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Letter from Washington D.C.: Native Voices Volume 57 Number 5, September/October 2004
by Colleen Popson

American Indian sensibilities shape the Smithsonian's new museum.

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(Courtesy Smithsonian Institution) [LARGER IMAGE]

With its gracefully undulating sand-colored walls that mimic a mesa carved by eons of wind and rain, the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) stands out dramatically among its gray and architecturally uniform neighbors on the National Mall. But it's not just the museum's architecture that's revolutionary. The exhibits inside the building are a radical departure from a centuries-long tradition of presenting the Native people of the Americas as generic glass-caged mannequins, frozen in time.

The National Museum of the American Indian Act, passed by Congress in 1989, called for the creation of a museum with a Native voice. "It was clear from the start that this museum was a reaction to the traditional anthropology museum," says David Hurst Thomas, the sole archaeologist on the NMAI's Board of Trustees and curator of North American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "Although it was not at all clear what the new NMAI would be," he recalls, "it wasn't going to be anything like what anthropologists did with Indians in their museums."

Through its exhibits and by setting new standards in the care of objects, the NMAI is redefining how scholars, including archaeologists, look at Native cultures. "What's going on at NMAI actually reflects what's going on right now between archaeology and American Indians in a lot of ways," says Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. "It's their story that they're telling. We as archaeologists only have a very small segment of their story that our expertise is privy to."

According to Joe Watkins (Choctaw), professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University, "Archaeology will always have second- or third-class status at the NMAI, and really that's how it should be. We're used to archaeologists telling the story of the American Indian past. Now Native Americans are using the NMAI's collection to tell their story their way."

Colleen Popson is ARCHAEOLOGY's Washington, D.C., correspondent

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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