I don't buy it. To be accepted officially as a Nez Perce, according to Title Six, the Enrollment Ordinance, you need at least one-fourth Nez Perce blood. What about the other three-quarters? The notion that one's spirit, one's values, one's identity, arrives automatically with whatever blood-percentage defines you as an Indian smacks too much of octoroons and pass laws in South Africa and sewn-on Stars of David.
Of course one of the museum's problems is the extent to which it does not discriminate. Are ancient painted bowls made before the white man came and those thrown for the gift shop equally authentic? Should bathing-beauty dolls and bracelets for the trading post and beaded ladies' purses be granted equal value? Here the answer's yes.
"Pink Buffalo Hat" by Ric Glazer-Danay.
(NMAI Photo Services Staff)
No wonder the Indian Museum seems sort of embarrassed by its permanent collection, to which it gives short shrift. Only 1 percent of it is on view; much of that is squeezed into narrow cases stuck out in the halls. You'll have to make an appointment to visit the museum's treasure house in Suitland to see the other 99 percent.
Too often in these hallways -- because the labeling is awful -- you have no idea at all what it is you're looking at. To find out you must first retreat, and wait to touch a TV screen, sprinkled with small photographs. Photographs! The real thing itself is there only feet away, but if you want to know who made it you have to break your concentration to fiddle with 21st-century interactive digital technology. Soon you'll want to scream.
x Aztec, Olmec and Mayan art, and carvings for the potlatch, and woodland Indian "banner stones," and Costa Rican gold -- amazing shows of Indian things have been displayed before in other Mall museums. Their beauty was enough to make anyone with eyes treasure Indian art and seek to learn something about it. Here that sort of linear Eurocentric art-historical thinking is generally disdained.
This is not an art museum, that's clear. It's not a history museum, either. Its whole thrust is ahistorical. What it is, instead, is a unity museum. Unity helped build it, unity enabled the many tribes involved to influence the government: Unity, for Indians, may be the sharpest blade they have. The key, the pounded message that their museum delivers -- see, we have survived; we are Indians all together; we are allied and we're one -- says much about the forces that created the museum, and next to nothing useful about the Indian past.
But then the Indian Museum doesn't really believe in the past. "Europeans," it tells us, "emphasize a sequential presentation of events or ideas," while "for Native nations of the Americas . . . the circular manner of perceiving past and present, rather than seeing one event simply follow another, is most important as a way to think about Native American history."
But the Indian past existed, and the hand-in-hand Indian unity proclaimed in the museum was not a major part of it. America, before the Europeans came, was not Edenic. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who imagined that it was, may have read a lot about the Golden Age in Ovid and about Arcadia in Virgil, but he knew nothing of ancient Mexico. His sweet idea is fiction. It's still alive in this museum (the lily pads, the waterfall), but it's fiction nonetheless.
Aztec rulers ate their captives. Mayan kings warred ceaselessly. Slavery was common before the white man came. The ancient cliff dwellers of the Southwest lugged their food and water up ladders for a reason; they didn't come to dwell high up on sheer canyon walls because they liked the view.
Prettily presented in the "Our Peoples" display on the fourth floor are scores of fearsome weapons -- axes, daggers, flintlocks, carbines and six-shooters -- but who these arms were used by, and whom they were used against, and why, characteristically is not much discussed.
These are the museum's early days, of course. Much of the vapidness of these exhibits is fixable. Grand museums often take years to find their way.
Remember "The End of the Trail," James Earle Fraser's 1915 bronze of a dejected Indian on a sagging horse? Not so very long ago the Indian was supposed to either disappear, poignantly, melodiously like "The Last of the Mohicans," or become just like the rest of us. Both options were declined. That, at least, is clear in the new museum on the Mall.
The Indians have lost most of their old languages and most of their old lands, but material things survive, that's why we build museums. Indian objects can be eloquent. They have great stories to tell -- of cruelty and sweetness, technology and magic, survival and defeat. They may not all be true and may not all agree. But they deserve to be presented with enough precision and discrimination so that they are believed.