Saturday, January 15, 2011

National Museum of the American Indian

The Museum of the American Indian should be a place where Native Americans/First People/Indigenous Peoples should be celebrated and where the ongoing issues these nations face can be discussed in an intelligent manner. Instead, the museum showcases the “acceptable” things about Native Americans (their material culture, mostly) and ignore the uncomfortable affects of imperialism.

The crowning achievement in what makes this museum offensive is in the atrium of the second floor, which opens up onto what at first appears to be a beautiful room. And then you look at the walls, which are decorated with images of ships and cargo being loaded onto docks, the signs of Western political and economic domination. In between these fresco are images of various conquerors, including Columbus, Verrazzano and Cortez.

For those of you who are not aware, Columbus landed in Hispaniola, where the native people were almost completely wiped out by disease, and then the rest were enslaved, their culture disappearing soon afterwards. Cortez conquered what is now mostly Mexico, and famously massacred unarmed native nobility in an attempt to scare them into submission. In addition to this, he owned a large number of slaves, almost all of them with African descent, another people of color who have been exploited by capitalism and imperalism.
This is offensive because this is a museum to Native Americans, and here, in a space that should truthfully depict history, there is art that glorifies the very forces and people who brutally conquered them. The art does not show native people being murdered, enslaved or dying of disease. There is not even an attempt to explain that this art was created before the mainstream realized the destructive nature of imperialism, instead, it is presented as simply art, as apparently ahistorical and apolitical. If this were a museum to the Holocaust or on Jewish history, this would be the equivalent of having art that depicted the Nazi war tanks and European leaders who discriminated and killed Jews as heroic, brave and admirable. Anyone walking into that room would realize the tonality and content were completely offensive and inappropriate, and in this way, this room in the Museum of the American Indian is also offensive and inappropriate.
Perhaps museum curators are afraid Americans (white Americans, right?) are uncomfortable with confronting the problematic nature of their privilege. But museums should make people think, even if it is uncomfortable kind of thinking. What this museum should be doing is showing how crushing discrimination and racism have destroyed, as much as possible, Native American political, economic and social power and celebrating Native American activists whose work have aided their communities.
Moreover, the building itself is problematic. The museum is in the Customs House, which holds, among other things, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This is the government agencies who works to impede desperate Chicanos and Chicanas from entering the country (who almost always have Native ancestry), making this building particularly unsuited for this museum.
Native Americans deserve a museum, but maybe the problem is that the government is funding and providing for this one. The U.S. government has already taken their land; does it really need to take their cultural objects, put them on display, and then ignore the parts of their history that makes the government look bad? Apparently so. Native Americans, at the very least, deserve to run their own museum of their own history, one that tells their story appropriately and fully, in a building named after one of their leaders, not Alexander Hamilton.

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