The American Indian Quarterly 30.3&4 (2006) 597-618
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No Sense of the Struggle
Creating a Context for Survivance at the NMAI
Museums, collecting, anthropology, and archaeology were developed within, and are deeply entrenched in, a Western epistemological framework and have histories that are strongly colonial in nature.1 As with most contemporary fields of study, these areas of research and practice are fully steeped in Western ways of knowing, naming, ordering, analyzing, and understanding the world. Indigenous people, both outside and within the academy, along with a number of non-Indigenous scholars globally, have struggled long and hard to bring the Western and colonial nature of these fields to the foreground. They have worked to bring us to the place we are today, where such statements are acknowledged (by most scholars) and where those who want to continue working to change these disciplines in positive ways have a space to do so.
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is one of those spaces. The NMAI attempts to profoundly change the practice of museology and the role of Indigenous people in museums on a grand scale. In some ways it is successful in its mission, yet other areas leave room for improvement. This piece focuses on the latter, and in it I offer critiques of the exhibits on display during the museum's opening on September 21, 2004. Although the substance of this article is primarily critique and suggestions for improvement of the NMAI's exhibits, I want to be clear in stating that, in writing it, my aim is ultimately to support the NMAI because I believe so strongly in its aims, mission, and efforts and in the profound power it has to speak to so many people about us—our lives, our communities, our struggles, and our rights as Native people of sovereign nations. I strongly believe that along with the NMAI's gift of voice, which is the result of financial, political, and community support from [End Page 597] Native people, the U.S. government, and both private and corporate donors, the museum also carries a serious responsibility to (re)present our stories to its several million visitors each year, both U.S. citizens and an increasingly large global audience.
My perspective is as a Native person (Ojibwe) who has academic training and research experience in archaeology, heritage studies, and public anthropology. My research focuses on Indigenous archaeology and the ways in which Native people in North America, along with Indigenous and local people globally, have positively influenced and continue to change the discipline of archaeology. I am not a specialist in museums exclusively, but museums are a critical part of heritage studies, and I have thought deeply for many years about issues of Indigenous heritage—about our pasts and the role of the past in the present. I've strived both to critique Western archaeological and anthropological practices and to develop models in which to do things better, as I feel that for practices to move forward and improve dialogue and critique are crucial first steps that must be followed by practical models and ideas for change.2
Critical engagement, critique, and suggestions for improved practice are prominent themes in much of my own research, which attempts to decolonize archaeology and make it a more ethical and socially just practice that benefits the Indigenous and local communities it studies. In its creation and execution, the NMAI shares some of the aims of Indigenous archaeology. The NMAI consulted and worked closely with Native communities from throughout North and South America, moving beyond standard contemporary museum practices on a grand scale to create a museum and a process of operation that listens intently to the voices and concerns of Indigenous people. In these efforts, the NMAI joins a growing number of smaller, tribal museums in allowing Native people the power to control their own representation and heritage. The NMAI attempts to create an ethical and socially just museum practice—one that benefits Native communities while it also educates the...