Editor's note: The piece below is part of a longer work by the author called “God Through Binoculars."
The National Museum of the American Indian opened on September 21, 2004. It cost 220 million dollars. Half of that was raised from private donations, and the other half came from taxpayers. Given its placement on the National Mall near the Smithsonian and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and its religious assignment – to help heal the wounds created by mistreatment of Native Americans – the NMAI received a lot of attention.
I've been to some great museums. The greats in New York, of course, that every area kid goes to: The Museum of Natural History, the Met, the Frick, the Guggenheim, The Bronx Zoo, not a museum, but like one in its education and inspiration of the public through displays. I worked as a zookeeper there for one summer. In Europe I visited the Museum of the Tropics in Amsterdam, the Louvre, the British Museum. From all of Greece what I remember most is "Nike Adjusting her Sandal." While traveling around the Mediterranean, all the World Travelers tell you to go to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. They'll tell you, "There is nothing expensive or famous there. It's just how they've done it. You have to see it." And, as ever, the World Travelers were correct. Bethlehem was a painful letdown. I'd advise tourists not to go. But they must go to Tel Aviv's Diaspora Museum!
The entire city of Florence. Michelangelo's David. I spent hours and hours. I couldn't stop gaining new things from gazing at David. Caravaggio's "On the Road to Damascus," Michelangelo's "Moses:" you witness these, ostensibly inanimate, and it changes your life.
In other words, a good museum is a good museum.
The backstory of the National Museum of the American Indian is cataclysmic. Europeans arrived in the New World in 1492, bringing with them Old World diseases and overwhelming technological power. The Native Americans, lacking metal weapons, horses, the wheel, and immunological resistance, were no match. No one can ever know the exact numbers, but some estimate that diseases like small pox and measles decreased the entire pre-contact population of Native Americans by ninety percent within the first 150 years after Columbus landed.
At the same time, Europeans were enraptured by Native American culture. Ever since Columbus, Europeans have collected Native American artifacts for display. I worked in a museum that did just that: the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum in Berkeley, California. The museum housed Native American artifacts, and it housed Native American body parts, too. I used to have to don hazmat gear to fumigate human remains stored in an industrial drum.
Sometimes museums housed real-live Native Americans. Ishi, the last surviving member of his Yahi tribe, worked as a janitor at the Hearst Museum from 1911 to 1916.
Live Native Americans were sometimes put on display. Franz Boas, "the father of American anthropology," participated. The Eskimos that the Museum of Natural History put on display quickly died of tuberculosis. A little boy named Minik survived. Boas staged a funeral for Minik's sake. The funeral was fake. Boas had wrapped a log in fur to simulate a human corpse. The real bodies of the Eskimos were dissected and studied. Minik later discovered that his father's skeleton was on display. "Give me my father's body,'' he begged. The museum refused.
In the past, powerful Euro-Americans did very bad things. The National Museum of the American Indian is part of the effort to reverse the mistakes of the past and to do very good things. In the past, museum curators and directors were Euro-American. Now, at the NMAI, Native American architects and Native American curators are the decision-makers. The museum's founding director, W. Richard West, is a Cheyenne Indian. In the past, museums displayed historical artifacts from pre-Columbian Native American culture, like pottery and arrowheads. This choice, protestors claim, gave the impression that all Native Americans are dead. Now, the NMAI displays artifacts from Native Americans who are alive today, things like sneakers and baseball caps. In the past, museums displayed ancient items like blades made from obsidian, a volcanic glass. That, protestors claim, gave white museum-goers the mistaken notion that all Native Americans use outdated technology. It is important now to show Native Americans using modern technology, like metal knives – even though obsidian remains the sharpest cutting surface, sharper than metal.
In the past, museums extricated Native American religious objects from their ritual context. An Iroquois false face mask might be put on display as an art object. Iroquois are scandalized by this; to them, a false face mask is a religious object, not an art object. Many Iroquois want false face masks removed from museums. The NMAI returned many false face masks to protesting tribal members. The problem – if you hide the masks, fewer people will know the sophistication and power of Native American art. Besides returning art, there is another solution: sometimes Native American religious leaders perform ceremonies to bless museum exhibits. The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns many monstrances – the container for display of the Eucharist, the body of Christ. No one is bringing Catholic priests into the Met to say mass with these monstrances. Two vital principles – separation of church and state and scholarly objectivity – are applied to Christian objects, but not to Native American ones. Museums must divorce Christian objects from worshippers and faith; museums must not divorce Native American objects from worshippers and faith: this is what's known as a double standard. In the past, there were other double standards that hurt Native Americans. Now we have double standards meant to help Native Americans. Our cultural leaders no longer suggest applying the same standard to all, regardless of their ethnicity.
The National Museum of the American Indian – that is the building itself – is rounded rather than square. Rectangles and straight lines are linear, male, and Western. Curves are feminine, non-Western, beyond dichotomies of right and wrong. "See?" the museum's rounded shape announces, loud and clear. "In the past, we did bad things. We built buildings of straight lines. Now we are doing good things. We build our buildings with curves."
There's a problem, though. The inside of the NMAI is arranged as if it were a rectangular building. Artifacts and souvenirs are in square cases, and museum patrons follow linear paths. Rounding the exterior of the building, while it presents a lovely façade, doesn't enhance anything that's going on inside, it just makes the museum feel jumbled and chaotic, like a teenager's room that hasn't been cleaned in a while.
"It's a bad thing that Western Males have been so in love with Indian culture for so long," the museum tells us. The collection of just one such man – George Gustav Heye – numbered one million Native American objects. This museum corrects that bad thing from the past. This museum has many exhibits with no artifacts at all. Just, say, modern-day video footage, and modern kitsch that you'd come across at an Indian Casino. At times, in the museum, I couldn't tell if I were looking at yet another gift shop, or an actual display.
I'd get down on my knees and thank God if anthropologists of the stature of Heye, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn had dedicated their lives to preserving Slovak culture. I want to know what my grandmother saw, dreamed, and sang – and I don't. It's inevitable that humble people's culture will disappear. My grandfather wore a sheepskin cloak and listened to Slovak folk music played on a fujara, a six-foot long, handmade flute. My cousins in Slovakia today wear t-shirts and listen to The Beatles. It's similarly inevitable that Native American kids wear the same uniform and wallow in the same pop culture. If a Native American wants to get in touch with his ancestor's world, he can, because all those demonized white males scrupulously preserved that culture when no one else was doing so. Love can be like that: obsessive, violative, imprisoning. Sometimes the only thing that holds you back from the brink of oblivion is the grip of a vise.
Here's the irony. Not just Native Americans like Minik were victimized. Henry Fairfield Osborn was the president of the Museum of Natural History for twenty-five years. In 1924, Osborn argued in the New York Times that Poles were racially inferior. Scholars like Osborn and his friend Madison Grant inspired Congress to pass the Quota Act of 1924 that stopped Polish and Slovak immigration to the US on the grounds that we are racially inferior. Franz Boas went to Ellis Island to measure immigrant Poles' and Slovaks' skulls. Neither my ancestors, nor I were part of the group of powerful Euro-Americans doing very bad things. We were part of the powerless having very bad things done to us.
Here's another irony. Racism can't detract from the power of Native American artifacts. Since 1883, the Museum of Natural History has displayed a Haida canoe. The Great Canoe is sixty-three feet long. It's carved from the trunk of a single red cedar. It's decorated with a painting of a killer whale in elegant, unmistakable Haida style. See that canoe and be, inevitably, wowed. After you've seen that canoe, you really don't need a Politically Correct lecture to inform you that Native Americans created exquisite design and objects of awesome power.
I spent a good part of the day in the National Museum of the American Indian. Not once did I have an "Oh, wow" experience. If I had known nothing about Native Americans before entering that museum, I would feel no inspiration to learn anything about them after leaving it.
I watched video footage of men in Western-designed and Chinese-made garments using Minnesota-made snowmobiles and guns to hunt. I heard a lecture about how the white man is evil because he forced Indian kids to go to schools to learn to function in American culture and not in their own traditional culture. If wearing outerwear from caribou hide is so superior, why not wear outerwear made from caribou hide? If hunting from dogsleds is a good idea, why not hunt from dogsleds? If your message is that the white man's assimilation is evil, and traditional culture was superior, and you yourself are, for all intents and purposes, an assimilated American, doesn't that make you a hypocrite?
The NMAI displayed photos of people claiming to be Caribs, descendants of the original Indian inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands that first met with Columbus. The self-identified Caribs in the NMAI photos all looked plainly African American. There was a picture of a girl "reviving Indian customs" by wearing a tacky carnival-in-Rio style feathered and sequined bikini. The captions said, paraphrase, "Yes, these folks look African American, but we accept them at their word. If they say they are Native American, to us, they are Native American."
I suddenly thought of Judith Neulander.
Sometime in the 1990s, when I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I wanted to watch Perseids, a meteor shower that comes around every August. Charlie Gaston, a dairy farmer I knew from walking out beyond the city limits, offered the hillside on his dairy farm. I asked fellow grad students if they wanted to come, and a woman named Judith Neulander did. We sat on the hillside with Charlie. Our conversation consisted of "Oh, wow, there's one! Hey, did ya see that one!" And then we all went home to our beds.
Later I mentioned to people that I'd gone stargazing with Judith Neulander and they gasped.
"She's so controversial!" "She is?" I asked. "Oh, but you are, too." "I am?" I asked.
"You both like to stir up trouble!" "We do?" I invited Judith over to my place and asked her why she was so controversial. She explained. Back in the 1980s, a group of Hispanics claimed to be secretly Jewish – "crypto-Jews." A 1987 broadcast on crypto-Jews was one of NPR's most popular. People loved the crypto-Jew story. It proved that victims oppressed by evil white Christians could survive for hundreds of years by hiding in plain sight.
Judith fell in love. She wanted to become "the queen of the crypto-Jews." She investigated and discovered that the self-identified crypto-Jews' every claim was as substantial as Swiss cheese. She published an article systematically proving each claim false. The crypto-Jews weren't Jewish at all, Judith wrote. They wanted to be thought of as Jewish because they are really Hispanic, and people associate Hispanics with low-cost lawn care, nannies, and illegal immigration. Once they identified as Jewish, people treated them much better. Suddenly they were survivors of oppression, romantic, dignified, invited on TV and university campuses.
One "crypto-Jew," Juan Sandoval, pimped a family tombstone with a Star of David on it. Turns out he made the tombstone out of Styrofoam, weathered it with spray paint, and used the photo as "evidence" of his Jewishness. He traveled nationally to synagogues and took money from, and romanced, naïve Jewish women.
Judith, on the other hand, had a hard time finding an academic job. She paid the price that academia exacts from tellers of Politically Incorrect truths.
Gazing at photos of self-identified Carib Indians who looked African American, I thought of folks I grew up with, who, when I grew up with them, were known as Jackson Whites. Later these same folks became known as the Ramapo Mountain People. The Ramapo Mountain People look like they have a combination of African and European ancestry. David S. Cohen, a New Jersey historian, says he can support, with genealogical records, that they are descendants of free blacks and Dutch settlers. Many don't want to be African American or Dutch. They want to be Native American. That group changed their name to Ramapough Mountain People. Changing the syllable "po" to the syllable "pough" was meant to be authentically Native American. The Bureau of Indian Affairs refused to identify them as Native American, but the state of New Jersey extended recognition. I wondered what the NMAI would have to say about the identity of kids I used to play with, the Van Dunks, the De Groats, the De Freeses, and the folklore, controversy, and legal wrangle about their identity.
I went to the NMAI "interactive" room, where there was a bank of computers against a row of windows. In the museum's database I looked up "Jackson Whites" and "Ramapo Mountain People" and found nothing. An Asian woman with a thick accent approached me and offered help. I told her what I was trying to research. She took the mouse from my hand and clicked on an icon that allowed me to send a museum postcard to a friend. She encouraged me to do so. I explained again what I was trying to do. She kept trying to get me to send a postcard; she assured me that I could cc it to myself. I gave up. I left.
The carefully landscaped area surrounding the museum is beautiful, as is the museum's curvaceous exterior. Four boulders mark compass points. The boulders come from Hawaii, marking the west, Canada, marking the north, Chile, marking the south, and Maryland, marking the east. "Grandfather rocks" were blessed by Native American religious leaders before and after placement on museum grounds.
In my mind, I methodically applied the NMAI's criteria to an imaginary museum. I imagined a taxpayer-funded "National Museum of the European" on the National Mall, where only directors and curators who could prove authentic European ancestry could work. I imagined boulders from Norway, Greece, Russia, and Portugal deployed at cardinal compass points in an attempt to lasso all the disparate ethnicities and religions of Europe into one people – ein volk. I imagined someone from the "Church of the European" blessing "grandfather rocks" and the taxpayer footing the bill for that religious ceremony. Any such museum could only exist in some crazed nationalist's dystopia – the fever dream of a neo-Nazi.
I sat next to the manmade pond, complete with cattails. "Gurgalee!" I was startled by the strident and unmistakable call of a red-winged blackbird, a bird I associate with swamps. A bird I associate with the woods of Wanaque, New Jersey, my hometown. Sure enough, a red-winged blackbird was clinging to a cattail on a busy Washington street. I shelled and ate a couple of peanuts. A female mallard swam toward me and floated in the pond water, staring at me. I watched her orange feet paddle gently beneath the surface of the clear water. I don't know if peanuts are good or bad for mallards so I did not share. Native American ethnobotanists had planted culturally significant plants around the outside of the museum. These plants included the cattails, corn, beans, squash, and pawpaws. In front of the tobacco, some wag had planted a "No Smoking" sign. It was the most daring political statement at the museum.
I wept. This museum's five-hundred-year backstory of intertwined genocide and infatuation has everything to do with the reasons I had gone to a monastery a week before to beg God for a job, after being cast out of academia for politically incorrect ideas. By writing the dissertation I wrote, by saying that eating at McDonald's is not the same as genocide, I went against the grain. Powerful people decided that you are either a genocidal imperialist or a politically correct liberator. On the identify check-off list, there is no box for "great granddaughter of serfs, daughter of coal miner and housecleaner." When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled. I'm the grass.