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C r e a t i n g a n I n d i a n P l a c e o n t h e A m e r i c a n M a l l : N a t i o n a l M u s e u m o f t h e A m e r i c a n In d i a n R e g i n a l d D y c k Across the Washington Mall from I. M. Pei’s geometrical West Wing of the National Gallery stands an alternative in so many ways. Facing east, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) echoes the rounded and irregular forms of overhanging cliffs. The building’s land­ scape is designed with native plants unrestrained by grids and boxes. NMAI’s most important difference, however, is its conceptualization, which offers a complex educational workshop divided into three wide-ranging exhibitions: Our Universe: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World; Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories; and Our Lives: Life and Identity in the 21st Century. The museum can be disorienting and overwhelming at first, until one adjusts to its Native ways of knowing. Focusing on people living in the present yet shaped and sustained by their past, each of the three permanent exhibits contains eight presentations of particular communities. These span the northern hemisphere from the Yup’ik (Alaska) to the Mapuche (Chile) peoples. This admirable breadth does come at the expense of depth, but the tour buses lined up outside and the range of people inside make clear that an effective strategy was chosen for engaging both Native and nonNative participants. Groups ofcommunity curators created areas that represent their people. As one states, “We are not Mayan scholars—we are just immersed in the Mayan Universe.” Artifacts are connected to people. For example, in the Santa Clara Pueblo section ofOur Universe, visitors look at traditional pottery and shields as they listen to elders explaining their modern role and concerns, Courtesy National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. Photo: R. A. Whiteside. W e s t e r n A m e r i c a n L i t e r a t u r e 4 0 .3 ( F a l l 2 0 0 5 ): 3 6 5 - 6 7 . 3 6 6 W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e F a l l 2 0 0 5 college students discussing their struggles with life decisions, and children expressing their pleasure in dancing as a form of religious and cultural engagement. This museum’s uniqueness was clarified when I recently visited Chicago’s Field Museum (formerly the Field Museum ofNatural History). The large dino­ saur banner stretching across the massive 1893 neoclassical columns creates a troubling semiotic filter for the Field’s North American Indian exhibits, as does a display explaining that anthropologists “decipher the mystery of human nature.” Older sections of the Indian exhibit contain large artifact collections in glass cases. In the foreword to North American Indian Art, NMAI Curator George Horse Capture notes, “Isolation rendered the items lifeless, and the treatment of the objects often reflected how the Indian people themselves were viewed” (7). The renovated Eskimo [sic] and Northwest Coast Indians exhibit offers a much richer experience, with videos and other explanations. One poster explains the impact of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: “Tribes and museums [are working] together to insure the correct display of sacred artifacts.” While certainly significant, this also marks the exhibits’ limitations. They focus on artifacts more than people, on the past cut off from rather than connected to the present, on an exploration of differ­ ent cultures rather than stories told by their own people. By interweaving past and present, NMAI encourages viewers not to exoticize or aestheticize what they see. For example, one exhibit brings together an 1890s cradle and a 2003 Lakota Baby Star Quilt. Another shows a video documenting the revival of the Tapirape young men’s initiation ceremony, now with a boom box used for...


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pp. 365-367
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