The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, located on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is a monument to historical amnesia. The blond limestone building, surrounded by indigenous crops of corn, tobacco and squash, invites visitors on a guilt-free, theme park tour of Native American history, where acknowledgment of the American genocide is in extremely bad taste.
The beauty of the architecture and landscaping conceals the hollowness of the enterprise. The first two floors of the four-story building are turned over to gift shops and the cafeteria. The museum provides no information on the forced death marches, authorized by Congress, such as the Trail of Tears, the repeated treaty violations by the United States, reservations, infamous massacres such as Wounded Knee, or leaders such as Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull), Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht (Chief Joseph), Tashunka Witko (Crazy Horse), or Goyathlay (Geronimo).
“If it does not talk about massive land theft — 3 billion acres of stolen land in the continental United States; if it does not talk about broken treaties — over 400 treaties violated by the United States government and its European American citizenry; if it does not talk about genocide — 16 million native peoples wiped out by the United States and its citizenry; if it does not talk about residential Christian boarding schools, about the suppression of our languages, our Indigenous spirituality and religious ceremonies, and on and on, it is literally a whitewashed history,” said Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa of the Dakota Nation, professor and head of the Indigenous Nations and Dakota Studies Program at Southwest Minnesota State University. “And then they get our colonized, Christianized Indian colleagues to tell the same story that has been told by the European Americans for generations.”
The lobby of the museum is a soaring, glass-domed atrium filled with natural light. The walls are smooth and white, and a large circle of honey-colored wood, resembling a dance floor, is set into the dark stone of the ground. Three small boats, all built in recent years — a Peruvian reed boat, an Arctic kayak with a cedar frame and nylon covering, and a Hawaiian canoe — are displayed on the floor, dwarfed by the open space.
The Chesapeake gift shop, with its glass cases of aquamarine stones and glittering silver, all artfully lit, faces the lobby. The shop displays silk scarves, pottery and handmade designer jewelry, such as a necklace of sterling silver and turquoise for $1,800, or a belt made entirely of tiny beads for $4,000.
The Mitsitam Café is down the hall from the Chesapeake gift shop. The cafeteria, in natural wood and large floor-to-ceiling windows, groups its native-themed food by geographical region. The buffalo eye steak with two sides costs $14.50.
The Roanoke gift shop occupies the entire second floor. Dream-catchers, medicine wheels, aromatic herb sachets, tote bags and books are for sale. The designer jewelry in this shop runs about $100 to $180.
The exhibits begin on the third floor. There is a hall for temporary exhibits. When I visited, it was filled with spot-lit mannequins in native women’s dresses. The permanent exhibition on this floor focuses on contemporary native life and identity. There is a hulking Bombardier ice-fishing vehicle, an Alaskan-style mask made of dental mirrors and tea strainers, and a re-creation of a contemporary native living room, featuring traditional Indian blankets on the couch. There is a pair of red Converse sneakers, entirely beaded, with Indian figures on the high-top ankles. The tongues are blue with white stars.
It is on the fourth floor that the expunging of history begins.
A video installation, “The Storm: Guns, Bibles and Governments,” is featured prominently in the center of the fourth-floor gallery on native history. Tall, curving fiberglass panels enclose the viewing space, backlit in shifting shades of blue and gray. Television screens are set into the panels.
Rapidly scudding clouds appear on the screens, tidal waves, palm trees lashed by typhoons, the debris of cars and houses in floods. Howling wind, shrill flutes and ominous music are heard as a voice intones:
The hurricane. A turbulence. A steady pressure. Unpredictable. Uncertain. It brings death and life. It creates and destroys.
The video tells us, in oblique, lyrical terms, why guns, Christianity and foreign governments are both bad and good things. Of Christianity, the narrator says:
We all know Jesus. He has been with us for a very long time. 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.
The video closes:
The storm is powerful and unceasing. It creates and destroys. It offers life and death, hope and despair. It is never simply one thing. The storm is an opportunity. The storm teaches. We have learned much.
“The Storm” turns the American Indian genocide into a faceless, mindless natural disaster with a silver lining. The display on treaties is in a tall, upright case about the size of a large armoire. It features several pieces of parchment under glass. Black letters stenciled on the glass read:
[T]reaties required tribes to cede territory in exchange for money and goods. … The spiral of dispossession continued until substantial portions of native homelands were lost.
It is not mentioned that these treaties were usually negotiated through extreme coercion and duplicity on the part of the U.S. government. Nor is it mentioned that nearly all were broken.
“The interminable history of diplomatic relations between Indians and white men had before 1832 recorded no single instance of a treaty which had not been presently broken by the white parties to it … however solemnly embellished with such terms as ‘permanent,’ ‘forever,’ ‘for all time,’ ‘so long as the sun shall rise,’ ” writes Dale Van Every in “The Disinherited: The Lost Birthright of the American Indian.”
A quote by President Andrew Jackson in 1829 is featured prominently in large black letters on the glass face of the treaties display:
Your Father [the term denoting the U.S. president] has provided a country large enough for all of you, and he advises you to remove to it. There your white brothers will not trouble you; they will have no claim to the land, and you can live upon it, you and all your children, as long as the grass grows or the water runs, in peace and plenty. It will be yours forever.
Jackson, although this remains unmentioned, was one of the most vigorous advocates for the extermination of the indigenous people. One year after he promised that the land “will be yours forever,” he pushed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 through Congress. This bill forcibly uprooted 70,000 people of more than 60 tribes, including Cherokees, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Choctaws, Creeks, Shawnees, Senecas and Delawares, from their homes east of the Mississippi, resulting in as many as 30,000 deaths. Twenty-five million acres of land were stolen from Native Americans for white settlers and their black slaves.
A long, curving, freestanding wall in the center of the gallery displays close to a hundred guns mounted under glass, all pointing to the right. A short paragraph, stenciled in black on the glass and tucked in the small space between two rifles, states:
In the 1840s, Americans came to believe that the United States had a divine right to acquire all lands between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As newcomers pushed across the continent, Western tribes led by Rain in the Face, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise and Chief Joseph, faced losing their lands. Warriors used many of the guns seen here to defend their lives.
It is the only time Manifest Destiny is alluded to in the museum. It is the only time these historic leaders are mentioned. Nowhere in the exhibits will you find a portrait of any of these men.
There is a single reference in the museum to the near-extermination of the buffalo, which was catastrophic to the tribes of the Great Plains that depended on the herds for their existence. The U.S. government promoted the slaughter because it accelerated the extermination of the Native Americans. A paragraph stenciled on the gun display reads:
By 1889, the buffalo population of North America had been reduced to 1,000 from more than 50 million in 1830. Guns such as these Sharps rifles, known as buffalo guns, and the Remington single-shot, killed most of them. The killing transformed the lives of Plains Indians who depended on the buffalo.
It was not the Sharps or the Remingtons that killed the buffalo. Men wielded those guns. Once again the museum throws up its “Great Storm” shroud over history, obliterating names, deliberate tactics, and especially culpability.
We are molded as much by the histories we stifle as by the myths we create to exalt ourselves. Those who ignore the truth about their past are condemned to replicate, over and over, their crimes. The devastation in Iraq is the legacy of lessons unlearned, from the genocide of Native Americans, to slavery, to the Mexican war, to the invasion of Cuba and the Philippines, to Vietnam.
America’s brutal cycle of imperial invasion and occupation is as enduring as the cultivated illusion of its goodness. And the first step toward breaking this cycle and exposing this illusion is facing our history and ourselves. The National Museum of the American Indian feeds the mass amnesia that makes our national psychosis possible.