Museum of Indians That Is Also for Them
WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 - A century ago George Gustav Heye, a New Yorker, traveled across the United States, gathering up Indian objects by the boxcar. All told, he amassed 800,000 examples of Indian art and life, which will have a new home at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, which opens here on Sept. 21.
Unlike the impoverished Indians who happily sold Heye, a wealthy oil heir, their tribal treasures and sometimes their dregs, today's Indians see these same objects as an opportunity to tell their story - their way.
Long before construction began on the museum's curvy, buff-colored limestone-clad building on the National Mall, W. Richard West Jr., a Southern Cheyenne who has steered the museum's plans since 1990, began asking native tribes what they wanted in a museum in the nation's capital.
What they did not want, museum officials found, was the static display of 10,000 years of tribal life and culture that was represented in Heye's collection. Their ideal museum would celebrate the glories of the past, to be sure, but they also wanted their artifacts and their contemporary culture to be accessible.
"This is an important opportunity to show tribal people as participants in a living culture," said Wilma Mankiller, former chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, "not something in museums or in history books."
So the new museum will mark its presence not only with a bumpy-looking facade at odds with those of its stately white marble neighbors, but also with a distinctly different operating philosophy that allows tribes continuing access to both the objects on display and those in storage at a suburban Maryland preservation center.
"Every piece is considered a living being," explained Bruce Bernstein, the museum's assistant director for cultural resources. "These pieces are not seen just as specimens or artifacts."
So when the Mechoopda, of central California, discovered that the museum's collection had a shirt used in a tribal dance that had not been performed since 1906,l they asked to borrow it. Mr. Bernstein then carried the buckskin shirt, with a fringe of acorns, pine nut beads and feathers, across the country for tribal members to use as a model to make new shirts for a revival of the dance.
As part of its commitment to Indian tribes (dozens collaborated extensively on its exhibits), the museum is allowing them to commune with their objects. Mr. Bernstein said much of the access would be after hours, but he added that spontaneous ceremonies or offerings to sacred objects would also be welcome and that the staff had been trained to deal with them.
The tribes' spiritual needs, including the blessings of objects in the museum and traditional offerings of braids of sweet grass, feathers or sage brush, would be accommodated both at the building's inaugural and afterward, museum officials said. Tribes like the Santa Clara of New Mexico would also be able, for example, to sprinkle cornmeal around their objects to maintain their tribal custom of "feeding and nourishing" them, Mr. Bernstein said.
A century after Heye's forays, American Indians have the resources to ensure their vision of a national museum serving the estimated 30 million to 40 million native peoples in the Western Hemisphere. American tribes gave more than one-third of the $100 million in private funds that Congress, which authorized the museum in 1989, required to be raised. Federal money paid for the rest of the $219 million project.
Three tribes that operate casinos donated $10 million each: the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which operates the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut; the Mohegan Tribe, which operates another Connecticut gaming operation; and the Oneida in New York. Over all, nearly two dozen tribes and tribal corporations formed by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act contributed.(Four other tribes are now operating the only tribally owned enterprise in Washington: a Residence Inn, intended to cater to American Indian visitors, that they built a few blocks from the museum, also using gambling proceeds.)
Financing the museum is seen "as a huge accomplishment," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest group representing the nearly 600 state and federally recognized tribes. "Because a lot of tribes felt they were contributing for all of Indian country."
The money also helps offset complaints about Indian casinos. Questions about tribal gaming now "overshadow almost everything else about us," acknowledged Ms. Mankiller, who also served on the museum's advisory fund-raising committee.
American Indians have a chance to move beyond such stereotypes, she said, because the museum "is about our culture and art, and where our future is."
To keep Indian traditions and culture more visible, the museum, with its smaller sister institution, the National Museum of the American Indian at the George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan, plans traveling exhibitions that will circulate Indian art and cultural objects around the country. It is also training smaller museums' staff to mount shows of Indian art and culture. The museum plans to have performances by Indian boat builders from Hawaii and Alaska as well as artisans, dancers and storytellers to help museumgoers (officials expect nearly four million annually) to understand contemporary Indian life.
The efforts to accommodate tribal sensibilities are visible even before entering the museum, located on a four-acre tract next to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. With 150 species of American trees and shrubs, the museum's grounds include a wetlands area, a planting of native crops (with corn and tobacco) and huge boulders from Canada.
Its entrance faces east, in deference to native tradition (it is desirable to face the rising sun) and is opposite the Capitol building. The five-story-high entrance has an electronic welcome board in hundreds of native languages, and a circular maple wood floor for dancing and other celebrations. A woven copper screen designed in a basket pattern rims the area, and sun symbols are etched on the doors. American woods, Canadian granite and Minnesota limestone are used both inside and outside.
More than 12,000 Indians from tribes across the hemisphere are expected to attend the opening, which will be followed by a weeklong First Americans Festival to celebrate what Mr. West called "the most remarkable assemblage of cultural patrimony of the first citizens of the Americas."
That patrimony will be displayed in three permanent exhibitions: "Our Universes," which examines how Indians thought and lived in the past, as well as now; "Our Peoples," which features native histories; and "Our Lives," which looks at tribal identities.
Among the 7,000 objects in the museum, which has about 10 times the space of the Manhattan location, are beaded moccasins, feathered headdresses, pre-Columbian gold figures, pottery, woven baskets and even a miniature buffalo made 94 years ago for a Lakota child in South Dakota.
But not only the sunny side of Indian history will be on display. Some of the knottiest topics will be addressed, Mr. West said. The museum, for instance, will include documents that show the habitual breaking of treaties with the Indians - "not one treaty was ever completely honored by the federal government," he said - as well as the efforts to eliminate Indians from this country.
A major tribal complaint - that collected religious and sacred objects are often used improperly - was addressed by repatriating some 2,000 disputed pieces, Mr. West said. (Heye collected in an era when human remains and funereal objects were often taken along with other artifacts.)
Heye began what many have described as his collecting mania at the turn of the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt was popularizing the American West. While Heye was working as an engineer in Arizona, he came across a Navajo woman chewing the seams of her husband's deerskin shirt to kill the lice. He promptly bought it, then a rattle, moccasins and other Navajo items and started reading about Indians - "rather intensely," as he wrote about it later.
Heye accumulated his collection over 54 years, acquiring about two-thirds of it in North America. He traveled in Central and South America as well, to include tribes from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. He also crossed the Atlantic many times, returning with crates of American Indian materials that had been exported by European collectors.
Mr. West said he hoped the museum would achieve "cultural understanding and reconciliation that has eluded American history from its beginning."Ms. Johnson, a Tlingit from Alaska, said she agreed. "But does it resolve our political issues?" she asked. "Of course not."
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