- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

Among the artifacts on display at Tuesday’s open ing of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) will be the many broken treaties between the United States and American Indian nations and memorabilia of the forced relocations of tribes to lands far from their homes.

This isn’t surprising. The broken treaties and relocations are part of what NMAI Director W. Richard West has called a “tragic side” of America’s westward expansion that cannot be ignored.

However, that tragic side is just one facet of what Mr. West, a Southern Cheyenne, called “the totality of the Native American experience” in a recent press conference at the National Press Club. It is that totality, the good as well as the bad, he explained, that the museum wants to convey to the world.

It is an ambitious goal, more ambitious than that of any other museum on the Mall.

Since the museum’s inception nearly 15 years ago, the NMAI has aspired to be more than a place that displays under glass or preserves in vast storerooms sealed off from public view the evidences of the American Indian past.

The goal of NMAI has always been much broader: to create an institution that plays an active, vital role in American Indian culture, a culture that isn’t dead, but thriving, and to communicate that culture’s vitality to Americans and the world beyond.

Significantly, what is absent from NMAI’s exhibitions is an explanation of the artifacts from a third-person point of view. Collections of Indian art have almost always been assembled by anthropologists — of white American or European backgrounds — of scientific bent and with a notable fondness for classification, which is fine and helpful, as far as it goes.

At NMAI, however, the exhibitions are curated from an Indian point of view. The three permanent displays carry the names “Our Lives,” “Our Peoples” and “Our Universes.” The museum’s handsome companion book is titled “Native Universe: Voices of Indian America.”

The museum, therefore, will be a place where American Indians speak directly in their own words and through their own arts and crafts without the interpretation of others. Its goals are rooted in a desire to help American Indians understand their past and build on it. That in itself is a major innovation, but even more extraordinary is how eloquently the opening collections — and the museum building itself — speak about American Indian culture.

From top to bottom, outside and in, the new museum is a monument of Indian imagery and tradition. Indian art, Indian cosmology and craftsmanship are never out of a visitor’s line of vision. Even the landscaping that surrounds the building reflects an Indian point of view.

So, too, the opening exhibitions. Out of 800,000 items stored at NMAI’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, the museum’s staff has chosen about 8,000 to display beginning at Tuesday’s opening and continuing through NMAI’s first months as a public museum.

Mostly traditional and recognizably Indian, the artifacts include superb examples of Indian craftsmanship and design. There are drinking cups more than 1,000 years old from Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica, for example, and an exquisite Navajo serape that dates from 1825.

Its rich evocation of the past notwithstanding, it is in its works by contemporary Indian artists that the museum most clearly fulfills its goal of showing the continuing vitality of American Indian culture. A blown-glass piece from 2003 titled “Raven Steals the Sun” by the Tlingit artist Preston Singletary of Seattle is stunning, as is another recent image of the same bird, “Raven,” a painting by Vietnam veteran Rick Bartow, a Yurok from Oregon.

It was a stroke of genius on NMAI’s part to have as its first temporary exhibition a show of 200 works on loan from other museums and collectors by the late American Indian modernist artists George Morrison and Allan Houser. Both Mr. Houser, a Chiricahua Apache, and Mr. Morrison (Grand Portage Band of Chippewa) combined Indian themes with European art traditions to make eclectic art that was both Indian and original.

As part of NMAI’s presentation of the totality of the American Indian experience, Indian dancers, singers and storytellers will demonstrate the continuing vitality of their traditional arts.

In his Press Club speech, Mr. West said the museum should mark a new beginning for Indian and non-Indian relations. Given the richness and balance of its exhibitions, that is a distinct possibility.

Meanwhile, the new museum reminds us that only part of American history began in 1492. A significant part of our history goes back much further and is rooted in a culture which NMAI offers a new and unprecedented means of understanding.

WHAT: National Museum of the American Indian.

WHERE: Fourth Street and Independence Avenue.

WHEN: Opens Tuesday

TICKETS: Advance passes needed during festival (Tuesday through Sept. 26) and can be acquired at NMAI’s Web site or by telephoning. The advance passes will not be needed from midnight through 7 a.m. Wednesday, when the museum will be open for anyone during the night hours).

PHONE: 866/400-NMAI

WEB SITE: www.americanindian.si.edu

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