A Brief Look Back, A Long Look Forward by Fred Stern
Time was when a museum was the sum of its artifacts. The importance of a collection was established floor by floor, display case by carefully catalogued display case.
Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of the American Indian has other priorities. It is not objects that count here, although the museum does have more than 800,000 artifacts, ethnographic objects and photos in a secondary location. It is the image of a people that is presented. At that, this museum succeeds magnificently.
Gone are the days of cowboys and Indians, the cavalry riding to the rescue in the Saturday movies of my childhood. The museum hopes to eradicate such phrases as "low man on the totem pole," or "being on the warpath." I think that over time and with perseverance, it will succeed. With their appeal to a large and diverse audience, the museum's reach promises to be wide and its influence, impressive.
The museum brings us up-to-date on today's Native American. He does not have the stereotypical appearance of the Indian; his features are highly variable, a cross section of America -- and indeed many of us may have Indian blood without knowing it. This native universe is larger today than it was at the time of Columbus. Then, the indigenous population numbered around one million. Today, there are more than two million Indians speaking one of 175 native languages, plus English. Very few live in igloos or tipis, hogans or long houses, and only a small percentage are still on reservations. (Those reservations, however, are likely to boast up-to-date schools, clinics, and other facilities.) Many own treasured tribal ceremonial garments, but these are worn only on feast days and other important occasions.
The National Museum of the American Indian occupies what was the very last open location on the Washington, D.C. National Mall. How different is the structure of this museum from the rest of the buildings on the mall? Both the scale and the materials of the museum couldn't be more distinct from its neighboring institutions. There is none of the Greek temple imitation or semi-abstract Federalist style of the classic Smithsonian castle building. The weathered look of the dolomitic limestone of the National Museum of the American Indian appears to have mastered the assault of wind, the hardship of hundreds of winters, the heat of a thousand summers.
Natural elements selected for the area outside of the building include a hardwood forest, a meadow, a waterfall and a crop area, reflecting the intimate Indian connection with the environment. The forest includes as many as 25 different tree species including red maple, staghorn sumac and wild oak. In all, more than 33,000 plants from 150 species can be found in the four habitats recreated on the museum grounds.
Inside the museum, no matter where you are, your eyes take in the magnificent atrium with its five story high oculus that brings the sky and its varied moods into the heart of the structure. Look down and you'll see flooring inset with red pipestone.
The museum acquired its 800,000 artifacts almost exclusively through the efforts of just one person: George Gustav Heye (1874-1957). Mr. Heye, an electrical engineer and industrialist, was so obsessed with collecting native artifacts that he snatched up trainloads of materials, at times indiscriminately, without regard for rarity or value. In addition, while traveling across the continent, he acquired thousands of photographs and photographic plates. Finally, his treasures required their own building to house and put on display. Heye selected a site in uptown Manhattan where they remained until recently when a congressional act moved the Heye collection to the historically important Customs House in lower Manhattan.
Exhibits will be shared between the Customs House facility and the D.C. museum. Currently, for example, the Native American portraits of George Catlin are on view at both sites.
Some 3000 objects from the Heye collection are on display in the Washington museum, housed in long, tall display cases. These include bows and arrows, rifles, dolls, blankets, boots, papooses and the like.
The remaining materials are exhibited in the New York Customs House, on loan, or are safely ensconced in a research facility in Suitland, Maryland about six miles from Washington, D.C. Scholars and curators can draw on these materials for research and forthcoming expositions.
For its initial exhibit, the Washington museum, which opened at the end of September 2004, presents the story of today's Indians using all the faculties of the information age. On its fourth floor we view the introductory feature "Who We Are," a 13-minute presentation that shows the indigenous people from every vantage point.
On another floor, there's a close-up view of eight tribal groups and their communities. These geographically and culturally diverse groups are as far flung as the Urban Indian community of Chicago and the Inuit (they prefer "Inuit" to "Eskimo" as a designation) of Igloolik, Canada. Individuals lead a modern life, often integrated with traditions that are maintained within the tribes: the art of pottery, textiles and basketry; traditional jobs; favored foods. The Inuit get around and secure their fishing and whaling livelihood in Bombardier ice transporters, for example.
The new museum also provides an intriguing dining adventure. The Mitsitam (mit-seh-TOM, which means "let's eat") dining room features indigenous, often organic foods, prepared native style. Five regional menus serve to educate while satisfying gustatory needs. Menu items include cedar planked juniper salmon, buffalo burgers, spice chile fries, yellow corn tacos, pinto beans and corn enchiladas which may be washed down with hibiscus fresca or Mexican hot chocolate. For dessert, there is cinnamon fry bread or popcorn balls.
I especially enjoyed a new audio-accessed feature: a series of "storytelling stations" that narrate a blend of mythology, fairy tales and adventures of Native Americans throughout the centuries. While the stations are permanent, the tapes are changed periodically.
The work of contemporary Indian artists who are part of the permanent exhibition includes a large wooden sculpture facing the main museum building called Beaver and the Mink. This is the work of Susan Point of the Coast Salish tribe, and is a landmark object. On the wall outside the main theater, a bronze and ceramic sculpture For Life in All Directions is by the sculptress Roxanne Swentzell of the Santa Clara Pueblo. You will also note Kaats, a red cedar totem pole carved by Tlinglit Indian Nathan Jackson. A large bronze statue on the fourth floor level greets visitors. It is by Edward Hlavka and is entitled Allies in War, Partners in Peace.
An exciting first for the National Museum of the American Indian is its decision to dispatch artist James Luna as its representative to this year's Venice Biennale, June 9-Nov. 6, 2005. He will present a three-part work that includes audiovisual images as well as found objects, under the title Emendatio. It is to honor a Luiseno Indian tribe who was sent by a California mission to Rome in 1830. The exhibition will salute the connection between Italy and America's indigenous population.