Suzanne Fields

Only the bravest among us in Washington, where the "Redskins" are loved for their football prowess and scorned for their name, would be bold enough to put a museum on the Mall to honor the first Americans and name it for the American Indian instead of the currently fashionable "Native American."

The founders, creators, backers and tribal participants of the National Museum of the American Indian went with the historical rather than the trendy. They did something else remarkable. They enabled the Indians to speak for themselves, rather than impose the traditional anthropological interpretation of the white man.

Such an approach is as controversial as calling the Redskins the "Redskins." Sophisticated critics who crave an imposing narrative by outside scholars to tell the story of the American Indian are outraged. The Indians who wanted to speak for themselves are delighted.

"A history is always about who is telling the stories," they say. In the pop culture they've been stereotyped as a savage and cruel enemy of the white man, or romanticized as his primitive friend.

Scholars with "higher" aims have frequently relegated the Indian to natural history museums, depicting braves in loin cloths in faux tableaus between exhibitions of flora and fauna, sprinkled among the dinosaurs, quaint curiosities deprived of majesty and humanity. More recently post-modernists have gone to the other extreme, pitying helpless Indian "victims," all but depriving them of manhood, blaming all their problems on evil colonizers bent on "genocide."

This museum suffers from none of the above, but it has a problem of subjective superficiality. There's a whiff of emotional payoff, of recognition as reparations. By letting specific tribes speak for themselves, we're thrust into a hodge-podge of personal stories lacking a binding historical perspective. It's refreshing that Indian storytellers rather than sociological scholars speak to us about the Indian experience, but we crave more.

Hence, it's both a satisfying museum experience but frustrating for someone who seeks information in the traditional sense. W. Richard West, the director who is himself a Cheyenne and a graduate of Stanford Law School, wants to make this a living tribute, not a "historical relic." Museum curators talked to members of tribes from the Artic Circle to the tip of South America, who emphasize their journey through history as a triumph of survival, stressing the strength inherent in their philosophy, spirituality, respect for the cycles of nature and sense of community.


Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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