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A Museum of the Indian, Not for the Indian
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The American Indian Quarterly 29.3 & 4 (2005) 510-516

James Lujan

Apparently, there's been some controversy brewing around the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. A bit of it is due to the dismay over the exclusion of so many tribes, which I'm sure in time will be remedied, given that the exhibits are supposed to rotate every couple of years. But more fundamental is the debate over the museum's deliberate choice to center its philosophy around the interpretive exhibits of so-called community curators. Your opinion of the success of this approach, whether you're Native or not, I suppose depends primarily on your expectations of the function, responsibility, and very definition of what a museum should be because those expectations will be challenged.

For my part, I suppose I should start off by coming clean and admitting I'm by no means an expert or even a frequent visitor of museums. Much of my experience with these musty repositories of ancient artifacts has been limited to more-or-less forced cultural excursions while a participant of various academic or professional functions over the years. However, as a Native writer and filmmaker, I have developed, by default, a strong fascination for the scope and complexities of Indian history. It's an occupational hazard that comes from being a former journalist who knows that the best stories in the course of everyday events, the ones that become part of history, are rich with drama. And as a practicing dramatist, I also know the key ingredient that makes all good stories work is conflict—good versus evil, a hero overcoming impossible odds, and so on.

It's precisely the lack of conflict or drama in the museum's presentation of the "history" of Indian America that made my visit to the grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Indian such an unsatisfying experience. Having said that, let me also say that I have nothing but the greatest admiration and respect for those who managed to make the NMAI a reality in the first place. The accomplishment of raising $219 million, half of it in private funds, and getting the museum built as a tribute to the First Americans on the last available piece of real estate on the National Mall is a remarkable story in and of itself. The significance of this accomplishment certainly wasn't lost on the thousands upon thousands of Native people, most of them proudly decked out in colorful tribal regalia, who flooded the Mall in September for the opening ceremonies of the museum. For them, it was a celebratory, emotional, long-delayed, long-awaited symbol of national recognition and vindication for Indian culture (I was in the thick of it, and it was an awe-inspiring spectacle).

The museum building itself, with its earthy brown curves serving as a striking, almost comically touching counterpoint to the stodgy old masonic structures around it, will always stand triumphantly as a fitting visual embodiment of that symbol. It's just too bad that what's inside in the museum isn't as powerful as the museum itself and what it stands for. But I can understand where the NMAI was coming from when they conceived the master plan for how Indian culture should be presented. There was apparently the feeling, and justifiably so, that for too long Indian people had been treated by museums like relics of "natural history"; their bones, tools, and artwork nothing more than remnants of a forgotten culture to be analyzed and theorized dispassionately by invasive and insensitive archeologists and anthropologists concerned only about their dissertations or publishing their next articles. There was little if any regard or appreciation for Indian people in a contemporary context. As a result, the main message that NMAI planners wanted to get out was "we're still here." To shatter the stereotypes, they did away with conventional, third-person presentations of Indian history, particularly the ones that depicted Indians as victims of broken treaties and genocide, and took the initiative to recruit Native communities themselves to tell their own histories and explain their culture in their own way, in the...

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