Spirituality Pervades New American Indian Museum in Washington

The Christian Century, October 19, 2004 | Go to article overview

Spirituality Pervades New American Indian Museum in Washington


Just as earth tones form an underlying decorative element in the new National Museum of the American Indian, spirituality is an undercurrent within the 254,000-square-foot edifice built on Washington's National Mall.

The top level of the imposing building of light brown limestone features a permanent exhibition that highlights how spiritual beliefs and values merge with the everyday life of native peoples across the Western Hemisphere.

"Spirituality is really a rather fundamental tenet of native life," said Richard West, the director of the newest Smithsonian Institution museum. "'It imbues everything, as far as I'm concerned."

The fact that West is also a United Methodist whose Native American heritage is the Southern Cheyenne Tribe also speaks to the efforts of both Christian and native religions leaders to enjoy the museum opening despite wounds from the past.

Native Americans within present U.S. borders suffered disease, displacement and death in such numbers that by 1900 their millions dropped to about 250,000. Native Americans now exceed 2 million and are growing. "It's more than just numbers," West said, alluding to what he calls "'a cultural renaissance" under way.

The museum, which opened officially September 21, encompasses native Indian cultures in both Americas. For instance, the fourth-floor exhibition, "Our Universes," uses the spoken and written words of "community curators" to examine eight native communities, from the Lakota in South Dakota to the Mapuche in Chile.

"We are spiritual beings on a human journey," said Garry Raven, of Manitoba, Canada, who teaches about the Anishinaabe people located in the Great Lakes region and central Canada. "Everything has a spirit and everything is interconnected."

Emil Her Many Horses, curator of the "Our Universes" exhibit, spoke about spending time with spiritual leaders and elders of the Yup'ik community in Alaska. They were the last in their generation to be raised in "the men's house," a place "comparable to their university or their church," lie said. "It's where they learned all the lessons of life."

The curator said museum staffers met several times with elders and spiritual leaders of the featured communities, involving them in a review of the exhibit's design, scripts and use of media. "Anytime we gathered and came together they wanted to have a blessing that went along with it to bless our work so that things went well," he said.

The sacredness of nature--from mountains to crops--is explained by the different community leaders. …

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