- "South of the Border" at the NMAI
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) stands in nearly unobstructed proximity to the U.S. Capitol building, arguably the grandest symbol of U.S. political power. The fluid, organic, warm-toned architecture of the NMAI contrasts sharply with the staid monumentality and winter-white hue of the Capitol. As the latest addition to the Smithsonian's cluster of national museums, the NMAI is an institution of the U.S. federal government.1 Symbolizing the oft-uneasy if not contentious relationship between North American Indians and the United States, the intent of the NMAI is to honor Native peoples.2 However, for some the NMAI stands on the National Mall as a reminder of Native endurance from invasion, imperialism, and modern nation building; for others it signifies the destruction of Native sovereignty and the cooptation of Native cultures in a gesture of nation-state largesse.
First time visitors to the NMAI may be unaware of the museum's hemispheric scope. By creating a museum for Native peoples from the Arctic north to the tip of South America, the NMAI extends our conventional notion of "American Indian," a term historically associated with tribes and nations within the United States. At the NMAI, "American Indian" signifies all Native peoples throughout the Americas. This essay specifically examines how the NMAI engages Native peoples from Latin America. I argue that more than showcasing the diversity of Native cultures the museum is an important platform for reporting Indian and nation-state tensions and other struggles and victories. By situating the realities of Native peoples from "south of the border" in local, transnational, and global matrices, the NMAI highlights factors and conditions that unite Native North, Central, and South America.3 Because a broad lens on the [End Page 558] conditions that affect Native communities invites a critique of U.S. geo-political engagements with Latin America, the limits of the NMAI as a federal institution to wholly represent Native realities are tested.
Indians, Museums, and the Nation-State
"[Museums are] powerful and subtle authors and authorities whose cultural accounts are not easily dislodged . . . [they are institutions that] inevitably bear the imprint of social relations beyond their walls and beyond the present."4
The NMAI attempts to transform a long history of museum practices wherein non-Native experts determined representations of Native peoples with a tendency to privilege non-Native interests or priorities.5 Since the late 1980s the ongoing self-reflective critical turn in the museum profession plus the protest of Native peoples to have their own voices heard has led to an examination of past, present, and future representational practices. Issues of voice and authority are debated and grappled with by museum professionals and policymakers who endeavor to correct the imbalances that influenced the knowledge museums produced about Native peoples.6 In certain regions, Native people are increasingly taking roles in public museums. Meanwhile tribal museums have emerged as important vehicles for Native self-representation. The tribal museum strengthens Indian communities while allowing Native people to determine what they want the world to know about their particular group, tribe, or nation. When Natives author what museums communicate about Native peoples, the exhibition is enriched from the insider's perspective and sensibility about Native cultures and communities.
However, a national museum (such as the NMAI) is not a tribal museum. By definition a national museum exists to serve the nation-state and to advance nation-state interests, and the national museum functions as a powerful tool for promoting official ideas about national history, culture, and society. Regardless of whether or not a national museum makes reference to the region's Indigenous population, the museum as an extension of modern nation-building and nation-state authority will always congeal ambiguous or tension-laden historical and contemporary relations between Native people and the nation-state. The official narratives that national museums promote are palimpsests of Native invasion, colonization, oppression, and exclusion. [End Page 559]
National museums stand foremost as a symbol of the nation-state. Both through architectural splendor and exhibition content, national museums reveal the nation-state's spheres of power and influence. National...