The Bible being silent on Indian origins, the Puritans concluded that the people they encountered in the Massachusetts woods were of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and greeted them in Hebrew. Soon they realized that they had somehow got it wrong.
The hope-filled viewer who tries to make some sense of the National Museum of the American Indian will feel as stymied, as confused.
What's it like?
Well, the new museum that opens to the public today is better from the outside than it is from the in. Its exhibits are disheartening, their installations misproportioned, here too sparse and there too cramped. Eight thousand varied objects, some spectacular, are offered to the eye. What's missing is the glue of thought that might connect one to another. Instead one tends to see totem poles and T-shirts, headdresses and masks, toys and woven baskets, projectile points and gym shoes, things both new and ancient, beautiful and not, all stirred decoratively together in no important order that the viewer can discern.
The great material culture of the natives of this hemisphere is rich beyond imagining, but not much is on view. The museum owns 800,000 Indian objects. Where are they? Mostly absent. Mostly absent, too, is the brain food one expects from good museums. This one teaches few crisp lessons. Too often its exhibitions are a blur.
Hundreds of curatorial minds, those of Indians mostly, were consulted on its contents. Director W. Richard West Jr. says his museum "in a systematic, consistent, rigorous and scholarly way," has attempted "to put native peoples themselves, in their first-person voices, at the table of conversation." But "systematic, consistent, rigorous and scholarly" are not words that well describe the shows that have resulted. Too many cooks. The eye should have been offered a feast of many courses. Instead it's served a stew.
What's best about the building is that it isn't just a museum. It's a reparation, and a reconciliation. It soothes the nation's conscience as its limestone undulations soothe the strictness of the cityscape. It brings to the Mall a pond with lily pads, a waterfall, tobacco leaves, cornstalks and big rocks. And then you step inside.
The big domed room you enter, named Potomac, may come alive when performances are held there. But now it is bare. Beyond, a broad staircase beckons. You climb and find -- a shop. An expensive one. The whole building stresses shops, and rooms in which to gather, and in which to eat, much more than it does art.
On the third floor, finally, there are some Indian things to see -- a gangiluk (a 19th-century Aleutian hunting hat made of wood and walrus whiskers), a Victorian pincushion and moccasins. All of these have beads on them. One can see no other reason why they're side by side.
Indians do beadwork, that's the point. They also chipped at rocks, and for this reason we are shown scores, or perhaps hundreds, of arrowheads and spear points, all swirled into a pattern as if they had just joined a school of fish. Who precisely made them? How old are they? From where do they come? By now one understands -- because answers aren't provided -- that one is not supposed to ask.
Like Hindus and Assyrians and everybody else, Indians all over the hemisphere look up at the heavens. Hence we get a room whose pinpoint ceiling lights suggest the starry sky. In it are a pipe and a woven basket and other things with stars on them. That seems to be the only connection that these varied objects share.
The mind is getting hungry. It wants something to chew.
Indians make dolls. So here's a case containing more than 200 dolls. One is a Hopi kachina from the 1960s. Such dolls have long been used to give children of the tribe a sense of unseen spirits. Beside this doll is another, a blonde in a bikini, that might serve to teach a child about Marilyn or Barbie, but isn't spiritual at all. The Apache figure next to it, circa 1880, has a horsehair plume where it ought to have a head. Are you getting the point? Indians make dolls.
The "Our Lives" exhibit, in which various tribes suggest the various ways they live, is more coherent, and more poignant. From northern Canada is an Igloolik kitchen, which wittily includes a couple of aluminum Coke cans, a flashlight (it stays dark in winter in the Far North), unbreakable plastic bowls, a pair of scissors and a teapot. Good for them. Still theirs is not the sort of offering that many will return to see time and time again.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.