Tourists often overlook the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, Washington, in favor of the National Air and Space Museum nearby. Alaskans complain that our representation in this Native American treasure chest is minimal at best. So on a recent trip to DC, I decided to investigate, and it was worth the sleuthing.
In 1989, George H.W. Bush signed legislation creating the National Museum of the American Indian, which included a smaller venue inside the Alexander Hamilton Customs House New York City, along with storage in Maryland. Designers Tobey + Davis, Virginia and the Native American Design Collaborative conceived a sand colored building, meant to connect with the landscape. It became one of the first non-neoclassical Mall structures, as it resembles horizontal striations formed when Southwestern desert sands get blown about.
Museum’s interior is a giant rotunda, much larger than New York’s Guggenheim. The day I went, Oklahoma Cherokee were selling baskets and jewelry around the ground floor amphitheater where a high school chorus was singing popular tunes: Amazing Grace to Frank Sinatra, translated into Cherokee, which boomed upwards to the fourth level. Also on the main floor is the Mitsitam Native Food Café, the best place to eat on the Mall. Mitsitam, which means ‘Let’s Eat’ in the Piscataway and Delaware languages, serves Western Hemisphere indigenous food reconfigured for contemporary tastes — I sampled a delicious bison burger.
Walking to the elevator I passed the Rasmuson Auditorium, the first sign that Alaska has some presence. Gift shops on main and second floors sell clothing with Tlingit/Haida designs. Native Corporation Sealaska sponsors much of the fourth floor’s small display of Alaska Native baskets, clothing and tools. Nearby is a looping film which projects America’s sweeping plains and falling water onto a large boulder so museum-goers will realize the connection between Earth, and the Native-self. The fourth floor is supposed to be the start of the Museum’s Indian experience, but it lacks signage and thus has few visitors.
As I descended to the third floor, I passed lots of vacant walls begging for contemporary Native art — I spied only one Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) painting. Several small exhibitions concerning: treaty disputes between the United States and various tribes, land battles that occurred in Palm Springs, and engineering of the Inka Road, were worth the walk-thru.
However my destination was the exhibition ‘Americans (thru 2022)’ which interprets the commercial impact of Indian culture upon the dominant white population. Themes include: truths, falsehoods, myths, that morph into America’s faux-reality. Spectators enter upon a 1948 Indian Chief Motorcycle in Seminole Cream (also available in Indian Red, Navajo Blue, Apache Gray) which has signified quality to American and European buyers since 1902, because it’s adorned with a feathered-headdress-Indian as the fender ornament. On jam-packed walls like a Victorian art gallery are advertising posters (bourbon, motor oil) movie and TV cells (Lone Ranger, South Park) military weaponry (Tomahawk Missile, Black Hawk Helicopter) that either show Indians, or reference their bravery, and prowess. Ample couches allow visitors to contemplate the impact that Native Americans have on all who live in the United States. WWII-post-war kids grew up playing cowboys and Indians, making imitation Indian-War-Whoops, and thinking all Native Americans wore feathered head gear, thanks to Hollywood’s adaptation of Plains Indians tropes. From Land O’ Lakes Butter to Cleveland Indian swag, it’s incredible where Indians are found.
Sadly, much history of the American Indian is learned from Disney movies like ‘Pocahontas’. ‘Americans’ shows a clip of a reporter interviewing passersby, affirming movies are where Indian history (mostly inaccurate) is learned. In an adjacent cartoon video, an indigenous narrator satirizes the historical timeline of the Thanksgiving feast. Interestingly, he preferred to have comedic Indians mentioned with Thanksgiving rather than omit Natives completely.
‘Americans’ pushes beyond mere political correctness. It shows a ’70s, ‘Keep America Beautiful’ campaign featuring a posed Indian along with a slogan that hopefully left readers considering the double entendre: “In the Fight against Litter and Pollution, We Still Have So Far to Go.” In another exhibit three looping videos show interviewees expressing opinions about Indians in contemporary culture. One woman felt it was honoring Native Americans to have them as sports mascots. Another woman with an Indian father spoke about the hazard of going out for dinner. Apparently her dad resembled a handsome stereotypical Native who would constantly be harassed into posing with other diners. A counter with paper and pencils was available so visitors could express angst. For those wishing to read the realities of history, documentation was displayed: long marches (Trail of Tears), poverty, illness, rationalization for appropriating acreage, creating reservations, wars (Little Big Horn).
‘Americans’ also investigates the life and myths surrounding Pocahontas (1596-1617). A recreation of the Capitol rotunda frieze ‘Captain Smith and Pocahontas (1859)’ by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880) proves that legends are fine with DC visitors. Pocahontas was the daughter of tidewater Virginia Chief Powhatan who saved Colonist John Smith from being clubbed to death. Pocahontas converted to the Anglican faith after being captured by Colonists, married tobacco planter John Rolfe who took her to London where she died shortly thereafter. Pocahontas really existed but whether she saved Smith is uncertain, and why her legend was chosen for the frieze is unclear. I’ll take a stab: Nineteenth Century art lovers wanted Grandeur, Sentimentality and Romantic narratives.
While contemplating the vast amount of advertisements depicting Indians is mind boggling, and while it’s an exhibition allowing visitors to find their own way: pro- Native or anti-Native, curators could have dug deeper into ambiguities these advertisements exude. Displaying more Indian crafts, today considered fine art, would have added texture to the slickness that posters display, adding contrast to commerciality.
Catalog: Officially Indian
‘Officially Indian’, is not actually the catalogue. Since it references similar subject matter, Smithsonian made it the show’s companion book. Unfortunately, the museum did not provide bench copies, as the book adds depth to how Europeans treated the indigenous in the New World, and presently how the West continues to spar — Colonials versus the non-white other. ‘Officially Indian’ mentions the ‘Declaration of Independence’ where Jefferson accused the British of having, “demonized Indians as the savage pawns of a tyrannical English king, bloodthirsty warriors unleashed on the American frontier to murder innocent people without regard for age or gender.” Today, this document resides at Washington’s National Archives for tourists to check-off bucket-lists, perhaps overlooking the persisting hurtfulness of historical verbiage.However, as soon as the Revolutionary War got nastier, Jefferson changed his tune and courted the indigenous, “invoking a shared history and identity with Indians.” To win the war, he reasoned that, “colonial Americans and Native Americans lived on this continent and belonged here; the British did not (Officially 10).” Truthfully, Americans had no interest in sharing anything with Indians.
After the Revolution, America was broke and without identity, so Western Expansion/Manifest Destiny seemed like a good plan to solve both emotional and actual indebtedness, which accelerated taking Indian lands by, “war and treaty, coercion and deception.” Confiscation was rationalized to be good for Natives who were encouraged to, “give up hunting and take up farming” and become “civilized (Officially 11).” With the Civil War over, relegating Indians onto Reservations further reduced their acreage, and annoying presence. Ironically, Indian platitudes, especially bravery, came into vogue as, “‘real’ Indians faded into the sunset, disappeared from American history, and were replaced by abstract and idealized Natives acting out prescribed roles (Officially 12).” Mythology objectified the Native American into advertising logos, sports teams, and theatrical entertainment as explained in this exhibition.
‘Officially Indian’ shows, “a country that has been preoccupied with defining what is American and has never been able to escape the question of how to practice its professed democratic ideals in its relationship with American Indians (Officially 21).” This adage could extend to the country’s treatment of all ethnicities that have landed here either by choice or happenstance, which is why art and art speak remind the public to make changes beginning with their own behavior. While Alaska Natives never were herded onto Reservations, some of the negative treatment: appropriating lands, erasing culture, inflicting deadly diseases, was visited upon them and has become the legacy of the Far North too. We have only to look to our present Southern border crisis to see the scenario continued. The Sleuth concludes more Alaska Native presence at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, DC would energize this institution.
Mini Sleuth: ‘Officially Indian’ by Cecile R. Ganteaume is available on Amazon.
Jean Bundy aica-usa is a writer/painter in Anchorage