A pilgrimage to the mall

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Sep 27, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Fortunately, there's a "resource center" open seven days a week where visitors can find out more of the history and culture of different tribes, and where they can be aimed to find still further information. We can hope that future exhibitions will draw on disciplines to broaden the search.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, the only American Indian in the Senate, is largely responsible for the legislation creating the museum. He calls his people "America's first endangered species," but many of the Indians represented here prefer to think of themselves as joyous survivors.

It all worked on opening day. Under an expansive blue sky and a warm yellow sun, exhilaration was the emotion of the hour among the Indian, white, black and Hispanic visitors. All were animated by pride that this museum was finally on the mall after 17 years of wrangling and controversy. Reconciliation trumped grievance.

More than 20,000 Indians, young and old, representing 500 tribes, came to the nation's capital for the opening. They formed a procession bursting with the color of tribal costumes decorated with beads, stones, nuts and flowers, elk teeth and turquoise, singing and dancing to the rhythms of tom-toms, rattling gourds and guitars. Children in baseball caps mingled with tribal leaders in imposing headdresses of many feathers.

Some dressed as Indian warriors, others in modern battle fatigues. They carried American flags, Canadian flags, flags from a variety of Latin American countries, Confederate battle flags (Indians of four tribes fought for the South under Stand Watie, a Cherokee; others fought for the North). They all marched to their Museum, the 18th and last public building designated for the Mall.

If the museum can be faulted for the simplicity of its presentation, the building is breathtaking in its beauty, its gentle limestone curves suggesting the weathered natural rock formations of the cliff dwellers of Colorado's Mesa Verde. Nestled between the National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Botanic Gardens, it faces to the east to catch the rising sun. A clear view of the Capitol mixes the past with the present, with the memory of ancient tragedies softened by the prospect of new possibilities.

Richard West, the director of the museum, offered a simple and eloquent welcome: "I say to those who descend from native ancestors who were here, 'Welcome home.'"