Preserving Native Traditions: The National Museum of the American Indian Gives Native Peoples, Scholars Permission to Claim Their Voices, Share Their Stories

Article excerpt

There's a monumental new presence rising above the elm trees on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.,--and it's not like anything else you'll see there. It's as if a vision from an ancient cliff city of the desert Southwest--five stories worth of honey-colored limestone, rough hewn as if by the wind yet flowing like a river of curving cantilevered walls--had been plopped down at the back door of the U.S. Capitol.

The note the building strikes amid the sea of square-cut white marble that surrounds it could be discordant. Could be, but somehow it's not. Somehow, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) sings its own song about man and the natural world and cultures yanked back from the edge of extinction--and manages to harmonize with the rest of the Smithsonian complex.

Clearly, this is a moment to savor. The $219 million museum is "last"--it's the 16th museum in the Smithsonian family, occupying the last open museum space on the Mall. And it's also a "first," representing the first time national resources and a national museum have been devoted to a non-White culture.

"We're profoundly aware of the honor," museum Director W. Richard West, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and a Stanford-educated corporate lawyer, said at the opening.

And Native peoples everywhere are celebrating.

"This is an exciting time for Indian people," says Dr. Joseph McDonald, founder and president of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Mont., and president of the American Indian Higher Education Association. "For three decades, tribal colleges and universities have been working to preserve and vitalize our cultures and traditions. Now we have an important collaborative resource."

And it's not just a collaborative resource, but also a valuable public relations and educational tool. Not quite two months after the ballyhooed opening in late September, the official tally of visitors stands at 444,700, says NMAI spokeswoman Amy Drapeau, adding that the annual estimate of 4 million

* The National Museum of the American Indian is an architectural marvel designed by Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, who has Blackfoot and Metis Indian heritage. Fred in 1998 in a controversy over the direction and vision of the museum, the building was completed by others. Cardinal refused to attend the opening on Sept. 19, calling the building, according to CNN, an "artistic forgery."

visitors a year seems well within reach.

That's enormously important, notes Dr. Jason Baird Jackson, a professor of ethnomusicology and folklore at Indiana University, former curator of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and author of Yuchi Ceremonial Life: Performance, Meaning and Tradition in a Contemporary American Indian Community.

"No one can deny it's a fantastically positive moment and achievement for Native American peoples in the United States--just in terms of what it means to be on the Mall, the political power of that, the capacity to educate vast numbers of people. There's a huge potential for positive impact both on people and policy-makers," he says.

But it's also an ambivalent moment. "What is the meaning of the museum for scholars and for the larger Native community? I think that remains to be seen," says Anjana Mebane Cruz, who's wrapping up a dissertation in the emerging field of Black-Indian convergences in the University of Virginia's department of anthropology.

Ambivalence might seem an odd response, especially when one considers that, for the first-time visitor to the exhibit, the keynote of the initial encounter is harmony.

The in-your-face nature of the architecture is just one radical departure from the other museums on the Mall. Then there are the subtle dimensions of the experience. For example, there is no north--or Mall-side--entrance to the building. The main entrance faces east to greet the morning sun (and the U. …