In the summer of 1930, Margaret Mead spent a few months on an Indian reservation in Nebraska. Mead had cut her teeth as an anthropologist on far more "exotic" people, in the South Seas, and she was definitely not happy to be working in her own cultural back yard. The Native Americans were not making her job any easier.

"This is a very discouraging job, ethnologically speaking," she began a letter to a friend. She went on to paint a picture that is almost a parody of bad anthropology: The natives just aren't very interesting, or reliable, or trustworthy, and demand extortionate prices for selling their handicrafts, telling their stories or sharing their visions. And even then, there is "no way of checking whether they are telling the truth and no way of making the stuff coherent and integrated anyhow." She cross-examines, bullies and all but calls her "informants" liars, and then decides, "If I were going to be an Americanist I would stay in the library most of the time and only emerge to try to verify the most key points after a long search of the literature."

Mead's letter sketches in bold, crass strokes the worst of the mentality that the National Museum of the American Indian is fighting against.

Sitting in the shadow of the Capitol, on some of the most prestigious real estate in Washington, the new museum has emerged with ambitions far greater than simply putting a sunny face on the kind of anthropology represented by Mead, or becoming a Disney-style happy magnet for native peoples. It is a monument to Postmodernism -- to a way of thinking that emphasizes multiple voices and playful forms of truth over the lazy acceptance of received wisdom, authority and scientific "certainty." Its successful completion is evidence that American Indians have emerged as perhaps the only minority group in this country to win a skirmish in the culture wars.

Revisionism in Retreat

The culture wars -- by no means over -- have mostly been a string of losses for groups challenging establishment thinking and establishment cultural organizations. In 1991, when a hotly contested exhibition called "The West as America" opened at another Smithsonian site, the National Museum of American Art, it was still considered radical for scholars to talk to mainstream audiences about "inventing 'the Indian.' " The exhibition argued that underneath the nation's glorious westward expansion, into lands inhabited by native peoples, was a darker agenda, with complex threads of racism, romanticism, religious triumphalism, economic exploitation and imperialist aspiration. The show's curators looked hard, methodically and critically at some of the most beloved imagery in the mainstream American art consciousness -- images of the Noble Savage by painters such as George Catlin and Charles Deas, and the darker, stormier visions of Frederic Remington. This was proudly revisionist history, but the nation wasn't ready. The Smithsonian was roundly savaged by critics. This newspaper led the charge, declaring that "with the sort of tortured revisionism now so stridently de rigueur in academia, [the exhibition] effectively trashes not only the integrity of the art it presents but most of our national history as well."

A similar brouhaha surrounded plans for an exhibition of the Enola Gay aircraft on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Such beatings were part of a broad retreat by this country's cultural leaders -- away from revisionism, away from difficult subjects, away from an understanding of the museum as a forum for cultural argument.

The National Endowment for the Arts, accused in the late 1980s of funding works that some people considered obscene or sacrilegious, no longer supports individual artists, and is devoted instead to arts advocacy and accessibility.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has evolved into a kind of remedial history organization, championing the presumably safe ideal of basic cultural literacy. Conservative Christianity, which led the fight in numerous culture war battles (against offensive art, especially), has shaped the ascendant political language of our time. Minority groups, particularly gay and lesbian people, in the current election find themselves yet again used as a cultural wedge issue.

To see the retreat in stark terms, look at the reaction to Remington's Indian paintings over the past decade.

When "The West as America" catalogue was published, Alex Nemerov contributed an article quoting Remington on the merits of using violence against unruly minorities: "I've got some Winchesters and when the massacreing begins," he wrote to a friend, "I can get my share of 'em and whats more I will." By "'em" he said he meant "Jews -- in- guns -- chinamen -- Italians -- Huns, the rubish of the earth I hate." But when the National Gallery presented an exhibition of Remington's paintings last year -- a very popular exhibition -- they did so mostly in the absurdly abstract yet ecstatic language of Art Appreciation. The exhibit was focused on the painter's "nocturnes" -- studies in light and composition and surface control. Remington, the cultural and historical actor, was gone, and his reputation was restored to a more convenient category: great artist. In the words of gallery director Earl A. Powell III, "Remington sought to capture the elusive silver tones of moonlight, the hot flame of firelight, and the charged interaction of both."

Getting free of this kind of glossy art-speak, and wresting control of native identity from the legacy of painters like Remington and the hauteur of scientists like Mead, has been a long road. One big step in the process was the Smithsonian's opening of the George Gustav Heye Center in New York in 1994. Housed in the imposing old Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Manhattan, it is named for the New Yorker whose rapacious collecting of Indian artifacts created the vast bulk of what will be on display in the new national museum on the Mall. The Heye Center opened the same year that brought Newt Gingrich to the top post in the House of Representatives, bearing a "Contract With America" that called for the wholesale elimination of the NEA. It was a difficult time for museums to take risks.

The Heye Center's approach was a trial run for the current museum, an attempt to put Indian voices on at least an equal footing with "scientific" ones. It would, wrote scholar Tom Hill in a catalogue published at the time, be in the vanguard of a new reordering of museum priorities -- a reordering that sounded like the first step in a broader, societal reformation. "Traditional native values can help guide museums as well," he wrote. "No longer monuments to colonialism, these institutions may be led to a truly new world in which cultures have genuine equality and creators and creations can be seen whole."

There was -- no surprise -- a certain amount of grumbling from conservative quarters. A writer for the right-wing National Review complained about the "confusion" and overwhelming quantity of "verbiage" from the native perspective. "Yet another unpleasantness is the nauseating self-righteousness of this verbiage," he said, and warned, ominously, that the Heye Center "bodes even worse for the other museum that the Smithsonian plans to open several years down the line" -- the one that's being dedicated on the Mall on Tuesday. Instead of worrying so much about the native perspective, the critic argued, the museum should put forth "a maximum of objects with a minimum of distraction" -- like housewares in a department store, where the customer is always right.

A writer in the Baltimore Sun hinted at a deeper sense of cultural suspicion. "In its anxiety to present these objects in the correct way, the museum has made them all but invisible by bombarding us with a plethora of information -- printed, spoken, televised -- that makes it difficult for the objects themselves to communicate." Note the language: "In its anxiety" suggests the curators were caught up in the tortuous navel-gazing of political correctness; "the museum has made them all but invisible" hints at the Margaret Mead-like fear that whereas anthropologists reveal, natives hide; "by bombarding us" positions the new museum as a salvo in the cultural war of "them against us"; and "makes it difficult for the objects themselves to communicate" reinforces the old art history notion that if the objects are art, they transcend their makers and speak "for themselves."

Guided by Voices

The Heye Center took a hybrid approach, allowing anthropology and native voices to talk with, or against, each other. But adding native voices to the already clamorous mix of disciplines with longstanding claims to interpret native peoples was, for many observers, just more cacophony. The new museum on the Mall, its leaders say, is a resolute effort to step outside the objectifying habits of anthropology and all the other disciplines with mainstream museum cred.

But it is also a museum with a very broad mandate, devoted to native cultures from Peru to the Hudson Bay, which means its curators will eventually have to work with peoples ever more remote from American cultural life. When they do, they may find themselves having to explain the whole concept, the purpose of the museum, the kinds of objects that other groups have contributed. And they may have to dig to get the stories, the visions and the meaning of things. In short, they may have to work in ways indistinguishable from anthropologists.

Once any outsider starts thinking like an anthropologist, it's hard not to start asking those bullying Margaret Mead questions. How do you know the natives are telling the truth? Is something sacred just because they say it's sacred? How do you know that they're not snowing you with all that talk of the Creator and the power of place and all the happy animism that runs through the general discourse of native life? If you believe that only native voices can get at the truth of native people, you must take it all in at face value. Truth is what individual people say about themselves, beyond refute and suspicion -- which is perhaps the most powerful, and radical, challenge that Postmodern thought has proposed.

Already, in the new museum's inaugural book, "Native Universe: Voices of Indian America" -- one hesitates to call it a catalogue -- you can see the dizzying Postmodern playfulness at work. Stunning, turn-of-the-century photographs of Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis -- haunting studies in ethnographic nostalgia -- have returned. Curtis was derided as recently as the 1991 "West as America" exhibition as having created romanticized "inventions" of the Indian. They have been reappropriated, with positive connotations. The more than 500-year history of contact between the West and the native peoples of America has produced a vast literature of the Noble Savage, in which Western writers project onto native people all the virtues and idealism that have bled out, over the millennia, from Western society. The Postmodern discourse of native peoples doesn't set aside this literature, it revises it, keeping the nobility while discarding the savage. The language in "Native Universe" recycles ideas that, in almost any other context, would seem laughably politically correct. They amount to an environmentalist-animist-egalitarian orthodoxy. They are not offered, as in a standard museum catalogue, as intellectual context for understanding native objects, but as an emotional prerequisite for getting at their most basic level of meaning.

If you go to the old central square in Santa Fe, where native artists bring jewelry and other wares for sale to tourists, you may hear a delightful, almost Borgesian tale about how native art is made. (Perhaps it's apocryphal, but what does that matter?) It goes like this:

To distinguish designs made for sale from designs that have authentic, sacred uses, the artist will leave out one tiny detail. The tourist will be thrilled by this, and once the sand painting is in his possession the hunt begins, for the tiny asymmetry, the missing feather on one side of the bird that indicates, by its absence, the presence of sacred power in the design.

This delightful little game can stand for any number of basic Postmodern conundrums: that truth may lie in what isn't said, that the right to hide meaning may be more meaningful than anything that could be revealed and that, ultimately, the only real truth in the world is the lack of a single truth. This basic mind dance -- a corrective ritual to old, stultifying notions of truth -- has been driven out of our society, for the most part, by a conservative intellectual entrenchment. But in the National Museum of the American Indian, it is being reanimated, and grafted onto the remnants of a diverse and ancient worldview. On the run most everywhere else, Postmodernism has a victory arch on the Mall.

Etched into the east-facing doors of the Indian Museum, sun symbols from native cultures rise triumphantly toward the Capitol.