American Indians Guide Their Own History at a Recently Opened Museum in New York, Native Curators Emphasize Context over Isolation and Analysis of Objects

Article excerpt

A "fossil thought" is how Henry David Thoreau described an Indian arrowhead. By studying an object, he believed others could understand the ideas that impelled its creation. The recently opened National Museum of the American Indian attempts to induce this response to the values expressed in artworks such as baskets, pottery, and rugs.

By virtue of its unsurpassed collection of more than a million objects spanning 10,000 years and an area from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, the museum will play a major role in defining American Indian culture. Its director, W. Richard West Jr., a Cheyenne-Arapaho, wishes to avoid previous Eurocentric exhibition styles that confined Indian art to dusty dioramas in natural history museums.

"Native Americans were tired of being treated by museums as if they were extinct," Seneca art curator Tom Hill writes in the museum catalog.

The scholarly approach of art historians typically viewed esthetic objects from primitive cultures as meritorious for their animistic energy and departure from the Western approach. Anthropologists examined the objects as artifacts, approaching them through social science.

In contrast, the native Americans who created the objects often have no word in their language for art, culture, or religion because these values permeate all life. To the native artist, art is a crucial element of community life, and objects integrate utility, decoration, and tradition.

An Eskimo kayak on display makes clear the contrasting perspectives on these objects. A panel explains how an anthropologist would consider the cultural context of the kayak (from late-19th-century Alaska), its method of construction, and its use. An art historian would examine the carving and assess technique and esthetic principles of design. To present the native view, suffused with spirituality and kinship with the animal world, the museum displays a poem, "Spring Fjord," by Armand Schwerner:

I was out in my kayak

I was out at sea in it

I was paddling ...

the seal came gently

toward me

Why didn't I harpoon him?

was I sorry for him?

was it the day, the spring day,

the seal

playing in the sun like me?

Throughout the exhibitions, panels of text, videos, and soundtracks provide the native philosophy inherent in the objects. Clay pots are displayed amid rough adobe walls and wood beams. "The same Tewa word is used for clay and people," a text explains. An artisan describes how to make pottery and sings on a soundtrack, while a Zuni prayer is printed on the wall.

Elsewhere, a Kwakiutl button blanket from the late-19th century is displayed flat in a glass case. On video, a woman explains how the blanket ("a robe of power") was used in ceremonial dances, how it became "like a member of the family. It represents all my family history. It goes back at least six generations. …