Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A Visit to the National Museum of the American Indian

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Given that I focused on the Oglala warrior and mystic Crazy Horse in my last post, this visit was quite timely. In fact, one acquisition of the museum that I specifically wanted to see was the shirt pictured at right, which is believed to be associated with the "strange man of the Oglalas." Unfortunately, however, this particular item is currently not on display! Oh, well, my visit was still very much worthwhile, as I hope the following images and commentary show.

The museum was established by an Act of Congress in 1989 and is founded on the collection of the former Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation in New York City. The collection is distinguished by more than 800,000 works of aesthetic, cultural, historical and spiritual significance. Most of these objects (including, it would seem, Crazy Horse's shirt!) are cared for at the Cultural Resources Center in Maryland. The museum's acquisitions span more than 10,000 years of Native heritage in the U.S. (including Hawai'i), Canada and Latin America.

The museum features four permanent exhibitions: Our Universes presents Native belief; Our Peoples centers on Native history; Our Lives focuses on contemporary Native life; and Return to a Native Place highlights the Native peoples of the Chesapeake region.

Another feature of the museum is the impressive Lelawi Theater. Here visitors can view the 13-minute film Who We Are, which is a beautiful and inspiring celebration of the vitality and diversity of Native life.

When I was at the museum on Sunday, I also saw the special exhibition, A Song for the Horse Nation, which "presents the epic story of the horse's influence on American Indian tribes, beginning with the return of horses to the Western Hemisphere by Christopher Columbus to the present day."

Above and below: Parts of the museum's Our Peoples exhibition.

The display above notes that:

The first 150 years of Contact [between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of the Americas] witnessed one of the greatest transfers of wealth in world history. Gold, silver, and labor from the Americas created and transformed international economies and permanently linked the Western Hemisphere with Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Riches from the Americas made Spain an international superpower, whose empire stretched from Europe to South America and the Philippines – the largest empire since the Age of Julius Caesar.

Perhaps 20 million Indians died as a direct result of Contact. Tens of million more perished from disease.

Little of the gold made by Native people before Contact survives in its original form. Museums and collections hold almost all of what remains.

Above and below: Parts of the Our Peoples exhibition that explore how Christian churches were instruments of both dispossession and resilience for the Native peoples of the Americas.

Above: The Catholic Church's liberation theology gets a mention when its noted that:

In 1962, Pope John XXIII presented a new theology intended for developing nations. Known today as liberation theology, the "Preferential Option in Favor of the Poor" encouraged the Catholic clergy to lead a peaceful struggle to improve the conditions of the poor. Liberation theology planted deep roots in Latin America, where Indians constitute the majority of the poor.

Above: I was impressed and moved by "The Storm: Guns, Bibles, and Governments," part of the Our Peoples exhibition. Here's how it's described:

Foreign intrusion swept over Native America like a hurricane. Within this space, images of Indian life flash by, caught in a whirl of guns, Bibles, and treaties. Howling winds and lightening illuminate the sky.

At the center you'll encounter Eye of the Storm, a work of installation art by Edward Poitras (Saulteaux/Metis). This is a place of stillness, a space in time where Indians regrouped, adopting elements of the storm to keep their cultures alive. The piece features evidence of Native survivance: seeds of corn, cardinal direction markers, pages from the Biblical book of Revelation, and a hat similar to one worn by Wovoka (ca. 1858-1932), a Paiute holy man whose prophesies of regeneration inspired the Ghost Dance movement of the 1890s.

Storms come and go, but life continues. There is regeneration and renewal, rebirth and rebuilding – always and forever. Native history is not over. It continues, as yet unwritten.

I was glad to see one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Buffy Sainte-Marie, acknowledged and celebrated not only in the Lelawi Theater's Who We Are video, but in the above display of the Our Lives exhibition. The album cover featured in this display is of Buffy's 1967 album Fire & Fleet & Candlelight.

Above and below: Of the actual museum building, an informational brochure notes the following.

Designed by Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot) and a team of Native architects and consultants – including Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw) and artist/designer Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) – the museum, draped in Kasota limestone, is a structure in which nature's rough beauty and architecture's creative elegance come together in perfect harmony. The building is aligned to the cardinal directions and to the center point of the [nearby] Capitol dome, and is filled with symbols and forms that reflect the Native universe, including representations of nature, astronomy, and objects from the collection.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Crazy Horse: "Strange Man" of the Great Plains
"Something Sacred Dwells There"
Michael Greyeyes on Temperance as a Philosophy for Survival
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
North America: Perhaps Once the "Queerest Continent on the Planet"
In the Garden of Spirituality – Paul Coelho
Something to Think About – November 24, 2011

Images: Michael J. Bayly (except for image 2 and image 6 which are from the website of the Museum of the American Indian).

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