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Within These Walls, Science Yields to Stories

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2004; Page R01

For five centuries, others have tried to define these people labeled Indians, to categorize them, to put them in some kind of taxonomy, the way scientists describe beetles or birds or bison.

Conquistadors had their say, and tobacco planters, and Pilgrims, and Founding Fathers, and missionaries, and Army generals, and finally all the ethnologists and anthropologists who in the 19th century emerged from universities and East Coast museums, taking the measure of these native people -- and perhaps bringing home some masks, pottery and human bones. In the name of science they robbed graves.


The museum atrium is an open and evocative space rising to a skylight, with prisms casting the colors of the rainbow like stained-glass windows. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

_____American Indian Museum_____
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Two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson debated the French naturalist Comte de Buffon on whether Indians were mentally and biologically degenerate (Buffon's position) or simply in need of civilizing (Jefferson's). Missionaries were determined to make good Christians of them. Many of the colonizers of the hemisphere wanted the natives exterminated outright. The first Americans were called savages, wild men, hounds of Hell.

Now, risen from the Mall, is a new museum about, by and for Indians, one in which they will define themselves. The National Museum of the American Indian that will open on Tuesday is nothing short of revolutionary, for the subject matter is fully animate, alive and in charge.

"It is a native place," says museum official Jim Pepper Henry, a member of the Kaw and Muscogee nations of Oklahoma.

Although it would be too simplistic to say that over the years the Indian community has been at war with traditional anthropologists (some of whom are, after all, natives themselves), the museum represents an affirmation of the native claim that they should not be seen as exhibit items, as objects to be analyzed, as curiosities in a cabinet of wonders. If there was a war, it's over, and the Indians won.

"We're not an anthropology museum. We're a museum of living cultures," says Pepper Henry, leading a visitor through the empty corridors earlier this month. "This is a venue for native peoples to tell their own story. You're not going to get the anthropological perspective."

The director, the spokesman, many curators and a majority of the members of the governing board are natives, and substantial portions of the three major permanent exhibits are co-curated by Indian tribes. Museum officials spent years traveling to what they call Indian Country, to consult with native people about how to make them full collaborators in the presentation of their stories.

The result is something triumphant for the people who trace their lineage to the first Americans. Many people, when they visit the National Museum of the American Indian, will enter a world they know little or nothing about. This is not a typical government museum full of artifacts. It's not a scientific, secular enterprise that speaks in an anonymous institutional voice. It has many voices, and they are native voices. It feels more like a cathedral than a museum.

Walk inside, and you enter Indian Country.

Collecting and Giving Back

Anthropology is the study of human origins and culture, and ranges from linguistics to archaeology. Anthropologists roam from the present to the distant past, from the Information Age to the Stone Age. They gobble up data, connect cultural dots, listen to exotic tongues and attempt to push their observations through some kind of scientific filter. The Smithsonian Institution, one of the premier anthropological organizations in the world, has catalogued millions of native artifacts, from spears to skulls.

But the National Museum of the American Indian has no anthropology department and likely never will. Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant director for the museum and a Plains Cree, says, "Anthropology as a science is not practiced here."

Science, McMaster suggests, tries to impose an objective truth upon things that might not always lend themselves to such a framework. Science is not going to be the final arbiter at the museum. Says McMaster, "We look to the communities" -- the natives themselves -- "as authorities about who they are."

W. Richard West Jr., the museum's director (Southern Cheyenne), says: "We have, in a systematic, consistent, rigorous and scholarly way, attempted to put native peoples themselves, in their first-person voices, at the table of conversation about native peoples and native communities, past and present. That is a distinction as compared to what straight anthropologists might be doing."


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