Feature Archive

Museum/Not Museum
The National Museum of the American Indian: New York City / Washington, D.C.
By K. Kimberly King
NMAI in Washington Fritz Scholder's painterly and verbal provocations regarding identity are perfectly housed in a memorably unique structure whose content and focus have led some to consider it "Museum/not Museum".

Indigenous architects, planners, and curators worked with a "consensual approach" in order to wholly ground the NMAI in Native perspectives, deliberately departing from traditional constructs for "shrines of the muses" in order to redress customary treatment of Indians as 'relics of natural history'.

During four years of community-based consultations, one elderly Native lamented: "We've been trying to educate the visitors for five hundred years; how long will it take...?"

Native writer Amy Lonetree elaborates: "The atrocities committed by Columbus, those under his command, and those who followed him are legion. [In the century and a half after 1492 "Contact," nine out of ten Indians died, largely from raging epidemics of measles, yellow fever, and smallpox.] In the name of God or science, in the pursuit of gold or glory, and in the services of imperialism or manifest destiny, the bodies and beliefs of the Indian peoples of the Western Hemisphere, along with their possessions and their lands, were plundered and debased... A substantial portion of the American Indian collections hoarded in museums is made up of that tainted bounty. Museums are indeed very painful sites for Native peoples as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.

"The museum world has changed significantly from the days when they were considered 'ivory towers of exclusivity' to today when Indigenous people are actively involved in making museums more open and community-relevant sites."

Hence, Natives from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego crafted an NMAI Mission statement to "recognize and affirm to Native communities and the non-Native public the historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of the Natives of the entire Western Hemisphere... and enhance the development... of Native culture and community." In the words of one guiding voice: "Being an Indian is not about being part something; it is about being part of something."

Established through a 1989 Act of Congress, NMAI comprises three buildings: the Washington museum aligned to the center of the U.S Capitol dome it faces; the George Gustav Heye Center in lower Manhattan;
NMAI in New York
and the Cultural Resources Center in suburban Maryland, housing most of NMAI's 825,000 objects representing virtually all North American tribes, along with several from Latin America and the Caribbean. The oldest artifacts date back 12,000 years.
NMAI in Maryland

[About the NMAI Cultural Resources Center: Research is by appointment only. Phone Collections Manager Pat Nietfeld (301) 238-1454. More information is available in its FAQ list.]

When the flagship museum opened Sept. 21, 2004 on Washington's National Mall, it drew 80,000 people - many of them indigenous celebrants embarking on a six-day First Americans Festival. Designed by Canadian Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal and his team, the five-story curvilinear building of tawny limestone evokes cliff-dwellings roughened by wind and water through time. Its prism window invites sunrays to spray rainbows across the entry hall and frame special markers on the Solstices. The sui generis structure, also aligned to the cardinal directions, is filled with Native symbols representing Indian lore, nature, and astronomy. For example, the Anishinaabe ("first people") from the Great Lakes pass on their ancestors' symbology: turtles tracking truth, eagles flying in love and bison profiling respect.

NMAI's total circularity - there are no right angles - means curving walls create erratic traffic patterns. One visitor was overheard wondering: "How do you know where you've been and where you are going?"

While popular and critical reaction to the architecture and sheer presence of NMAI has been generally positive, Native and non-Native critics alike have lamented lost opportunities for the permanent exhibitions inside:

- Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World presents eight Native cosmologies and the spiritual relationship between humans and nature

- Our Peoples centers on Native history told by eight different tribes

- Our Lives focuses on contemporary Native life, displaying questions: 'Who is Native?' 'Who decides?' juxtaposed with photos of contemporary Native people

One Native consultant emphasized the tribal practice of "listening to the space between words" to make meaning for oneself. "By saying less, rather than more, the museum's exhibits require the same kind of active participation or 'response-ability'of their audiences." (NMAI's Executive Handbook vaunts "user intensive self-definition".)

Visitors are informed: "Most minorities have a homeland somewhere, a place that's theirs. The Indian has a homeland that is possessed by another, dominant culture. This has, psychologically, very strange ramifications." Another wall text quotes Joy Harjo (Muskoke/Creek): "When your people have been uprooted from a land that carries your stories and history, you learn to carry that land in your heart."

Art historian and Tuscaroran photographer Jolene Rickard explained her aims as guest curator: "It's less important... that someone leave this museum knowing all about Wounded Knee than that they leave knowing what it takes to survive that kind of tragedy."

For "Our Peoples," Rickard curated the "Wall of Gold": 400 shimmering gold objects owned and used by Native peoples before European "Contact" to illustrate the plundering of their enormous wealth.

She also helped create "Our Lives" gallery, examining the identities of 21st century Natives. "People in the U.S. have no notion of a political or cultural framework for understanding Native issues," Rickard says, citing the paucity of media coverage of indigenous matters.

"For this reason alone, the NMAI will have a unique role among American museums," she states. "It is the culmination of a trend that began in the 1980's when Native peoples... began to take ownership of the way in which their way of life... is exhibited by museums and galleries." Epitomizing that way of life is one tribal elder's counsel: "Engage, question, reflect, and walk in beauty."

[To deepen understanding of Native philosophy and culture, see the page on their website about Teacher programs. For a web feature/lesson plan on the fascinating "Code Talkers," hundreds of American Indians who joined U. S armed forces during both World Wars and developed secret, never-deciphered battle communications based on their traditional tribal languages, explore their educational mini-site.]

In a 2005 American Indian Quarterly devoted to NMAI, writer and filmmaker James Lujan (Taos) examines the "debate over the museum's deliberate choice to center its philosophy around the interpretive exhibits of so-called community curators. Your opinion of the success of this approach, whether you're Native or not,... depends primarily on your expectations of the function, responsibility, and very definition of what a museum should be because those expectations will be challenged.

"It's just too bad that what's inside in the museum isn't as powerful as the museum itself and what it stands for. To shatter the stereotypes, they did away with conventional, third- person presentations of Indian history... and took the initiative to recruit Native communities themselves to tell their own histories and explain their culture in their own way..."

Resulting exhibits prove "frustratingly oblique, providing interesting glimpses but seemingly defiant about revealing any deeper knowledge of the people and culture," continues Lujan. Displays are "an exercise in cultural propaganda that emphasizes the positive, glosses over the negative, and is generally very cryptic about what really makes Indians tick.

"The founders set out to create a different kind of museum, and in that respect they've succeeded. I just don't think they've created an academically useful or intellectually nourishing museum... It simply doesn't deliver on the minimum standards of scientific and academic vetting I've come to take for granted, especially from a brand name like Smithsonian. Maybe it shouldn't even be called a museum..."

"... In its effort to do something so fresh, so unique, and so revolutionary, the museum tilts too far in trying to impart an uplifting, ennobling experience. As a result, in settling on nothing more ambitious than its simple message of 'we're still here,' the NMAI misses a crucial opportunity in terms of answering the complex question of 'Why?' After all, the message 'we're still here' implicitly conjures up notions of adversity, resiliency and survival. Adversity is... a key ingredient in all well-told stories, and the lack of it is precisely what makes the NMAI's stories fall flat. By taking away a lot of the pain and suffering of the Indian experience, they've taken away the drama and, as such, stripped it of its historical context."

"... In reminding visitors that 'we're still here,'... the museum will probably always be more important to the Indian people as a symbol of what it represents than as an actual museum."

Lujan cites the New York Times's Edward Rothstein on opening day: "The ambition of creating a ''museum different'' -- the goal of making that museum answer to the needs, tastes, and traditions of perhaps 600 diverse tribes -- results in so many constituencies that the museum often ends up filtering away detail, rather than displaying it, and minimizing difference even while it claims to be discovering it.

"The exhibits are where the problems begin in earnest. The display for the Santa Clara Pueblo of New Mexico, for example, explains: ''We are made up of two major clans, Summer and Winter people.'' But, the Pueblo curator writes: 'There is no dividing line. There is just a sense.' ''

Lujan also quotes the Washington Post's inaugural review by Paul Richard: "The great material culture of the natives of this hemisphere is rich beyond imagining, but not much is on view. The museum owns 800,000 Indian objects. Where are they? Mostly absent. Mostly absent, too, is the brain food one expects from good museums. This one teaches few crisp lessons.

"This is not an art museum, that's clear. It's not a history museum, either. Its whole thrust is anhistorical. What it is, instead, is a unity museum.

"What's best about the building is that it isn't just a museum. It's a reparation, and a reconciliation. It soothes the nation's conscience as its limestone undulations soothe the strictness of the cityscape."

First NMAI director W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne) responded to unfavorable reviews: "The fact that this wasn't a palace of collections has jolted some people." Former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who co-sponsored legislation establishing the museum, echoed that view. "...We didn't want it to be a depository for pots and baskets. We wanted it to be alive."

New life came to NMAI in February, 2009 via its "Fourth Museum": digital access to its vast collections for academics, students, cultural historians, and the computerized curious. Three years in the planning, the online project begins with 5,500 items and photographs. Digitization of all holdings will take an estimated four more years.

To search for items such as these Flathead Moccasins (circa 1880), go to the NMAI Collections Search.
NMAI in Maryland

The Fourth Museum's first phase showcases 500 photographs, with links for purchase of reproductions.
NMAI in Maryland
High Bear -- Sioux 1898
Current NMAI director Kevin Gover (Pawnee/Comanche) emphasizes that "this website has always been part of our long-term strategic plan" to serve many audiences, especially Native Americans who may not be able to travel to NMAI edifices, but whose Internet-equipped reservations and schools will facilitate visits to the new "museum without walls".

Gover calls the Congressional legislation establishing NMAI an "unstated reconciliation: 'we want you here.'" (The Native American Apology Resolution has yet to receive full Congressional approval.) Gover was able to celebrate articulations of reconciliation during a Nov., 2008 symposium "Harvest of Hope", which examined, i.a., the Canadian government's June 11, 2008 apology for "the abuse and cultural loss" suffered by an estimated 150,000 indigenous children uprooted and sent to Canada's residential schools, under a policy to "kill the Indian in the child." [Similarly, on February 13, 2008, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology, approved by both houses of Parliament, to that country's "Stolen Generations," - some 100,000 Aboriginal children removed from their families and sent to boarding schools.]

Echoing that healing spirit, one NMAI exhibit quotes Sarah James (Neetsaii Gwich'in): "It is so important to find the common ground of all people. Some people think this is hard to do because we come from many cultures. But the truth is... we are all caretakers of the Earth."

Website: National Museum of the American Indian

Fritz Scholder:
Indian/Not Indian
"People don't really like Indians," declared Fritz Scholder (1937-2005), whose taboo-breaking, colorist images of fellow Native Americans now showing as Indian/Not Indian at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) still provoke controversy.

"Oh, they like their own conceptions of the Indian - usually the Plains Indian, romantic and noble and handsome and somehow the embodiment of wisdom and patience. But Indians in America are usually poor, sometimes derelicts outside the value system...we have really been viewed as something other than human beings by the larger society. The Indian of reality is a paradox -- a monster to himself and a non-person to society"

Showcased in this, the largest Scholder retrospective to date - including the sublimely hued Super Pueblo (1968), the elegant American Indian (undated), and the controversial Indian with Beer Can (1969) - are the prolific artist's radical transformations of both Native American art and viewers' perceptions of tribal peoples.

Renowned for breaking barriers, dramatic brushwork, and vivid, surprising colors - green braids framing Indian No. 1 (1967), Falling Buffalo's purple hide (1973), and, as his life was ebbing, swirling his own blood with Diet Coke to shape skulls - the artist who vowed never to paint Indians remains a subject of fierce debate in Native art circles.

NMAI Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee/Comanche) verbalizes questions Scholder posed on canvas: "What is Indian art? Who is an Indian artist? To what extent must a person have lived an 'Indian life' to be an Indian artist? What of the non-Indian who employs traditional Indian styles or treats Indian subjects?"

In his 1978 publication, Indian Kitsch, Scholder explains: "Being one-quarter Luiseño Indian (a California Mission tribe with its own language), … I have a unique perspective. I am a non-Indian Indian. I do not feel the pull of the dichotomy of two cultures. However, I am aware of [their] incongruous nature ...." Scholder refused any classification other than "artist." "I've never called myself an Indian artist. Everyone else has."

Yet, as Truman T. Lowe (Ho-Chunk), NMAI curator of contemporary art, observes, Scholder "became the most successful and highly regarded painter of Native Americans in U.S. history." Lowe organized this exhibit of 135 paintings, prints, and bronze sculptures with co-curator Paul Chaat Smith (Comanche), who calls Scholder's career "extravagant, baffling, still consequential and framed by ... dichotomy and contradiction: the abstractionist who turns to figuration; the artist who (twice) broke his promise to never paint Indians; the recluse who starred in nationally televised documentaries. Over and over he said that his favorite word was paradox."Scholder smilingly told interviewers in 1996: "Fine art is still the best racket around," underlining his fame as both genius and opportunist.

Indian/Not Indian, boasting an ambitious website and range of podcasts [web feature], is NMAI's first two-site show: Washington's National Mall museum highlights many controversial Indian paintings from the 1960s and '70s which established Scholder's fame (and wealth); the George Gustav Heye Center in Manhattan presents works from the 1980s - mythical beings and the unknown - when Scholder lived in a nearby loft, attempting - without success - to win Eastern establishment acclaim.

"In the 1960s and '70s, the notion of American Indian art was turned on its head by artists who fought against prejudice and popular clichés," writes Lowery Stokes Sims in the exhibition catalogue she edited. Curator at New York's Museum of Arts and Design, Sims pegs Scholder "at the forefront of this revolution…." His "portrayals of Native American life combined realism, tragedy, and spirituality with the genres of abstract expressionism and pop art." He "deconstruct[ed] … the historical 'Indian' stereotype promulgated in images created in the 19th and early 20th centuries by white photographers such as Edward S. Curtis, A. C. Vroman, and Mathew Brady."

Born Oct. 6, 1937 in Breckenridge, Minnesota, to a Caucasian mother who'd served as typist for novelist Oliver La Farge and a half-Luiseño father who administered Indian schools for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Fritz was eager to escape his childhood in the Dakotas, where brutal winter winds forced the family to cling to ropes linking house to barn to keep them from blowing away.

Although he and his two sisters lived on BIA campuses because of their father's work, they attended public schools. Scholder branded the BIA system "a brain-washing technique of trying to make Indians white."

"My father," averred Scholder,"was ashamed of being an Indian." His parents were showered with wedding gifts of Indian baskets, rugs, pottery at their marriage on a Hopi reservation on horseback, "but my father threw all but one away": a pot which eventually housed Fritz's crayons. He later learned that the black vessel had been fashioned by famous San Ildefonso Pueblo potter María Martinez.

"People like the Scholders," co-curator Smith explains, "considered Indians to be from reservations. During the mid-20th century, it wasn't just the BIA that believed Indians should be assimilated; it was also much of Indian Country. Concepts at the core of Indian values in the U. S. and Canada today -- that traditional beliefs and practices must be preserved and continued, that languages and ceremonies should be protected at all costs, that being Indian is a good thing -- were not the prevailing ideas back then."

"If I saw myself as different," reflected Scholder, "it was because I knew from the beginning that I wanted to paint." Differentness began in boyhood when "I was real shy. All I wanted to do was stay in my room and draw, so I wouldn't have to deal with people...."

When the family was transferred to Sacramento in 1957, Fritz enrolled in art school, where he studied with pop painter Wayne Thiebaud and won numerous awards for his abstract works. But by his 1960 graduation from Sacramento City College, he felt stifled working two menial jobs to support his wife and infant son.

In 1961 a Rockefeller Foundation program aimed at energizing Indian culture rescued him. As an enrolled Luiseño tribal member, he was invited to participate in an elite art program in Arizona which later developed into Santa Fe's Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Scholder taught painting and art history there from 1964-69, while creating hundreds of his own works. [IAIA is showing, through June 7, 2009, Fritz Scholder: An Intimate Look. See website.]


Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian continues. Click here to read complete article.


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