- Contradictions in Indian Art:Contemporary Native American Arts and the National Museum of the American Indian
When President Barack Obama took the oath of office, he stood before a National Mall powerfully transformed since his first speech before the nation. Indeed, other than the Washington Monument, the most visually arresting architectural sight when facing out from the Capitol is the most recent addition to the Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian. Located directly across from the National Gallery of Art and only a few hundred yards from the inaugural podium, the museum, which opened in the fall of 2004, represents a dramatic and unlikely history, one that received precious little attention during the inauguration and its aftermath.
Although the arrival of tens of thousands to Washington is not generally newsworthy, the September 21, 2004, opening of the National Museum of the American Indian became the occasion for the largest gathering of American Indians in modern American history, surpassed only by indigenous gatherings in Mexico City on October 12, 1992. Like the Columbian quincentenary, the 2004 opening celebrated the endurance and achievements of America's indigenous peoples and, importantly, heralded the arrival of a potential new [End Page 387] era in the nation's Indian affairs, one achieved by the opening of a national museum dedicated to preserving, exhibiting, and supporting the cultural and artistic production of Native Americans. Among the most visited sites in Washington, the National Museum of the American Indian has also provoked numerous perspectives on assessing the cultural forms and legacies of American Indian communities. The museum's goals of providing a national forum for American Indian cultural production, in short, are historically unique and unprecedented.
As The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations, coedited by Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, reveals, the significance of the National Museum of the American Indian remains undetermined. While recognized as historic, the collection's authors highlight the museum's complex and often contested origins as well as provide multiple perspectives on its prominence as the focal point for national discussions of American Indian art. As Paul Chaat Smith notes, "the National Museum of the American Indian project rests on a set of exquisite contradictions. The federal government has not always been a friend of Indian people" (132). What does it mean that a branch of the U.S. federal government—the Smithsonian Institution—now operates a museum dedicated to the nation's indigenous populations? How and why did it come into being? What form does it take, and what does such a place become for both Indian and non-Indian peoples? Such questions animate this volume, providing urgently needed analyses for students and scholars of Native America.
An outgrowth of two issues of the American Indian Quarterly, the anthology brings together leading scholars of American Indian studies and American Indian art history, two interrelated and emergent fields of scholarship. Unlike other American ethnic and racial minorities, American Indians inhabit underrecognized political and representational realms in which both museums and the federal government have played important and often injurious roles. Outside of Hollywood, museums have influenced the nation's perceptions of Indian peoples as much as any other cultural institution, while for Native American communities, the federal government remains central to the government-to-government relations that characterize contemporary American Indian sovereignty. The national museum, then, sits at the confluence of two profound streams of influence, the currents of which remain simultaneously swift, beautiful, and dangerous.
Divided into four sets of interrelated essays, or "conversations," Lonetree and Cobb's collection begins with a survey, "History and Development." Three prominent art historians assess the museum's origins and offer essential context [End Page...