Wednesday, September 22, 2004

First Americans Festival
T and M invited me to go to DC yesterday for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. M is a fan of its director, Richard West, who spoke of the newest museum -- number 18 -- of the Smithsonian Institution as "a spiritual marker for the ages." His Excellency Alejandro Toledo, President of Peru and a Quechua spoke (in English) of the museum as a "permanent, live interpretation of history." "Permanent" really resonated with me: in the fact of the NMAI as part of the most recognizable museum system in the US; in the physical placement on the Mall, near the Capitol; and in the obligation, the commitment of not giving up on it (and, by extension, on American Indians).

The Honorable Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Co.) and Daniel Inouye (Hi.), who presented the legislation authorizing the museum some 15 years ago, also attended and spoke of their pride that this day had finally arrived. (Greetings from President Bush were read by some functionary, and I did not realize that's what they were until he got to the end, saying something like "Laura and I send our congratulations.)

We had arrived in time to see just a little of the procession of tribes, and then friends and affiliated groups, enter the Mall, so after the speech-making was our time to mingle, people-watch, see various exhibits and displays on the Mall, and circle the building (tickets to go in were sold out -- though I gather from the Post the museum extended hours until late at night).

Things I saw: young women in buckskin dresses with cellphones on their waists; a man in a bright ribbon shirt with a black messenger bag slung across his back; a Peruvian woman in a colorful dress carrying a basket of fruit on her head; a group of men, whose tribe I never identified, with stunning headdresses with four-foot long feathers. On our way to the car, we paused at one of the circular grandstands to watch some dancers, then listen to a Tlingit story-teller. In front of us was the round, brown Hirshhorn Museum; rising over it a half moon. The sky turned pinky-golden (it had been a clear, hot day) as the man spread his arms wide and told of Raven and Hawk and spirit. Click on the webcast button on the NMAI homepage above to see events for yourself.

Themes for the day (and week of events, I bet): honor, legacy, vitality, diversity.

The museum building itself, from the outside, strikes me as a Postmodern conversation between kivas, pueblos, and Frank Lloyd Wright. It does not suggest the way people (Piscataway, Kittamaqund's tribe) lived in that area; it looks like the US West.

Philip Kennicott, in Sunday's Post (link)called it "a monument to Postmodernism" for reasons more complicated than mine. He also wrote that the museum's completion is "evidence that American Indians have emerged as perhaps the only minority group in this country to win a skirmish in the culture wars." Also in the special section on the museum in the paper was a lot I did not realize about the Smithsonian's losing battles to present Postmodern or revisionist or even complicated ideas and questions about history and culture. And all this time I thought the SI was an intellectual leader.

Using "US" that way of course makes me pause. Well, it's a convenient way of saying something that I think you will understand -- a shorthand. I could not imagine, on the other hand, what the apparently white man was thinking when he put on one of those Patriotism Revival t-shirts yesterday, with a small US flag and the caption "est. 1776." Okay, sure, name coined and first attempt at national government established then, but you understand this event celebrates thousands of years of cultures that came before that on this continent, right?

Also out of place were a foursome in "Confederate" gear who strolled through the aisle while we listened to the opening. If I were bolder, I would have approached them with either faux innocence -- "Oh, did Indians fight in the American Civil War?" -- or aggression -- "Get your sorry, bigoted asses out of here!" I did neither, and frankly, it looked like most of the Western tribes and Peruvians near us did not even give them a second look. After all, a lot of women from the west wore calico dresses that had a 19th century feel. Minus the hoops, the "Confederate" gal was essentially the same.

Speaking of racism, Style's cover story is on Plecker, the early 20th century bureacrat who contributed in our lifetimes to the impression that there aren't Virginia Indians. Chief Adams is quoted, and the matter of Indian schools comes up, briefly. (I researched that subject a year or so ago; see the end of this post.)

T is one of those friends who meets people she knows wherever she goes -- in Richmond. Not that it's a contest ; ), but I was happy to see two
Upper Mattaponi friends.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking the Plecker story. I sent the link to my friend who now lives in England. She sent it to her Aunt who had read about Plecker before but found this article was more informative. Background on her story: through her genealogy she found out she was Monacan (and Cherokee?) and her great-grandfather (considered Black or Colored) moved the family to the NC border because he was married to a (as my friend puts it) "very white Scot." Remember interacial marriage was forbidden in Virginia. ASP