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Tribal Museums and the New National Museum of the American Indian 

12-09-2015 17:35

In late September I marched in the procession to commemorate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It was and still remains a very emotional moment for me and, I suspect, for all who attended. This magnificent structure is the pinnacle for more than 150 tribal museums throughout the country. It represents the last of the three entities that were to be created following the legislation that created the National Museum of the American Indian.

The first was the National Museum of the American Indian museum located in the U.S. Customs House in New York City. This museum, which opened in the 1990s, provided a glimpse of what was to come and presented some of the richness of the Heye Foundation’s collection to the public.1 The Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., opened soon after. This facility is equipped to care for the Heye Collection with a combination of traditional care practices and state--of--the--art techniques. Curators can care for objects as living entities of the present and, using current curatorial/conservation techniques, are able to ensure that they last for the future. The third entity is the new National Museum of the American Indian which opened on September 21, the autumnal equinox, on the Mall.

In addition, individual tribal museums are becoming the fastest growing segment of the museum world in America. Indeed, Lisa Watt (Seneca) has stated that, “There are two and only two kinds of tribes in America today, those that have museums and those that wish to have museums.” They are not, however, museums in the strictest sense of your perception. They vary from being museums that show collections, to history centers, to heritage centers that strive to carry on traditional ways and crafts and even the resurrection of tribal languages. They are multifaceted in their format and in their governance structure.

New Approaches Counter Misperceptions

Before the National Museum of the American Indian opened, several studies were conducted in order to understand the public’s perception of tribes and Native American people. Various surveys indicated that the public viewed Indians as people of the past, and a very romanticized past at that. Articles published by the National Museum of the American Indian and others, including James Nason (Comanche), curator of Pacific and American Ethnology at the Burke Museum, came up with essentially the same conclusions.

In general the public perceived Indians as people of the past who had freedom of movement and were at one with their environment. The control that they had over their destiny was destroyed with the arrival of Europeans. These perceptions are pervasive in most of the exhibits that are about Native peoples in the museums of America and, for that matter, the world. The stereotypes are there for all to see. And, as such, they help to deny that there is a strong Indian presence in America today.

In one of his articles, James Nason quotes George B. Goode in his 1889 Report to Congress on the state of the National Museum and the museum’s role in preserving Indian Culture: “American museums are still preserving with care the memorials of the vanishing race of red men. The George Catlin Indian Gallery2 (of the American History Association) is valuable beyond the possibility of appraisement, in that it is the sole record of the physical characters, the costumes, and ceremonies of several tribes long extinct.”

Nason goes on to lament that “frozen moments” help to further instill the notion that Indians are peoples of the past. Museum displays consisted of Indian artifacts and their association with Native Americans, which were represented by mannequins. The ubiquitous dioramas were the archetype of this kind of display. The passive voice runs rampant through the labels. Nason sums it up best when he states, “Never in the history of museums have so many displays like this conveyed so little to so many for so long.”

Now, tribal museums and the National Museum of the American Indian can change non--Native attitudes toward Indians, as long as people are willing to change and are willing to see things from a different perspective. Museum goers need to see objects of the past as objects of the present. They need to understand that the same thoughts and beliefs that created the object in the past represent the same thoughts and beliefs of the present culture. Exhibits about Native Americans need to deal with the concepts of change and continuity within the same context a seemingly disparate state but not for the Native American community.

More important, tribal museums represent the communities from which they are created. They are created to serve that community. As such, they are one with the community and not just a building that houses the material culture of the people. The material culture contains all the community values that nurture the culture and allow its continuity and its ability to change.

Tribal museums deal less with objects and more with themes, ideas, and issues. They are less concerned with chronology. As a Yup’ik friend indicated to me once, “Time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.”

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum’s Thematic Approach

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum, in Palm Springs, Calif., which is scheduled to open in late 2006, will have 20,000 square feet of permanent exhibits. When I lecture about the new museum, I am often asked whether or not we have enough objects to fill such a space. The answer is “no!” But we do not plan to be a museum of objects, even though our collection is quite extensive. Instead, after meeting with tribal elders, we have arrived at five themes.

The first theme is “Identity.” The Agua Caliente’s identity is and has been both culturally inherited and legally defined. For the Aqua Caliente, who you are in your heart is different from what you are as defined to be by the federal government.

“Knowledge” is another key theme. The Agua Caliente have inhabited the harsh desert of the Coachella Valley for thousands years. Knowledge is the key to survival in the desert and it is also critical to survival in the non--Indian world.

“Adaptation” is another theme. To empower themselves and resist discrimination, the Agua Caliente have adapted to new cultural influences and have relinquished much of their traditional language and culture to survive.

None of the above has been without the fourth theme, “Struggle.” The Agua Caliente have struggled against legal and cultural bias to claim and assert their autonomy.

The last theme ties all of the others together. That theme is “Land.” The Agua Caliente’s enduring relationship to the land and its environment has sustained the people for thousands of years. Since the beginning of time, the Agua Caliente people have been in the Coachella Valley. Life cycles are a continuum and not the linear processes that prevail in other museums. Native American writer Sherman Alexie has stated, “If I stand at the window long enough I will see the long thread of history float randomly through the breeze.”

But the key is land and the enduring relationship to the land. And it is this theme that resonates quite strongly in the historic preservation field.

“Grounded” by Place

In the September/October 2004 issue of Preservation magazine, an article by Ann Patchett helps explain what tribal museums are all about. Her article, “Destiny Delivered” is about place. She starts with an opening line that Melville would have been proud of: “I am not from here.” She laments the fact that no matter how long she has lived in Nashville, her birth certificate will always say that she was born in Los Angeles and therefore will never be fully accepted. Midway in her article she touches on the nexus of what tribal museums mean to Native Americans. “After all, with the exception of the American Indians, the one thing that our ancestors have in common is that they were not from here.”

Said another way, the one thing that all Native Americans have in common is that they are from here. Place, the land, is synonymous with home.

Native American writer Michael Dorris states it best: “Among our not so distant ancestors and in much of the world today, the connection between a person and a specific place has traditionally been intimate and consistent over time in many respects one of the primary characteristics of both individual identity and group definition.”

Home is an ongoing character in our lives. It serves as elder, as friend, as reference, as point of both origin and return, as haven. We absorb its solace even though we pass through it ultimately as anonymously as those who preceded us.

Place and elders! Again, a passage from Michael Dorris.

“The presence in daily intercourse of elders keepers of the hearth fire protects stability, continuity, and perspective, all highly valued. Men and women who have been through the seasons of life are honored as the segment of a population who can, by reference to their own experience and longevity, simultaneously take pleasure in the exuberance of a child, remember the confusion of an adolescent, empathize with the adult emotions of love and jealousy, grief and disappointment, anger and passion. Out of the fray, they alone can ideally attain the serenity of calm vision, offer advice without the suspicion of personal profit. They are, in a literal and figurative sense, ‘grounded.’ ”

The tribal elder how important to the continuity of tribal culture and how grounded. One of the highest accolades that we have received during the planning process for the new Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is that tribal members are starting to refer to it as the new tribal elder. It is grounded to the land, and the people to the land. There is a realization that the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum is a museum in a large population center 400,000 in the entire Coachella Valley that is about the first inhabitants of the area, who are still living there today.

Reflections on the New National Museum

We are not from here. Yet reviews of the exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian clearly show that outside understanding was not evident. In the opinion of writers for the Washington Post and the New York Times, the exhibitions were not up to the scholarly approach of other Smithsonian museums. Critics wanted to see the best that the Heye Collection had to offer. It was also the Washington Post that labeled a picture of a tribal member in full regalia using a cell phone as “seemingly anachronistic.”

The early morning procession in September was not just a march. It was blessing ceremonies, songs, and dances that consecrated the grounds that at one time had belonged to Native peoples. The National Museum of the American Indian is more than a collection of objects. It is a spiritual place where tribal people can feel at one with the place. It is a place that many will consider home.

Rick West, a Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne Nation and the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, commented on the new facility in the September/October 2004 issue of Museum News:

... the interconnectedness of everything, the symbiosis of who we are and what we do it embodies a whole philosophy of Native life and culture and speaks volumes about the nature of Native objects to Native peoples themselves….As the originating element of American heritage, Native Americans should have been among the first to be acknowledged with a museum on the National Mall and yet they arrived last. In an illuminating act of great symbolism, we now occupy the keystone place in America’s monumental core, next to the Capitol and across from the National Gallery of Art between the political and cultural heart of America. This circling back of American history on itself to a new point of affirmation and resolution is not only completely right, it is pure historical poetry. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian represents cultural redemption and reconciliation in the 21st century.

One final quote by Lee Rosenbaum in the November 18, 2004 Wall Street Journal is necessary.

As an art museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of the American Indian is a failure. But as a museum relating the lives, beliefs, and histories of diverse Native American tribes from the Arctic to South America, NMAI is a substantial success. Only by accepting this museum on its own terms can you appreciate the accomplishments of its staff and the ‘community curators’ from 24 tribes who collaborated to tell the peoples’ stories from the inside.

It is about place and about the land. With the key impetus of the National Museum, more and more tribal museums will be opening in the near future. They will center on place—where the past, present, and the future are one.

Endnotes: 1 George Gustav Heye (1874-1957), a wealthy New Yorker and passionate collector of Native American artifacts, acquired nearly one million objects on trips throughout the United States and abroad. A portion of these were displayed at the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in the U.S. Customs House in New York City. The Heye collection now forms the cornerstone of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

2 On travels through the West from 1830 to 1836, American artist George Catlin painted hundreds of works recording the Native life and culture he observed, and that he feared was disappearing. He later displayed these works on tour as his Indian Gallery. The collection is now owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Publication Date: Winter 2005


Author(s):Michael Hammond

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