Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"There will be no unhappy history here."

I am often asked what I think of the National Museum of the American Indian. That I have nothing to say surprises the people who ask the question because usually they know that I worked for the museum for the first four years of its existence. The fact is, I have never visited the National Museum of the American Indian and declined the invitation to attend the opening. In her "Why I Cannot Read Wallace Stegner" (1996), an essay in a collection by the same name, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn expresses her rejection of Stegner’s autobiography . . . and his Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. . . . Cook-Lynn protests the colonial privilege and ideology that inspired Stegner’s romanticized view of the American West, with its tragically vanished American Indian. Such works have aided the disappearance of Native people from history. My inability to visit the National Museum of the American Indian stems from a similar sense about its mission and its exhibits. To me, the museum represents a lost opportunity to integrate American Indians into the national consciousness.

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The dominant presence of male Native artists in the early museum years has left a lasting stamp on the museum’s work environment and on its exhibitions. Art and material culture were the preferred media for transferring knowledge about Native America to an unknowing audience. Why art and culture? For many artists, Native creative expression is a presumed window on Native inner life and culture. The exhibit teams have thus relied on art and material culture, the ultimate expressions of Native inner life, as a vehicle for teaching unfamiliar visitors about Indianness. But such thinking represented precisely the problem with the museum: it had become an elite enclave, divorced from the reality of most Native people, where explaining Indians to museum visitors assumed primacy. Moreover, the museum early on made the decision that it would eschew the historical context from which modern Native America has sprung. This meant, astonishingly, no treatment of the history of genocide and colonialism, then and now, or even of the basis of tribal sovereignty.

Jolene Rickard, an NMAI contractor, is quoted as saying, "There are other places where you can learn the exact dates of the Trail of Tears. It’s less important to me that someone leave this museum knowing all about Wounded Knee than that they leave knowing what it takes to survive that kind of tragedy." As much as I admire Jolene Rickard for her artistic achievements, I wince at her easy dismissal of historical context as an essential prerequisite for understanding "what it takes to survive that kind of tragedy." Rickard’s statement reflects the "group think" of the NMAI as conceived by the director—what I call, "There will be no unhappy history here."

Rickard’s statement also suggests that the museum’s senior and curatorial staff imagine that destruction and colonialism have ended. Just as nineteenth- and twentieth-century anthropologists froze authentic Native people in exhibitions while Indians starved on reservations, the museum’s staff has created a modern hermetically sealed Native "community" that has "survived" something long passed. This distancing, forgetting, and desire to divert the public’s gaze from the past simply perpetuates the on-going erasure of authentic Native histories.

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For me, the National Museum of the American Indian represents a broken promise, no less consequential than the many broken treaty promises made by the United States to Native people. It represents a betrayal of our trust that this museum would be the Natives’ museum. In place of the stories of the Native past, it focuses on arts, culture, and commerce—the stuff of commodification. To paraphrase the historian Paul Kramer, cultural recognition and power do not connect. Sitting there in close proximity to the Capitol, one might think that the Indians were finally within reach of social justice, political power, and economic change. Not yet. Cultural recognition will not create a working arena where Native America might engage the United States government on something resembling level ground. Rather, cultural recognition is a distraction for Native people, a painless amusement for non-Natives, and a way for U.S. government politicians and bureaucrats to avoid the hard questions raised by the history of U.S. internal colonialism.
Jacki Thompson Rand, "Why I Can’t Visit the National Museum of the American Indian," 7:4 Common-Place (July, 2007).

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