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Within These Walls, Science Yields to Stories

Some natives suspect that outsiders will never fully grasp what native life is like. "I feel as a tribal member of the Kaw, I'm a little uncomfortable with someone who [didn't grow up as a Kaw] to come in and say they're an expert on our tribe," says Pepper Henry.

George Horse Capture, a member of the A'aninin (or Gros Ventre) tribe of Montana, says that cross-cultural investigations, such as those practiced by anthropologists, can lead to "murky water." Indians, he said, often told white anthropologists what they thought the anthropologists wanted to hear. He has asked himself if he could ever understand what it was like to be Jewish or black. He could marry such a person and live in that culture, he says, "but there's no way I could ever be what they are. Because they've had pain. And if you don't have pain, it's not etched into your soul."


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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One thing visitors won't encounter in the museum is a scientific explanation of how the Americas were populated. Until fairly recently, scientists were confident that Asian hunters migrated across the Bering Strait on a land bridge during the Ice Age. New evidence, however, has cast doubt on that simple scenario. Some scholars believe people came by boat and land in multiple migrations. None of this, however, is discussed in the Indian Museum. It conflicts with the cosmologies of many native peoples, who believe they have occupied their lands since the beginning of time. Curator Bruce Bernstein, who's non-native, says the problem with the Bering Strait theory is "the insistence that that's the origin of native peoples."

The decision to ignore the scientific debate and stick to a more religious perspective is a departure for a government-supported museum. The standard anthropological approach to the history of the Americas is now entirely absent from the Mall. The Natural History Museum, having closed its antiquated exhibits on Native Americans, will need at least three to five years to open new ones, according to Fitzhugh, the museum's head of anthropology. Funding has dried up in recent years, he says, as money has flowed to the Indian Museum a few blocks away.

Even so, the Indian Museum has managed to avoid controversy so far, not a minor feat in the age of Culture Wars and furious accusations of political correctness.

More problematic for the museum may be its own very high standards for authenticity and present-tense narration. Everything at the museum, says Bernstein, must be "returnable" to the native people. "Returnability" is one of several museum buzzwords (along with "survivance") that takes a few minutes for an outsider to grasp. But the gist is that this place isn't designed for the entertainment of tourists -- despite the museum's hope that it will attract 4 million to 6 million visitors a year. It's meant to be "useful" to natives, Bernstein says.

This is no Indian road show, no reconstitution of Buffalo Bill's version of the Wild West. Showbiz touches are absent. It has taken 15 years to get this museum off the ground, and the exhibits appear to be rather tidy in scale, carefully curated and, in some places, visually striking, but not spectacular. Most of the exhibits are on the third and fourth floors of the building. The relatively small exhibit spaces may have difficulty accommodating throngs of visitors.

By focusing on living cultures, the museum may find it tricky to talk about cultures of the distant past. There is no exhibit in the museum, for example, about the great mound-building cultures of North America, or about Cahokia, a city in the Mississippi Valley near present-day St. Louis, that probably had more than 20,000 inhabitants a thousand years ago -- more than London. Museum spokesman Thomas Sweeney said he's fascinated by Cahokia but wasn't sure how it would fit into the museum's present-tense, first-person approach. But West, the museum director, said that an exhibit on Cahokia would be possible if officials had discussions with current Indian tribes in the Mississippi Valley.

"One would be surprised at how much comes down even through oral history," West said.

A New Approach

Most museums, if given a grand atrium, would feel compelled to put something dramatic and permanent in the center, like the show-stopping bull elephant over at the Natural History Museum. At the Indian Museum, the atrium is allowed to remain open and evocative, rising 120 feet to a skylight, with prisms casting the colors of the rainbow on the white, curving walls. Living people will occupy the ceremonial floor space, not something stuffed or chiseled or cast in bronze.

Previews of the museum earlier this month have offered a limited sense of what the experience of the visitor will be like. On opening day more than 15,000 native people are expected to be in attendance. The museum intends to have, on a regular basis, Indians demonstrating native crafts, such as boat-building.

At the entrance to "Our Peoples," the exhibit that attempts to detail the history of Indians, the visitor will see hundreds of pieces of figurative pottery. But instead of being compartmentalized and discretely labeled, these pieces flow in great curves through the glass cases, the many faces on the pottery suggesting a thriving, populous hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans in 1492. A radial burst of gold demonstrates the wealth of the Incas and other Mesoamerican civilizations. Suddenly there appears a set of Spanish swords, slicing through the visual narrative. The fateful encounter has begun.

"This is impressionistic," says Bernstein. "This is not terribly didactic. Our intention is to situate people in the midst of native thought. This museum is about the inside-outward view."

Curators have arranged cases that represent three primary forces in the assault on Indians after 1492: guns, church and state. The church case, for example, will show Bibles printed in dozens of different native languages.


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