Nat’l Museum of the American Indian (D.C)

(Originally from June 2013)

I am back in Virginia for the summer, exploring the state, its history and the state’s history with history—and working with the NPS reanalyzing the 1930’s excavation which found George Washington’s birthplace home or “Building X.” More on that to come.

For my first blog of the summer I want to look at the Nat’l Museum of the American Indian

A couple of friends and I set out from Fredericksburg with the expressed purpose of eating at the museum then taking the train back to the station and driving the 45minutes back to Fredericksburg. We heard the food was worth it. The museum itself on the other hand, we were told was less than appealing –boring, confusing, poorly executed and oddly designed –needless to say we were exited to discover and develop our own options on the museum.

First, the food was great. I had a seared salmon –from the Northwest Coast Native American’s food counter. So good!  I wonder if the African ImageAmerican Museum or the Women’s History Museum’s are planning this sort of feast in their projected constructions. I hope so, and I am excited to see what each comes up with. Food history and culture are very popular, no doubt due in part to the popularity of Food Network and the Travel Channel. Taking advantage of the public’s desire to connect gastricly with the past and its peoples will bring in guests “Come for the food stay for the exhibits.” Having been told that museum left much to be desired we walked it mainly to digest, but we walked it, talked it, gathered arguments and formed opinions. What more can a museum ask for?(Fat Donations from venture capitalists?..yea probably, but we gave what we could )

Now on to the exhibits, “We are still here! And we are just like you”

That is the theme we gathered from the first exhibits we saw on the lower levels. Previous understanding of the current existence of Native Americans made most of these vignettes feel patronizing. Many of the tribes presented in the exhibit featured contemporary groceries attempting to highlight that Native Americans eat and use the same foods as the white population.

This of course leads one of think about the implication and success of turn-of-twentieth century Native American assimilation projects. (What did you learn at Carlyle?) Which was unexpected.  Almost as unexpected as the wall that claimed that anyone could be Native American no matter blood quantum. I am under the understanding the federally recognized Native Americans still have to carry blood quantum cards on their person at all times. These cards are only issued after someone proves their distinction to the federal government. So, what I want to know is what argument is the wall making? Is it saying “We define who we are, not the government” or “We are all connected, we are not different?” Both would fit. But both are complicated when you considers the  implications of being a Native American in a time when they are encouraged by the Government to rediscover their roots for finical gain and a semblance of stability, after being told for generations to “shed the blanket” in favor of acceptance into the white world.

Their Mission Statement is

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere—past, present, and future—through partnership with Native people and others. The museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.”

Native American culture (past, present, and future) has been deeply effected and altered by their relationship with the federal government.

 I understand that it is a federally funded museum, but not recognizing how the government has jerked the Native Americans around for generations makes the museum confusing. This makes me worrisome for the African American Museum and the Women’s History Museum. Honestly, the Native American Museum should expose more of their relationship with the government; the food is good enough that it gives the museum a license to say whatever they want.

Here are some books I have in mind on this trip—-

 K. Tsianinia Lomawaima.They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 1994)

Mark Edwin Miller.Forgotten Tribes: Unrecognized Indians and the Federal Acknowledgment Process (Lincoln:  U of Nebraska, 2006)

(It should be noted that I have not read these books since college and since I am away from home I can’t refresh my memory on them, but there are two I remember reading. I welcome further recommendations for further reading)

Some Good Things

On the museum’s top floor they have two exhibit halls I loved. The first one explores how various tribes understand the universe. Very Cool! These exhibits are noted as being created by members of the tribes they display. Which has good and bad implications, but the exhibits looked good and succeeded at keeping our attention and dissemination information—success.

The other one was about the evolution of European and Native interactions. This exhibit was a work of art –there was undeniable flow and grace to it. It was well done. I was pleased. I was especially pleased by the video at the beginning, where a (rather stereotypical modern) Native American man spoke about the subjective nature of exhibits. He explains that only the stories told in exhibit are from one side and multi-sided and broadly experienced events. So many museums fail to recognize or simply ignore the fact that they too are making arguments.

I think the museum is good, but I also think it could do more go further making stronger statements and arguments.


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