An Indian Vision, Carved in Limestone ; in New Museum, 'Living Culture' Takes Precedence over Anthropology

By Jonathan P. Decker Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2004 | Go to article overview
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An Indian Vision, Carved in Limestone ; in New Museum, 'Living Culture' Takes Precedence over Anthropology


Jonathan P. Decker Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The newly opened National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is what its director likes to call "different." Unlike past museums set up by outsiders, this showplace is directed, curated, and staffed largely by native Americans.

With its rough limestone exterior and curving walls, the NMAI looks nothing like the 17 other museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution. Its origins are also unusual: It was conceived over years of consultation with tribal groups throughout the Western Hemisphere.

"It's a significant departure in how a national museum tells the story of native people," says James Nottage, chief curator of the Eiteljorg Museum of Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis. "It's not an anthropology museum. It's a museum of living cultures."

In fact, the $219 million museum, home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of Indian art and artifacts in the world, is an institution about, by, and for Indians, and one in which its founders say they will define themselves.

On permanent exhibit at the museum are nearly 8,000 artifacts culled from 24 tribes and representing 10,000 years from the pre- Columbian era through the beginning of the 20th century.

"This museum is the cultural center for all the tribes in the Americas," says Lawrence Small, secretary for the Smithsonian Institution. "This is the place where they can showcase their contributions to the world not only in the past, but also the vitality of their culture."

The collection is regarded as one of the most comprehensive holdings of Indian cultural materials in the world, comprising more than 800,000 objects as well as an archive of 125,000 photographs - much of it assembled over six decades by private collector George Gustav Heye. The heir to an oil fortune, Heye was obsessed with Indian objects, and his collection - everything from Nootka whaleboats to Lenape wampum belts to nearly every kind of headdress - serves as the nucleus of the NMAI.

"We want this to be a living museum," says US Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) of Colorado, a Northern Cheyenne who was instrumental in starting the museum and whose jewelry is on display. "From the Indian perspective, this museum is a great opportunity to tell the real story of American Indians our way. It's a long-awaited dream."

What becomes clear from walking through the 254,000-square-foot museum, is that this is not solely a facility devoted to dusty artifacts or to historical summary. It is a museum that avoids, as much as possible, confining Indians to the past. The museum's founders go to great lengths to emphasize the positive even avoiding references to the violent encounters between native peoples and the US government.

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