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A Museum to Right Past Wrongs December 6, 1999
by Ellen Herscher


Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne) speaks at September 28, 1999, groundbreaking ceremony for new National Museum of the American Indian.
(Smithsonian Photo by Richard Strauss)

In a vivid and moving ceremony punctuated by whoops and insistent drumming, ancient incantations called upon Mother Earth to lend a small piece of her bosom to hold a new museum, the National Museum of the American Indian. Thus on an overcast day in late September, Native Americans returned in triumph to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to begin the construction of a living monument to their history and culture. The museum, scheduled to open in 2002 and part of the revered Smithsonian Institution, now rises in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, where 170 years ago Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to push tribes westward. Chief Billy Redwing Tayac of the Piscataway summed up the mood of the day in the exultant conclusion of his blessing: "We are still here!"

The new museum will display the world's finest and largest collection of Native American objects, which is currently being moved from the Bronx to the NMAI's state-of-the-art Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, outside Washington, which opened in September. There the 800,000 catalogued items will not simply be stored and conserved, but will be placed according to tribal wishes and readily accessible to native groups. The Cultural Resources Center includes private indoor and outdoor ceremonial spaces where the objects can be used in the traditional ways for which they were made. Former Smithsonian Secretary Robert Adams, in his remarks at the groundbreaking, succinctly stated the unique perspective of the new institution, that "relics do not float in a timeless void, but have living meaning tied to the past and continually made relevant to the present." The museum's third facility, the George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan, which opened in 1994, will continue to operate as a branch exhibition space and educational hub.

The extraordinary collection was formed by the monomaniacal passion of George Gustav Heye, an early twentieth-century businessman who perpetuated the spirit of the grand acquisitors of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1903, Heye bought, bargained and dug for native artifacts of all kinds from throughout the western hemisphere. His eclectic taste devoured with equal fervor both the artistically exquisite and the ploddingly mundane, and it is this very comprehensiveness that now gives the collection so much value as a reflection of past lifeways.

Heye carried out archaeological excavations in at least nine states and seven Central American and Caribbean countries. An arrest for grave robbing in 1914, while excavating an Indian burial mound in New Jersey (a case that eventually ended with Heye's vindication by the state's supreme court), failed to dampen his zeal: in 1915 his honeymoon with his second wife was spent digging a Nacoochee mound in Georgia. Additional important archaeological material, such as Mississippian items from the Spiro Mound of eastern Oklahoma, was acquired from other collectors in the 1920s and '30s. Areas of strength in the current collection are ancient artifacts from the southeastern U.S., New York State, the Ozark Bluff Shelters, the Kentucky Salts Cave network, the Zuni region, Grand Gulch in southeast Utah, and Lovelock Cave in the Great Basin region. From abroad come outstanding assemblages from Costa Rica, Panama, Peru and Ecuador.

Heye opened his collection--estimated up to 4.5 million objects, although nobody was ever quite sure--to the public in 1922 as the Museum of the American Indian. The founder's casual attitude toward documentation was compounded by the indiscriminate deaccessioning of those who took over the museum following Heye's death in 1957--until in 1974 the New York State Attorney General intervened to end the museum's free-wheeling days.

Efforts to move Heye's Museum of the American Indian from its cramped and outmoded home in a little-visited neighborhood in upper Manhattan began in 1977, finally culminating in its absorption by the Smithsonian in 1989, when "National" was added to its name and a move to Washington decreed. It will be the Smithsonian's sixteenth museum and the tenth located on the prestigious National Mall, where it will fill the last available site. But with its independent board of trustees and largely native staff, it will maintain its unique identity. Even its cafeteria will be different, serving only cuisine of native foods, rather than the standardized hot dogs and pizza so familiar to Smithsonian visitors. Here the Indians will tell their own story in their own way.


Watercolor rendering of the National Museum of the American Indian
(Elizabeth Day)

The domed building now under construction features undulating Kasota limestone walls and cantilevered roofing that will give the structure the appearance of a natural stratified stone mass. A large central rotunda space will be used for performances and demonstrations, as will a planned outdoor space. Three-quarters of the 4.25-acre site will be devoted to reconstructed indigenous natural habitats: hardwood forest, freshwater wetlands, and meadows. Part of the site will be used to grow crops, including ancient corn. The museum's cost will be at least $110 million, one third of which has been contributed by private sources (the largest single gift came from the Mashantucket Pequot tribe: see "Invisible No More," November/December 1998). Collaboration, consultation, and cooperation with the peoples whose history will be celebrated here have marked the gestation of the building and the plans for the programs and exhibits which it will house.

The recent groundbreaking ceremony paid homage to the way this new kind of institution came into being and embodied its hopes for the future. Washington suits and traditional native dress mingled in the audience while the blessings from the four cardinal directions were pronounced, invoking the native peoples' ties to the land. In additional to Mr. Tayac, from the tribe which had historically occupied the region around Washington, representatives of the Quechua of Peru (descendants of the Inka), native Hawaiians, and the Inuit of Canada brought the color of their costumes and languages to the event.


Founding director W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne and also current Chairman of the American Association of Museums, emphasizes that the NMAI will be a different kind of museum that will testify to their changing role and begin to set the standard for institutions of the twenty-first century. According to this vision, the NMAI will not just house objects, but will protect and support the development and continuation of Native culture and community, sustaining the Indian view that cultural objects form a metaphysical chain linking the ancestors with the living people of the tribe.

Left, W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne), NMAI Director
(Smithsonian Photo by Hugh Talman)

In the past decade the repatriation issue has engaged the energies of most American museums with Native collections, as they struggled to reconcile the claims of tribes who wished to recover funerary remains with institutions' traditional duty to preserve their collections. The National Museum of the American Indian is pointing a new direction for the future: by honoring the wishes of Native peoples for the care and protection of the collection, it hopes to create a place where Indians will want to leave their traditional artifacts while providing the general public with a new understanding of these ancient cultures.

Ellen Herscher is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America