Butter, motor oil, sunscreen, baking powder — these are just a few of the rather ordinary objects on display in “Americans,” a new long-term exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. Curators picked these everyday products because they, like hundreds more, feature images of American Indians, often for no clear reason. The practice is so common that most people don’t give it a second thought — or even a first, exhibition manager Elena Guarinello says.
“It’s a phenomenon unlike any other, where one particular segment of society is subject to this kind of obsession and fascination,” she says. “And it’s been going on since before the country began.”
The exhibit points out that American Indian names have been given to military helicopters and missiles, more than half of the country’s states and countless cities. Plus, American Indians play a starring role in many stories told about the country’s early history, as well as one major national holiday.
Taken together, this national fixation on a group that makes up just 1.7 percent of the population points to a larger truth, says Paul Chaat Smith, one of the exhibit’s curators.
“What I have come to believe is that Americans are emphatic about not wanting to ignore the central fact that, for the United States to become the most powerful nation in the history of the world, it required the dispossession of Native American people,” Smith says.
Some of the commercial objects on display seem tasteful, while others traffic in offensive stereotypes, he says. The officially licensed sports team apparel in the exhibit — including a baby bib embroidered with the Washington Redskins logo — represents the co-opting of Native American culture that has generated the most debate in recent years.
It’s up to visitors to decide for themselves which examples on display are OK and which aren’t, Guarinello says. “You can’t fixate on the Washington football team. It’s part of a larger phenomenon, and there’s a lot of ways to feel about it,” she says. “We want to invite people into this space to have the discussion and to start noticing things.”
In a video portion of the exhibit, Smith argues that Thanksgiving is another example of Americans remembering American Indians in an attempt to grapple with the country’s bloody past. A historical footnote for 200 years, Thanksgiving grew in popularity as a national holiday in the early 20th century, as Americans began wrestling with “this very difficult truth about the United States — that the country is a national project that came about at great expense to native people,” Smith narrates in the video. The story of a peaceful “brunch in the woods” between English settlers and American Indians remains resonant today because “that’s what we aspire to be. That’s sort of our best selves,” Smith says in the video.
In three side galleries, “Americans” highlights and reinterprets historical events involving American Indians. One gallery addresses the common belief that Pocahontas saved the life of English soldier John Smith when he was about to be executed by members of her tribe. That probably didn’t happen, exhibit co-curator Cecile Ganteaume says.
“John Smith wrote about that incident after Pocahontas was already famous, and he had written about similar scenes happening to him in the Middle East and other places in his travels, so he was a bit of a fabulist,” she says.
The soldier’s version of the events has since been memorialized in poems, songs and a Disney movie. The story’s staying power may stem from the fact that it captures larger truths about Pocahontas’ importance, at least metaphorically, Ganteaume says.
“If she didn’t save the life of Captain Smith, she did save the life of the Jamestown Colony, which is the place where democratically elected representative government started in the United States,” says Ganteaume, explaining that Pocahontas’ marriage to an English settler and their subsequent tour of England convinced businessmen and royals to invest in the new colony.
Even if people today can’t recall exactly why Pocahontas was important, at least we recall that she was important, co-curator Smith says. That’s true for all of the American Indians represented in the exhibit, he says.
“However imperfectly we remember Indians, we are remembering Indians,” he says. “And with all the problems with it, it’s still a powerful idea.”
National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW, through 2022, free.