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Within These Walls, Science Yields to Stories

Such words are delivered without harshness or bitterness, but there is a long history behind them, one that natives find painful. "Anthropology" and "archaeology" are very close to pejorative terms in Indian Country. When doing research on native groups, says George Horse Capture, one of the museum's curators, it's necessary to look at traditional anthropology books, but "you have to put on your Indian glasses to filter out the anthropological bias."

It was anthropologists who, early in the 20th century, lured six Greenland natives to New York City to be studied in a museum, only to watch four of them within a year die of tuberculosis. It was an anthropologist of that era who said, "I cannot attach to oral traditions any historical value whatsoever." The pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas once wrote, "It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it." Pervading the entire anthropological enterprise, writes David Hurst Thomas in his book "Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity," was a profound disinterest in present-day native culture except insofar as it might lead the researcher toward the prehistoric and "authentic" Indian culture.


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_____
Full Coverage: Indian Museum
Visitor Information
Interactive Map and Panoramas
Photo Gallery
Opening Day Events

Thus the new museum avoids, as much as possible, confining Indians to the past. There are no dioramas here showing prehistoric Indians, as there have been at the Natural History Museum on the Mall.

"Native people wanted those who came to the National Museum of the American Indian to appreciate that we were not some mere ethnographic remnant pushed to the edge of the stage of history," says West.

The we're-still-here message is the filter through which historical events are related. When the Seminole tribe discusses the betrayal of Osceola -- lured to a peace negotiation and then thrown in prison to die -- it is not in an institutional, omniscient voice, but rather in a piece of text attributed to a Seminole of today. The tragedy exists now, in the lives of people still around, not in some separate compartment of "back then."

What happened in the past nonetheless remains an issue for any museum with a large collection of Indian artifacts. The Indian Museum has embraced repatriation, the practice of returning bones and sacred objects to tribes. No other issue so sharply divided scientists and natives over the past two decades. For some anthropologists, the practice of taking artifacts from a museum collection and reburying them is akin to book-burning. But natives have argued that the warehousing of these items is sacrilegious.

The most sensational dispute in recent years has been over the 9,000-year-old bones of the so-called Kennewick Man, discovered along the Columbia River in Washington state in 1996. Anthropologists argued that his features were unusual (there was initially some loose speculation about him looking Caucasian and like the actor Patrick Stewart), and that he could offer new evidence about human migrations to the hemisphere. Five Pacific Northwest tribes sued to have his bones returned for reburial. The anthropologists have so far won the legal battle.

Meanwhile the Natural History Museum had a run of bad publicity over the news that it had possession of the brain of Ishi, a California native who emerged from the backcountry in 1911 and became nationally famous as the "last wild Indian." Ishi lived the few remaining years of his life in a museum in San Francisco. Natural History Museum spokesman Randall Kremer says the museum never hid the fact that it had Ishi's brain in a jar. But by the time it was repatriated to a California tribe, the Natural History Museum had been derided as insensitive to native concerns.

Governing the broader debate is a law passed by Congress in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It requires museums, on a case-by-case basis, to repatriate bones, funerary objects and sacred artifacts if a plausible claim to them is made by tribal descendants or culturally affiliated groups.

The Natural History Museum bore the brunt of the repatriation movement. The museum's chairman of anthropology, William Fitzhugh, says the two sides have since reconciled many of their differences, and the museum fully embraces repatriation. Its officials say no other museum can match its record of having repatriated 90,000 catalogued items. The Indian Museum, with fewer human remains in its collection, has repatriated about 2,500 items, says Pepper Henry. But he points out that his museum -- which had repatriation requirements written into its founding legislation in 1989 -- has reached out to tribes beyond the borders of the United States, even though they are not covered by NAGPRA. Repatriation, as he describes it, isn't a legislative necessity but a deeply felt cultural obligation.

"We have the human remains of someone's ancestor. The museum really doesn't have the right to those remains," he says.

Native Diversity

Even with the Indians defining themselves, they have different views about who is an Indian and what is authentically native. Gabrielle Tayac, another of the museum curators, says this is probably the most hotly debated issue among Indians today. In parts of this hemisphere, an "Indian" is not someone who has Indian blood but someone who lives in the traditional way, Tayac says. Cut your hair, wear Western clothes and live in a big city, and you would no longer be considered Indian. "Can you be an indigenous person and have a university education? Some people would say no," Tayac says.

She identifies herself as Piscataway, the tribe whose traditional territory encompasses much of the metropolitan Washington area. Her father's father was a Piscataway chief. She's also Jewish, on her mother's side.

"I think there is an indigenous way of thinking," she says. She quickly notes that there's not a single native belief system, but there are ways of looking at the world that are common to native peoples throughout the hemisphere. "Things are looked at very cyclically, not in a linear way," she says. There's also "this idea that things are alive, that there's life in everything, that you are a part of it and you fit into it." And of course there is the common experience with colonialism and its disastrous consequences.


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