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
"Native Americans were tired of being treated by museums as if
they were extinct," Seneca art curator Tom Hill writes in the
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
Why didn't I harpoon him?
was I sorry for him?
was it the day, the spring day,
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. …