Bobby (angry that his stepsister Cindy is wearing his Indian costume): I'm gonna scalp her. I'm the real Little Owl!
Alice, the housekeeper: Oh, I think she makes a heap pretty squaw.
-- From a 1969 episode of "The Brady Bunch"
One problem facing the National Museum of the American Indian is that there's too much "Brady Bunch" in most of us. Whether in backyard forts or on trips to the Grand Canyon, the Brady family had a pretty strong case, as do many Americans, of what academic circles have dubbed "the Tonto Syndrome." Centuries of exaggerated, romanticized media imagery have created an Indian of the mind.
Bad accents, bad jokes: Americans still revel in war whoops and feathers.
Tonto -- that faithful, if verbally stilted, companion to TV's Lone Ranger -- is who stands between the new museum's vision of itself and everyone else. He is one of countless make-believe natives who are both icons of pop and a pernicious stereotype. The faux Indian dates from Plains Indians' successful (if culturally disastrous) showbiz debut with Buffalo Bill in the 19th century. He is with us even up to the performance of "Hey Ya!" by hip-hop megastars OutKast at this year's Grammy Awards. (The band wore face paint and cheesy feathered headdresses. Indian rights groups complained, noting parallels to minstrelsy. And got nowhere.)
Everything you think you know about Indians? It's probably wrong.
But is it so wrong that it won't be in the museum at all?
When Mr. and Mrs. Air-'n'-Space and their kids walk through its hallowed entry, they bring to the Indian Museum a few centuries' worth of red-man baggage. (They might even be wearing Redskins jerseys.) But the museum, in giving them a heavy dose of authenticity, doesn't include a place to unpack all those heap-big stereotypes -- the residue of racism that has so transfixed contemporary Indian artists, cultural historians and ironic observers of outdated pop.
What the museum serves is an altogether new flavor of tourist Kool-Aid, redefining concepts of history, cosmology, spirituality and diversity. It is so broad and so complicated that visitors almost can't be blamed for asking, in ignorance or sentimentality, where Tonto went.
"We have consistently thought about that question, all along," says Bruce Bernstein, the museum's assistant director for cultural resources.
Bernstein and others hope the sheer beauty and tone of the place will dispel the inaccurate mythology, jokes and war whoops that visitors grew up with. That basically includes anyone who watched TV or had a social studies class in the 20th century.
"You walk in on the northwest corner and into what I hope people will agree is a gorgeous building," Bernstein says. "And they won't be saying, 'Wait, now where are the tepees?' or 'I don't see the noble savage standing around; what does this have to do with native people?' We're trying to call all that into question with what we do show."
Therefore, no funny stuff.
No campy "Indian" extras of Westerns, nor wooden cigar-store Indians, nor Sitting Bull comedy kitsch. There will be no display of suction-cup toy arrows, no headdresses made in Taiwan. No tepee-shaped motels or Route 66 curios, and no sexy depictions of buckskin-bikini-clad maidens, nor Land o' Lakes butter princesses.
Sorry, die-hard Redskins fans: Your long struggle to justify the NFL franchise's name isn't a welcome discussion here. Same for the "tomahawk chop" of the Atlanta Braves, or the Cleveland Indians' cartoony Chief Wahoo, or any of a panoply of outdated team mascots and their war-painted fans.
There is no Disney afoot. (Nix the 1990s-style "Pocahontas," and also "Peter Pan's" Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys.) No gift-shop tom-toms with rubber skins. No Thanksgiving pageants with the clumsy gesturing, the corn cobs, the loincloths. No Hallmark depictions of a "vanishing people." No guy on horseback shedding a glycerin tear at the sight of litter and pollution. No Village People. No "how." No new-age medicine men who populate the Santa Fe spa scene. Thus far, just a few references to casino culture. None of the Indian art typically seen in the dentist offices of Phoenix. No "Little Big Man," nor any Kevin Costner-style Hollywood guilt (which, to many Indians, is no better than the Hollywood exploitation that preceded it). No Ethel Merman singing Irving Berlin's "I'm an Indian Too" from "Annie Get Your Gun":
Just like Rising Moon, Falling Pants, Running Nose
Like those Indians, I'm an Indian, too.
A Siou-ouuu-oux, a Sioux
Let go, the Indian Museum implicitly tells us. That stuff -- though very much a hot topic and desperately interesting to those seeking to understand the effective marginalizing of native culture in the modern age -- isn't here.
But should it be? Has the Smithsonian -- obsessive-compulsive hoarder of everything American -- amassed a collection of Indian kitsch somewhere, anything akin to George Gustav Heye's collection of authentic Indian artifacts in the 19th and early 20th century? Yes, at some future point, Bernstein says, the Indian Museum will figure out how examples of negative Indian stereotypes fit in with the theme and vision of the place.
Bernstein points out that the Smithsonian and other museums have been attuned all along to showing the artistic and cultural uses of inaccuracies and issues of race. The NMAI approaches it tentatively for now -- Santa Clara (N.M.) Pueblo potter Tammy Garcia has a piece in the Indian Museum called "Love and Luggage" that depicts a relationship between an Indian man and a blond, white woman. "Who Stole the Tee Pee?," a 2000 exhibit at the Smithsonian's Heye Center in New York, examined Indian stereotypes from dozens of native perspectives, and the results were both clever and chilling.
"The problem with the predominate Indian stereotypes are that they totally ignore the diversity, the modernity of native people," says Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator and co-director of the gallery at the American Indian Community House in New York.
That said, Ash-Milby thinks stereotypes are a fascinating and key element to the overall American Indian narrative. When she was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico in the early 1990s, Ash-Milby did thesis work on the perennially iconic, cliche image of Indianness -- the war bonnet. Emanating from Plains cultures, the bonnet took on outsize significance and became misunderstood, misused. It helped turn "Indian" into a Halloween costume.
"I think it's important that the stereotypes are addressed at some point," she says. Ash-Milby, who is Navajo, found herself having to explain to her son's preschool teacher -- who was originally from Ecuador -- why it wasn't appropriate to sing "Ten Little Indians" in class (and do the "woo-woo-woo" war cry at the end of the song). "I know she didn't mean harm by it," she says. "But I had to tell her that . . . if my son were to sing this song in front of his family, it would hurt their feelings."
Robert Schmidt, a writer in Los Angeles who started his own Indian-themed comic book ("Peace Party") several years ago and has been an ardent compiler of examples of negative stereotypes, says he thinks it's "useful for [the NMAI] to send a positive message and their approach implicitly contradicts stereotypes, but at some point I'd hope [the museum] would explicitly contradict stereotypes."
Since 1998, Schmidt has clipped and posted examples on his Web site (www.bluecorncomics.com) of past and current Indian stereotypes -- everything from the choice moment of a "Brady Bunch" rerun quoted earlier, to longer, more harmful instances of politicians and otherwise gallant-seeming intellectuals partaking in both subtle and overt digs at Indian cultures. Some of it is so baffling, so trivializing, that you laugh more out of exasperation than remorse.
Even some American Indians find it hard to let go of Tonto et al.
"You know, it's disappointing for native people, too," Ash-Milby says, "to find out that these stereotypes aren't true." Some of them anyhow -- like the heroic Indian guide, the nobility, the spirituality. Even when it was wildly inaccurate, it was at least an acknowledgment of existence, something minorities were never used to seeing in most popular culture.
"People want to believe these romantic notions, which are prevalent and longstanding. Our people grew up with mass media, too," she says, and that meant they saw the same kind of faux-Indian and, taking what they could get, identified with him. "Pop culture has a very strong influence."
In a stand-up concert taped earlier this year in San Francisco and currently airing on Showtime, the comedian Dave Chappelle performs a shtick in which he claims to have met a Navajo man in a Wal-Mart in New Mexico. "You know who I feel sorry for," Chappelle says, "is Indians. They get dogged openly, because everyone thinks they're all dead."
He continues the bit: To make sure his new friend, "Running Coyote," is an Indian, he says, he throws a gum wrapper on the floor, waiting for Running Coyote (an alcoholic, he jokes) to shed a single tear, like the public service anti-litter ad in the early 1970s. Calling himself "Black Feet," Chappelle imagines a riff of accompanying Running Coyote to a marijuana peace-pipe ritual. It goes on and on, dragging out almost every Indian stereotype of the last 100 years. (And making use of the implicit contract all minority comedians have with the mores of pop culture: Anything goes, but it's okay, because I'm black.)
What's instructive here is how heartily the racially mixed audience laughs.
Are these the same people coming to the Indian Museum? Ostensibly yes, in an America that hasn't stopped dogging Tonto.