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  • Ravens, Storms, and the Ecological Indian at the National Museum of the American Indian
  • Melissa Nelson (bio)


The postindian simulations are the core of survivance, the new stories of tribal courage.

-Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance

Against a cold February wind I walked down 4th Street toward the new National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). My eyes and being felt relief the moment I saw it. The museum's complex layers and curves of sand-colored limestone and surrounding native vegetation represent an island of organic form in a sea of gray linearity. Most agree that the architecture is a success. People (Indian and non-Indian alike) are much less certain about the success of what is inside the new Indian museum on the Washington mall. I was there to experience and review what one native colleague called "our new Indian lodge in the Capitol."

I went to the NMAI for a few specific reasons, both personal and professional. Being an Anishinaabe/Métis scholar-activist, I experienced the new NMAI through several different lenses. I wanted to see what a well-funded "Indian-made" museum would look and feel like. What are the stories, textures, images, messages, and sounds that Indian people want to share with the world? For various reasons I missed the grand opening and procession in September 2004. Having missed that historic moment, [End Page 41] I was ready to experience this historic space firsthand. I also wanted to get a sense of that rare collective energy that symbolically united the indigenous peoples of the Americas-an energy that brought Native Americans together for the common goal of reclaiming, recreating, and celebrating a native space of survivance.

For a few months in the fall of 2004, Indians were positively "in." We were all over the media, and not in terms of the usual gaming controversies, land disputes, or health tragedies. All of a sudden, modern, living Indians were everywhere-in major newspapers and magazines (New York Times, Time Magazine), on national radio (National Public Radio and numerous other programs and stations), TV, local press, and obviously all over the grassroots Indian news outlets. By 2005, however, the fanfare had faded, the crowds lessened, and, in the dead of winter, the new museum stood more available for an intimate encounter.

As the executive director of the Cultural Conservancy, a nonprofit indigenous rights organization, I have dedicated the last dozen years of my professional life to the protection of Native American lands and cultures, so I first and foremost wanted to examine how the Indian relationship to the land was represented in the museum. What is the meaning of native place in the context of a public museum? How are sacred lands represented?

My colleagues and I in the American Indian Studies department and Ethnic Studies program at San Francisco State University were excited to experience this museum and review and critique it from our various backgrounds. After the grand opening, I heard and read a lot of stories and reports-good, ambivalent, and bad. I heard different perspectives from Indian leaders, artists, grassroots activists, professors, and Euro-American participants, historians, and critics. It was time to see for myself.

Transitioning out of the frigid air into the warm welcome circle of the Potomac rotunda at the eastern main entrance to the museum, I had a few specific questions on my mind. Being a specialized generalist, my interests were in the intersections of traditional knowledge, native ecology, sacred space, and California Indians. I wondered if and how multiple indigenous epistemologies were characterized and communicated? Is the Ecological Indian on display at the NMAI? How is native land and sacred space defined and/or symbolized? How is the relationship between native peoples and the environment portrayed? Are California Natives represented at NMAI, and if so, how?

This essay will attempt to address each of these questions but will focus on how native epistemologies and the Native American–environment relationship are represented at the NMAI. Through multidisciplinary perspectives my review and analysis will be informed, both explicitly and implicitly, by two conceptual frameworks. One is the trickster discourse of Chippewa scholar Gerald Vizenor and his...


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pp. 41-60
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