America's Indian Renaissance

By Fitzgerald, Ian | History Today, November 1994 | Go to article overview

America's Indian Renaissance


Fitzgerald, Ian, History Today


After 500 years of conflict and domination America's original inhabitants have finally regained control of their own heritage. On October 30th the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in New York City. The museum, housed on two floors of the old US Customs House in lower Manhattan, is an outstanding example of Beaux-Arts architecture. The building itself is a registered National Historic Landmark, proving a fitting location for this important new museum.

The center, which forms part of the larger National Museum of the American Indian planned for completion in Washington DC by 2001, aims to mark the beginning of a shift in attitude towards native Americans, and to educate Indians and non-Indians alike in the life and culture, from the past up to and beyond the present, of the continent's first inhabitants. in the process it hopes to dispel some of the old Tomahawk-wielding and firewater-drinking stereotypes that have soured American and Indian relations for so long.

What makes this project special is that much of the responsibility for the running of the museum has been given to American Indians themselves. The museum,s director, W. Richard West Jr, is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, and this policy extends to some two-thirds of the senior managers and around 25 per cent of all the staff.

Giving the whole enterprise added kudos and a higher national profile is the Smithsonian Institution of which, by an Act of Congress in 1989, the center became the fifteenth member museum, and the first to be dedicated to native peoples. For Richard West this is all happening at the right time. He detects a real increase in interest on the part of the American public in things native American' and the Smithsonian, with its enormous prestige, offers Indian issues |a place, presence and venue that is unparalled' to exploit that interest.

The museum itself arose from the legacy of one American whose interest in Indian life and culture developed into a lifetime's obsession, and after whom the center is named.

George Gustav Heye was a wealthy New York banker who in 1903 began collecting native American objects and memorabilia. His search took him north to the Arctic Circle, and as far south as Tierra Del Fuego. In the remaining fifty@four years of his life he collected over one million artefacts as diverse as Navajo weavings and blankets, Aztec mosaics, and archaeological treasures from the Caribbean. …

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