Native Americans Find Their Voice

23 September 2004

By Stentor Danielson

There's been no shortage of depressing news this month. Iraq is lurching from disaster to disaster. The media wastes its column inches and airtime on Vietnam-era typefaces. The Kerry campaign continues to flounder. Louisiana passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But there was one good piece of news -- in a story datelined Washington DC, no less. On Tuesday, the National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors. The museum was designed through extensive consultation with Indian tribes from all parts of North and South America. It is meant as a place for them to tell their own stories. This storytelling is educational for the public, of course. But it's also an important step in reestablishing the human rights of the hemisphere's original inhabitants.

Native Americans from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego have been subjected to a host of injustices over the past 500 years -- murdered, raped, driven from their land, forced into slavery, starved, infected, treated like sub-humans. Brute force was a popular tactic, especially when the conquerors had numbers and military technology on their side. But there was a crucial "psy ops" element to the war as well. White Americans claimed the exclusive right to define what it meant to be an Indian. Zealous missionaries and "civilizers" stripped Indians of their culture. Tribes were forced to farm the way white people did, talk the way white people did, and pray the way white people did. Children were taken from parents for a harsh regimen of indoctrination.

Meanwhile, white "scientists" appointed themselves guardians of knowledge about Indians. They raided graves and battlefields to build collections of skulls, which they measured and tabulated in order to prove their racist theories. Anthropologists wrote up official versions of native mythology and language even as missionaries sought to erase them from the minds of real Indians.

Museums were a critical bit of artillery in the Indian wars. There, white experts told white audiences what being an Indian was all about. Sacred objects were pinned to walls for visitors to ogle. The sterile dioramas in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History are a case in point.

The anthropological and archaeological professions have, thankfully, moved beyond the kind of racist and overtly oppressive "science" that surrounded their early efforts. But this hasn't erased the problem of white experts being appointed guardians of knowledge about Indians. It's an arrangement that undercuts the self-realization of native people.

So reclaiming the museum is a key step in the long, slow climb back to self-sufficiency and self-respect being conducted by the nation's Indian communities. One critical driver, of course, has been the boom in casinos. Some tribes have been able to capitalize on the advantages conferred by their sovereign status -- such as exemptions from state laws that apply to other communities -- in order to build thriving businesses in various industries, especially gambling.

Casinos have divided tribes (many traditionalists oppose gambling) and enriched elites. But they have also lifted countless people out of poverty and given tribes the resources to hold their own in legal battles against state and federal governments -- and to hold their own in educational battles over native history and culture.

After the casino, the next building to go up is often the museum. Prior to NMAI, the nation's more impressive museum of Indian culture was the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, financed by Foxwoods casino. The Pequots, along with the casino-rich Mohegans and Oneidas, donated almost a third of NMAI's $95 million price tag. This testifies to the need communities feel to find a way to tell their own stories.

NMAI strikes something of a defiant tone. Rather than portray Indian culture before 1492 as authentic and everything that followed as victimization and degradation, NMAI emphasizes the active struggle and development of Indian life down to the present day. The museum is itself the most recent step in this history.

NMAI could be criticized as being a triumph of multicultural relativism. The stories that Indians choose to tell about themselves at the museum may not all be ones that would meet the approval of anthropologists and archaeologists.

Anthropologists, like the Senators and Representatives sitting on the other side of the Mall, need checks and balances. Putting the nation's premier display of native culture in the hands of the natives fills some of that role. I have seen firsthand that Indians and anthropologists can cooperate, building a body of knowledge that both sides can accept. But that cooperation does not arise from a power imbalance in which white science calls all the shots. It arises when both sides are forced to listen to each other, and have no weapons but the strength of the better argument. That may be one of the most important lessons of NMAI - for non-Indians to learn to approach Indians with humility and openmindedness.

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