The museum doesn't nourish thought. "Native Modernism: The Art of George Morrison and Allan Houser," the two-man retrospective on the third floor, is a notable exception. It is well focused and well labeled. At the Indian Museum few shows are as clear. There is no useful way to link all the baseball caps and arrowheads, Niagara Falls souvenirs, old gold and new totem poles, macaw feathers and turkey feathers and Spanish swords and casino chips that have been stirred into the pot.
But a point is being made. There is an agenda in this mix. It may be, for once, an Indian agenda, but it's an agenda nonetheless.
"Pink Buffalo Hat" by Ric Glazer-Danay.
(NMAI Photo Services Staff)
We keep seeing the Indian through lenses cracked by rickety, romantic or contradictory assumptions. We've been doing so for centuries. It's built into our heritage; it's part of who we are. The museum does the same.
For half a bloody century, from 1859 to 1909 -- while squashing his culture, while shooting, deceiving and intentionally infecting him, while driving him to drink and into reservations -- we put the Indian on the penny where other nations put the king.
From 1913 to 1938, after slaughtering the buffalo, the Indian's fellow victim, we put that creature on our nickel and will do so soon again.
We want it both ways. We treat the Indian with disdain while appropriating his special strength with missiles called the Tomahawk and sedans called the Pontiac and ball teams named the Redskins and the Indians and the Braves. The museum wants it both ways, too.
Here's the contention it continually asserts:
Indians are all different; overarching Indianness makes them all alike.
Well, which is it? The museum can't make up its mind.
That Indians are fabulously varied is obvious. As fisherfolk and astronauts, as nomads and attorneys, as dwellers in the woodlands, the deserts and the Arctic, how could they not be? Try to imagine a mass of humans more vibrantly diverse.
The rest of the assertion -- that by virtue of their history, and by virtue of their blood, all Indians share an overarching "Indianness" -- is a lot harder to swallow.
What is this Indianness? Well, according to your CDIB (Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs), it comes with your genes; you inherit it. A thousand cultures share it. Indianness exists in people now alive and those dead 12,000 years. It is ineffably mysterious. No one can describe it except in generalities. Here are some from museum publications:
"Native people believe that unseen powers and creative forces formed the Earth." "Native Americans of the past and present consider many places holy." "They manifested their beliefs through ceremony and ritual." They use "the circle as a symbol of unity." "Monsters appear in many American stories." "Sun . . . is a symbol of abundance, well-being, fire, strength, brilliance, and light."
Indianness is not just vague. It also is so elastic you can stretch it to cover Inuit walrus hunters, Mohawk skyscraper constructors, public-information specialists, plumed Aztec kings, Mississippi mound-builders, political activists, filmmakers, Navajo code-talkers, surfing Hawaiians, art professors, bus drivers and all the other individuals that the Indian Museum claims to represent.