- The Land Has Memory: Indigenous Knowledge, Native Landscapes, and the National Museum of the American Indian
The mention of landscapes in the context of a museum typically refers to the products of representation instead of actual physical spaces. By contrast, The Land Has Memory explores the literal landscape of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, as a means to interrogate relationships between cultural heritage institutions, the land, and its people. Editors Duane Blue Spruce and Tanya Thrasher have brought together an array of voices that tell an engrossing story of the indigenous environment that once again inhabits a small corner of the National Mall. The collection is meant primarily as a guide for museum visitors, but the essays also are a thoughtful exploration of ways that indigenous values and epistemologies can contribute to national and global conversations on land management.
While there is no shortage of books that showcase exquisitely maintained museum grounds, what sets this volume apart is that the people who worked on the NMAI project see their landscape not as an extrinsic backdrop but rather as a living installation, inextricable from the building that occupies it and the exhibits [End Page 392] that are housed there. As noted by several of the contributors, the museum's surroundings are markedly different from the evenly spaced rows of trees and neat gardens that dominate the rest of the Mall. Instead, as Duane Blue Spruce explains, the intention was to create an experience that would "blur the lines between building and landscape, indoors and out" (15–16). To that end, the planners opted to situate a curvilinear limestone building, meant to evoke a natural rock formation, among four distinct habitats that highlight some of the rich variety found in indigenous landscapes: hardwood forest, wetlands, meadow, and croplands. The essays in this collection elucidate the rationale for the construction and cultivation of the various elements of the museum and its grounds. The four diverse areas showcase a variety of plants and geographical features that not only enhance the aesthetics of the area but also demonstrate traditional land management techniques that foster the sustainability of the ecosystems being developed. As Director Kevin Gover observes in his foreword to the collection, "We are allowing the landscape, designed to look natural, to become natural once again" (xv).
The collection is sumptuously illustrated, with more than one hundred photos and diagrams of the museum grounds. The essays, which educate readers about Native ways of knowing and the land itself, offer meticulous accounts of how the museum's natural setting was developed. Each writer brings his or her own knowledge to the project, from building and landscape architecture to traditional medicinal and culinary uses for plants. The various texts map the landscape from multiple vantage points, documenting what each element contributes to the habitat and charting seasonal changes. Of particular interest are the descriptions of the protocols that were observed. The writers outline the principles of respect and reciprocity that guided the project, detailing both the museum's efforts to collaborate with Native people and communities from the outset and the care and respect shown for the other-than-human persons impacted by the restoration process. They endeavor to tell the stories behind the story, allowing visitors to see landscape with a greater understanding of the individual journeys made by the various elements that now reside in the museum grounds.
A few articles come from the project's architects and landscape designers, but most are written by NMAI staff. As in the design process for the museum itself, though, the collection is a collaborative effort that incorporates many voices from Native communities. As with most essay collections, the quality is occasionally uneven, but the majority of the entries are engaging and well written. Blue Spruce's "Honoring Our Hosts" is an informative overview of the project. In "Allies of the Land" historian and researcher Gabrielle Tayac gives a...