav
Heye's collection in New York. An investment
banker who amassed one of the world's largest
collections of Indian artifacts including
Sitting Bull's war bonnet and a collection of
scalps Heye left objects that date back more
than 10,000 years and form the heart of the new
collection. The Smithsonian umbrella covers not
only the new museum and the George Gustav Heye
Center, a permanent museum in Lower Manhattan,
but also the Cultural Resources Center, a
research and collections facility in Suitland,
Almost 90% of the new museum's holdings comes
from Heye, who collected from native communities
in the first half of the 20th century. Because
some of his acquisitions were less than
scrupulous, the museum has placed "our highest
priority" on repatriation of human remains, such
as war-trophy scalps and bones, said Pepper
A full-time staff of four is charged with
researching the collections to see if human
remains, sacred and ceremonial objects or other
important cultural artifacts should be returned.
Pepper Henry said that since the museum staff
first began working in 1990, more than 2,000
objects have been returned to 100 native
communities throughout the hemisphere.
From the beginning, museum planners sought to
avoid the conventional approach to interpreting
native cultures by what West called "third-party
viewpoints," often academics with few personal
ties to their subjects. So they reached out to 24
tribal communities in the United States, Canada
and Latin America. In two dozen consultations in
the early 1990s, they crafted a template that
would define the museum's themes. Planners wanted
a validation of history but also a recognition of
"Visitors will leave this museum experience
knowing that Indians are not part of history,"
West said in announcing the six-day festival on
the Mall. "We are still here and making vital
contributions to contemporary American culture
Thus, exhibitions include ancient artifacts, such
as a 2,000-year-old ceramic jaguar clutching a
man between its paws, as well as works from 20th
century Indian artists George Morrison and Allan
Houser. A skylight reflects sunlight onto a
central gathering place this one a
120-foot-high atrium. A welcome wall greets
visitors in 200 native languages this one on a
high-tech photomontage. At the Lelawi Theater
(the name means "in the middle"), digital film
screens are made to resemble Indian blankets.
Even the two craft shops the Chesapeake ("shell
of greater value") and the Roanoke ("shell of
lesser value") showcase both traditional
artwork and modern merchandise.
The museum is not without its detractors. The
original architect, Canadian Douglas Cardinal,
who has roots in the Blackfeet and Ojibwa
communities, was fired by the Smithsonian for
missing "contractual performance requirements"
and is threatening to boycott the opening
ceremony, calling the building "a forgery." Some
scholars worry privately that a museum devoted to
serving tribes may be too politically correct to
be historically edifying.
But museum planners are proud of their choices
"We are guided by a set of ideas," said curator
Gerald McMaster, a Cree artist.
"The selection of objects begin to illustrate the
ideas, rather than the other way around." and
predict 4 million visitors a year to a museum
that cost $199 million to build.
Besides, the food is already drawing raves.
"It was awesome, the most unique menu on the
Mall," said Pepper Henry, after lunch at the
cafe's debut Sept. 10. Asked if he worried that
vegetarians might find buffalo meat a concern, he
said, "American Indians have been eating buffalo
for hundreds of years. It's healthy, low-fat,
high in protein and very tasty. Why should we
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times