The sand-toned, curved limestone walls of the new National Museum of the American Indian make it the most sensuous and serene structure on the Mall, a powerful and immediate sign that this nation's roots lie deeper than Roman temples and English gardens.
But as alluring a reminder as this building is of who was here first, the inside of the museum -- the story it tells -- is an exercise in intellectual timidity and a sorry abrogation of the Smithsonian's obligation to explore America's history and culture.
The exterior of the Indian museum deserves to rocket to the top of the list of Washington must-sees. But inside, the three main exhibits fail to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here. There is no effort to trace Indians' evolution from centuries of life alone on this land to their place in reservations and among the rest of us today.
Instead, the Smithsonian accepted the trendy faux-selflessness of today's historians and let the Indians present themselves as they wish to be seen.
"A history is always about who is telling the stories," says the opening to the exhibit, "Our Peoples." "Official histories often ignored Indians completely. Others portrayed us as primitive and cruel." A introductory film concedes that this museum "like all makers of history, has a point of view, an agenda. We offer self-told histories of selected native communities."
The narrator asks visitors to "view what's offered with respect, but also with skepticism."
That's the right spirit, but the museum fails to give visitors the basic tools needed to ask good, skeptical questions. There's not nearly enough fact or narrative to give us the foundation we need to judge the Indians' version of their story.
So when the Campo Band of Southern California presents an exhibit on its Golden Acorn Casino, a case displays a casino baseball cap, T-shirt and gambling chips, but nothing about the economic impact of Indian casinos, non-Indian consultants who siphon off profits or gambling addiction. Instead, we get a single sentence: "Some feel that gaming is not our way and will bring new problems to our territories."
A display about the Mohawk ironworkers who build Manhattan skyscrapers asks why generation after generation of Indians can work so well at such dizzying heights. But instead of offering any science or sociological theories, the museum merely quotes an Indian named Kyle Karonhiaktatie Beauvois saying, "A lot of people think Mohawks aren't afraid of heights; that's not true. We have as much fear as the next guy. The difference is that we deal with it better." Gee, thanks.
Poverty and substance abuse, domestic violence and unemployment -- the social ills that developed over generations of displacement, discrimination and disconnect from the wider society are mentioned, but not explored.
Rather, we get repetitive stories of survival, of how tribal customs and rituals are nourished today -- a painfully narrow prism through which to view American Indians.
The museum feels like a trade show in which each group of Indians gets space to sell its founding myth and favorite anecdotes of survival.
Each room is a sales booth of its own, separate, out of context, gathered in a museum that adds to the balkanization of a society that seems ever more ashamed of the unity and purpose that sustained it over two centuries.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum started us down this troubling path. A first-rate endeavor with a rigorous, probing approach to history, the Holocaust museum -- a privately funded enterprise on government land -- should nonetheless never have been given a spot near the Mall. Its location there opened the gate for the deconstruction of American history into ethnically separate stories told in separate buildings. Museums of black and Hispanic history are in the works.
American history is a thrilling and disturbing sway from conflict to consensus and back again. But the contours of the battle between division and coalition are too often lost in the way history is taught today. Now, sadly, the Smithsonian, instead of synthesizing our stories, shirks its responsibility to give new generations of Americans the tools with which to ask the questions that could clear a path toward a more perfect union.