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Friday, October 01, 2004

Remembering a Holocaust

"In 1490, there were an estimated 75 million people in the Western
Hemisphere; within 150 years, there were maybe 6 million Indians left. By
1900 in the USA, there were just 250,000"


Over the past 500 years, the indigenous peoples of the
Americas have been invaded, conquered, converted, enslaved, diseased,
robbed, removed, confined, massacred and/or assimilated to the brink of
extinction. Now, at last, they're about to be officially celebrated here on
the National Mall, with a museum they had to fight for and a story they get
to tell. (Photo gallery: National Museum of the American Indian, inside and

Museum director Richard West says the building's location on the National
Mall "comes as close to pure historical poetry as I could ever imagine."
By Robert C. Lautman

There will be some mixed feelings when the Smithsonian's National Museum of
the American Indian opens Sept. 21 with six days of festivities. As many as
20,000 Indians in traditional regalia from all over the Americas, from the
Arctic Circle to Patagonia, are expected to march in procession - the
largest multitribal, multinational gathering of Indian people ever in
history. There will be speeches and storytelling, religious ceremonies and
cultural exhibits, food, music and dance, and floods of tears.

Joyful tears to be sure, but tears of mourning, too, for all who died in the
centuries-long Indian holocaust. And tears of regret that it took so long to
get to this point: The United States is the last major country in the
hemisphere to build a national museum focused on the art, history and
culture of the peoples who were here before the European conquest.

"It's going to be pretty emotional," says Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne), a
longtime Indian rights activist and one of the "mothers" of the new museum
who helped conceive it nearly 40 years ago. "We'll be there to celebrate our
survival and to commemorate our tremendous losses. ... All of us will be
surrounded by all sorts of relatives in spirit."

The museum opens 15 years after it was authorized by Congress in a long
fight over Indian rights legislation. It comes decades after other groups
already have secured a place on or near the Mall: There's already a museum
for African art and culture, two for European art, two for Asian art, one on
American history and one on the Jewish Holocaust.

Richard West (Southern Cheyenne), director of the new museum, acknowledges
that a Native presence should have been first on the Mall, not last. So why
wasn't it?

"There was a tremendous cultural invisibility about Indians," West says. On
the other hand, he says, the museum occupies a symbolically important
"keystone" spot, at the foot of the Capitol across from the "apotheosis of
Western civilization" - the East Wing of the National Gallery.

"It's a placement between equals in the political and cultural heart of
America," West says. Now that the country has moved toward respect of
Indians, he says, the museum can help "create the groundwork for
reconciliation" between Native and non-Native peoples. "It comes as close to
pure historical poetry as I could ever imagine."

10,000 years on display

It's accompanied by architectural poetry, too: The museum's $219 million
five-story building - with 7,500 objects covering 10,000 years on display
and at least 4 million visitors a year expected - is a splendid departure
from the neoclassical grandeur and modernist sensibility of other buildings
on the Mall. Thanks to the principle Canadian architect, Douglas Cardinal
(Blackfoot), there are few straight lines. It's all sinuous curves and
circles, clad in textured Kasota limestone of a striking golden hue,
mimicking the appearance of a timeworn Western cliff at sunset. "A
post-modern cliff dwelling," Indian Country Today, the national Indian
newsweekly, called it.

Innumerable consultations with Indians led to such unique features as a main
entrance that faces east, as Indian dwellings do; an outdoor offerings space
for religious ceremonies; and a 120-foot-high dome that echoes the classical
dome of the National Gallery across the Mall - and that will allow the
mapping of the solstices and equinoxes on the circular floor below.

"As a national icon, the building should appear like a natural element,"
says Duane Blue Spruce (Laguna, San Juan Pueblo), an architect and the
facilities planning coordinator for the museum. "It speaks to the long
history of Native peoples on the land."

But it's the content that counts, and on this point the Smithsonian promises
a different kind of museum, one in which the "content" gets to speak. This
is a departure for the museum world in general, and the Smithsonian in
particular: Many Indians in the USA have long believed the Smithsonian
hoards their ancestors' bones and artifacts while treating living people as
government property or anthropological curiosities. There are lingering
tensions over Indian demands to return more remains and sacred objects still
in the Smithsonian's natural history collections.

"The promise of this museum is that it's not going to be just about Native
people in the past tense, but in the present and future tenses," Harjo says.

Artifacts with tales to tell

For the three opening exhibits, 24 Native communities selected their own
objects to be displayed. They interpreted the ideas and philosophies behind
the objects' creation and use. And they tell the stories of what has
happened to them as individuals and communities. Other Indian communities
will be tapped on a rotating basis to do the same in future exhibits.

"We were very much impressed," says Vivian Juan-Saunders, chairwoman of the
Tohono O'odham Nation of southern Arizona and northern Mexico, one of the
first 24 tribes to be spotlighted in the museum. "They came out four or five
times to get the people's perspectives on our history rather than what
others have written about us. It was a different approach."

Sad numbers

The Indian holocaust will not be ignored in the museum, but it will not
dominate, either. In 1490, there were an estimated 75 million people in the
Western Hemisphere; within 150 years, there were maybe 6 million Indians
left. By 1900 in the USA, there were just 250,000; today, the Census reports
4.1 million Americans claim Indian heritage. Still, the 500 years since
Columbus are just a fraction of the time Indians have lived in this
hemisphere, so the museum can't be just about death and destruction, West

For many non-Indians, much of what they will find inside the museum will
come as a revelation - and will take their breath away. The museum's
collection of 800,000 objects is one of the world's largest and best
assemblages of indigenous art and artifacts. The core was acquired in the
early 20th century by a wealthy New Yorker, George Gustav Heye, who traveled
the hemisphere buying everything he could find, including carved masks from
the Northwest coast, painted hides and feather bonnets from the Plains, and
pottery and basketry from the Southwest. About 30% of the collection is from
outside the USA, representing the major indigenous cultures of Canada,
Mexico and Central and South America.

"What I want (visitors) to understand is the complexity, layering and
richness of the Native presence," West says.

Admiration and dissent

This richness will help Americans better understand their own land, says Tim
Johnson (Mohawk), executive editor of Indian Country Today.

"It's going to serve as a great educational resource that hopefully will
lead to more people engaging American Indians in their own parts of
America," he says.

There have been few dissenting voices. Bob Haozous (Chiricahua Apache), an
acclaimed artist, fears the museum will emphasize "pretty pictures" at the
expense of less attractive aspects of Indian life, such as racism, poverty,
health problems, unemployment and lack of education. He believes the museum
continues an "assimilationist" approach to Indians.

"It's removing the philosophical element of our culture and focusing only on
the decorative elements," Haozous says from his home in Santa Fe. "It's
glorifying mankind to be dominant over nature, which is totally contrary to
everything in my tribe. It's assimilation based on the notion that Native
culture is a thing of the past."

But this view is not widespread in Indian country, say those who live there.
Instead, there is a sense of optimism and hope.

After all, "it wasn't that long ago that I would visit the East Coast and
people would say to me, 'You look like an Indian; I thought you were all
dead,' " says John Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), director of the Colorado-based Native
American Rights Fund.

Few people are likely to make that mistake from now on.



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