Is the Smithsonian promoting religion?

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Mar 02, 2005 12:00 AM

The American Civil Liberties Union argued in the Supreme Court this week that two Kentucky counties violated the First Amendment ban on Congress establishing a religion when they posted the Ten Commandments in their courthouses.

 "They have erected displays highlighting the religious nature of the Ten Commandments," quotes Knight-Ridder from the ACLU's brief. "They have announced their purpose of demonstrating 'America's Christian heritage.'"

 But so far, the ACLU has not made a peep about the Smithsonian's new federally funded National Museum of the American Indian, which posts Native American prayers on the federal Mall.

 The museum also features exhibits critical of Christianity -- a faith embraced by the majority of American Indians, including the great Apache leader Geronimo, who Samuel Eliot Morrison noted "became a Christian convert and lived both to write his autobiography and take part in the inaugural procession of President Roosevelt in 1905." Is this federally funded institution treating all religions equally?

 The museum admits it has an "agenda." In its "Our Peoples" exhibit, a man on a video explains the museum's approach: "This gallery is making history, and like all other makers of history, it has a point of view, an agenda." he says. "We offer self-told histories of selected Native communities. Other communities, other perspectives, would have achieved different results. ... So view what's offered with respect, but also skepticism. Explore this gallery. Encounter it. Reflect on it. Argue with it."

 A "mission" statement on the museum's website says it aims "to protect, support and enhance the development, maintenance and perpetuation of Native culture and community."

 But where does it draw the line between supporting Native "culture" and supporting Native religion?

 The "Our Universes" exhibit explains the religions of some Native peoples. At the entrance, a cotemporary Native American is quoted:

Our elders have created for us
A sacred way of being in the universe.
It is our responsibility
To pass this understanding on
To the next generation.

 Native prayers are painted prominently on walls.

 One section discusses the "machi" clergy of Chile's Mapuche people. "They are mediators -- between gods and people, ancestors and the living, sickness and health -- and between the Mapuche and other peoples," says a panel.

 A contemporary machi's prayer adorns a wall:

In a new morning, my begging begins.
You, Father of Wenu Mapu (the Land Above) ...

 By contrast, in the "Our Peoples" exhibit, a narrator says ambivalently: "Christianity: A weapon of forced conversion, slavery and oppression, a weapon of liberation and social justice, salvation and eternal life. Today, many of us are Christians, and many are not."

 On a display titled, "God's Work -- Churches as Instruments of Dispossession and Resilience," a panel says: "Today, the majority of Native people call themselves Christian. How Indians became Christians is a story not only of choice, but also of adaptation, destruction, resistance and survivance."

 Nearby is a section on Mexico's Nahua people. The entrance says: "Our lives and way of thinking shall continue." A panel says: "We were forced to convert to Catholicism, but traditional rituals and beliefs survived." Another shows a figure in a black robe, wearing the mask of a priest. "The Mecos dancers symbolically kill the priest figure wearing this mask to reflect our belief that priests cannot give us good harvests, wealth and other things our ancient deities provide," it says.

 "Since the Europeans arrived in 1521 there has been a great deal of cultural and religious repression of the Nahuas and other native peoples," says another panel. "That is why we have a long tradition of banishing priests from our village -- especially when they have behaved inappropriately or disrespected our culture and people. Churches are still persecuting healers today."

 A Native American museum is an important addition to the Mall, and it should highlight true injustices Westerners inflicted on Indians. But Christianity is not one of them.

 NMAI Spokeswoman Amy Drapeau told me the content of these exhibits "is presented through the Native voice, and so in these examples, the entities are speaking in first person, from their own perspective, but not necessarily speaking on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution as a whole."

 Are there any exhibits critical of Native religions the way these exhibits are critical of Christianity? I asked. "I am not sure that there are, per se," she said.

 Promoting religion is not envisioned by the museum's mission statement, she said. "However ... religion and spirituality are inextricably connected to Native history and culture, therefore you see the inclusion of different aspects that touch upon spirituality in the (display) media."

 Fair enough. But I wonder if the ACLU would keep its peace if the museum presented the religious tradition the majority of American Indians embrace as uncritically as the one they left behind?