Lost in Translation

Past summer the George family traveled to the nation's capital from their northern California reservation with a clear agenda: to raise awareness of the Hupas' battle to protect their land and culture from environmental threats.

"America has been educated from a colonial, oppressive perspective, and then Disney has come along and colored who we are," said Laura Lee George, an assistant school superintendent whose husband, Merv George, Sr., is the tribe's ceremonial leader. Laura Lee said she hoped the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)--which paid for their trip--would help alter those perceptions.

Emil Her Many Horses, the Lakota curator of the museum's Our Universes exhibition, and Bruce Bernstein, the museum's assistant director for cultural resources, had their own agenda. They wanted the Georges to select and discuss Hupa baskets, ceremonial garments, and other artifacts from the museum's 800,000-object collection for a gallery on the tribe's cosmology.

But the Georges were wary. "We're trying to figure out how much we want to share--even with the Smithsonian," Merv George, Jr., the former tribal chairman, said during a breakfast reception. Hupa creation stories and many prayers are considered too sacred to discuss publicly, he explained. "We're privately caucusing, saying, 'How much do we want to put into this?' ... We're here for them. But by the same token, we're not selling ourselves out."

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Tony Chavarria, the museum's liaison with the Santa Clara Pueblos, says his people have similar concerns. "What I think is that, for NMAI, 'cosmology' is a code word for 'religion,'" he says, and Pueblos consider their religion "very personal, private, internal." Whatever museum visitors learn about Santa Clara cosmology, Chavarria warns, it won't be the full story.

The reticence of its Indian constituencies is only one aspect of the complex challenge facing the National Museum of the American Indian as it prepares for the 2003 opening of its $110-million centerpiece building on the National Mall in Washington. Using a collection amassed by New York banker George Gustav Heye and later donated to the Smithsonian, the NMAI must create exhibitions that speak for hundreds of Native American tribes--in a way that is comprehensible to a largely non-Native audience.

Making the enterprise more daunting, the museum's subject is, in part, a history that is still strongly contested--witness the ongoing struggle over an Indian monument at Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. In relating it, the NMAI must avoid two opposing pitfalls: the presentation of a single perspective as unassailable truth (remember the Smithsonian's Enola Gay debacle? you can bet the Smithsonian does) and the confusion that can result from juxtaposing competing perspectives.

Created in 1989 by federal legislation, with a planned mix of federal and private money, the National Museum of the American Indian is an unusual collaboration between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. The museum's New York outpost, the George Gustav Heye Center, opened in 1994, and its Cultural Resources Center, where its collections are being housed, began operations in Suitland, Maryland, last year. The Mall museum was stalled by a contractual dispute that led to the 1998 firing of architect Douglas Cardinal, of Blackfoot descent. But Cardinal's design, with undulating curves evoking the cliffs of the Southwest, remains the inspiration for the building.

That the new museum, run by a Native American-majority board, will give pride of place to the views of Native Americans is not really in doubt. W. Richard West, the NMAI's Southern Cheyenne founding director--a Stanford- and Harvard-educated attorney--stresses that one of his first principles is "the wish to invoke the Native voice." He is currently involving 34 tribes in developing three core exhibitions: Our Universes, on Native philosophies; Our Peoples, on Native histories; and Our Lives, on Native identities. Museum curators say that objects from the Heye collection will be supplemented by contemporary artworks and loans.

But important issues of form and content remain undecided. To what extent, for example, will exhibitions rely on the cyclical understanding of time and the story-based conception of history favored by Native-American cultures? How will they combine Indian myths, legends, and oral traditions with more conventional anthropological, historical, and art-historical approaches? And how direct and confrontational will the museum be about the "colonial, oppressive," and arguably genocidal treatment of Native Americans--especially if neither its congressional funders nor its Indian constituencies are eager for this subject to dominate the museum?

These issues have already inspired institutional wrangling between NMAI curators, charged with overseeing the interpretation of objects in collaboration with Indian tribes, and exhibition developers, who must ensure that design and content speak to the larger, non-Native public. "Was there anxiety? Yes, there was," says James Volkert, the museum's assistant director for exhibitions and public spaces. "I think the anxiety came, in some ways, from the unknown."

And, no doubt, from the high cultural stakes. Given its prominence and predicted annual audience of six million, the museum may influence attitudes for years to come toward the 1.2 million Indians enrolled in this country's 556 federally recognized tribes. It's an ironic turn of events, considering how vexed a relationship Native Americans have had with museums (not to mention the federal government).

Native Americans, Volkert acknowledges, "haven't been treated right [by museums] in many, many years." Sore points have included the consignment of Indians to natural history museums, the related notion that Indian cultures are part of a vanished past, and the insensitive display of (often looted) human remains, funerary objects, and artifacts designed for ceremonial use.

But the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) has helped spur a representational revolution. By all accounts, the repatriation of human remains and sacred objects from federally funded institutions has proceeded slowly. But meanwhile, in obliging museums to talk to tribal leaders, NAGPRA has led to collaborations that both sides praise.

The growing rapprochement between Native Americans and museums coincides with an ongoing transformation in the very idea of the museum--from a temple where experts hand down sacred knowledge to a forum in which different voices, including those of traditional outsiders, contest history and culture. The NMAI, which sponsored a 1995 symposium (now a book) called The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Cultures, is both a beneficiary and a leader of this revolution. In his introduction to the book, W. Richard West calls the NMAI "more a hemispheric institution of living cultures than a museum in the traditional sense," a place "as focused on a cultural present and future as it is on a cultural past."

Elsewhere, however, old representations linger. At the Smithsonian's own National Museum of Natural History, for example, indigenous Alaskans and Canadians are still referred to as Eskimos, a term that blurs cultural distinctions. A label apologizes and promises that a planned reinstallation will recognize those differences.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are tribal museums, the most elaborate of which is the $193-million Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center near Mystic, Connecticut. Here Indians call the shots, and, as might be expected, the Pequot museum is openly celebratory in tone. Its core exhibition extols the Mashantucket Pequots for their business acumen and philanthropy while ignoring racial divisions and political infighting on the reservation, as well as ongoing legal battles with neighboring landowners. Charlene Jones, the assistant executive director and a tribal member, says a genealogical display may be added to counter questions about the origins of the current tribe raised by Jeff Benedict's recent book Without Reservation: The Making of America's Most Powerful Indian Tribe and Foxwoods, the World's Largest Casino. But she says that Benedict's controversial assertions--including his view that the Pequots failed to meet the requirements for federal recognition as a tribe and might, in fact, have no Pequot blood at all--will not receive a full airing.

The Pequot museum is more often criticized--in this case, unfairly--for its recourse to so-called Disney techniques. It's not as though the museum has relegated its artifacts to the attic in favor of glitz. In fact, given the paucity of surviving Pequot artifacts, the museum's solution is remarkably creative: an eclectic and often engaging mix of film, computers, and vast, theatrical dioramas that vividly describe the tribe's early history, cultural decimation after the Pequot War of 1637, and astonishing casino-fueled revival. Particularly effective is the recreation of a sixteenth-century Eastern Woodlands Indian village, complete with bird sounds and the smell of burning campfires--living history without the live actors.

West says his models include the state of New Mexico's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe and the private Heard Museum in Phoenix. He hired Bruce Bernstein from the Santa Fe museum, where Bernstein supervised creation of a long-term exhibition on Southwest Indian tribes. That show, called Here, Now & Always--a title that affirms both Indian survival and land claims--opened in 1997. It employed 16 curators (most Native American) and incorporates dozens of individual voices and stories. Its thematic organization blurs chronology and distinctions among tribes--on purpose, says Bernstein. "Native people don't have a time frame," he says. "That's the idea--it was supposed to confuse you."

Confusion, of course, can be carried too far, as in the NMAI's innovative Heye Center show Creation's Journey: Masterworks of Native American Identity and Belief. This exhibition, which opened in 1994 and closed this October, questioned the very notion of a "masterwork" and set Native interpretations of objects alongside anthropological and art-historical views. The premise, which amounted to a deconstruction of the interpretative process, was inspired. But the result, which mixed voluminous texts with ambient sound, was cacophonous and muddled, as even its creators now concede. West says the Mall museum will draw on this lesson.

At the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the new director, Frank H. Goodyear, Jr., says his revamped core exhibition-- which will replace a heavily anthropological 1980s show--will rely on Native guidance, showcase more contemporary works, and probably include live craftspeople. All these approaches will likely be adopted at the NMAI as well. But if Goodyear has his way, the Phoenix exhibition also will incorporate controversial new research such as Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest, by Christy and Jacqueline Turner, and The Ecological Indian, by Shepard Krech III, which attacks the stereotype of Indians living in harmony with nature. "I'm trying to inject a little bit of 'Let's tell both sides of the story' attitude here," Goodyear says.

That may not be so easy. The initial response of Goodyear's staff, when he asked how they might deal with the cannibalism issue, was to suggest that they simply wouldn't. As museums become increasingly sensitive to Native concerns, they face the perils of self-censorship--pressures to overlook what is less than admirable in Native-American history and problematic in the tribes' present lives. The NMAI may have even more trouble on this score.

Goodyear raises a different question about the NMAI: He wonders whether a museum dependent on federal largess will forthrightly criticize U.S. treatment of Indians. "I think Rick West has a problem on his hands," Goodyear says. "The federal government was one of the major bad guys in the Indian story in this country. Is he going to tell that story? He can't."

About "that story," West responds, "I don't expect to be anything less than direct." But he also suggests that European-Native contact and conflict won't overshadow the sweep of Indian history. "We differ in a very important way from our distinguished sister institution, the national Holocaust museum," he is careful to say. "We are not about a single moment in time, however important some of those moments are."

But there is more than one way for the museum to succumb to uncritical blandness. Take, for instance, the NMAI's statement of educational objectives. The first idea, "Native peoples are here today," has become a virtual mantra of the new Indian museology. But the laudable insistence that Indians no longer be treated like an extinct species also obscures real losses. It is, after all, equally true that many Native peoples are not here today, and that even many survivors, like the Pequots, have been stripped of their language and culture.

The museum's other guiding notions, according to planning documents, are "Native peoples are diverse but share some common beliefs and worldviews," and "The stories here are told by Native peoples of the past and present because Native peoples are the best teachers about their perspectives on history, art, culture, beliefs and contemporary issues." The first statement seems incontrovertible. The second appears to proscribe historical debate, especially if each tribe is limited to commenting on itself. (It might be interesting, for example, to hear what the Sioux have to say about their traditional enemies, the Crow, or the Pueblos about the Navajos, with whom they are currently feuding over cultural property.) Bernstein talks about "multivocality," the simultaneous expression of different points of view. But given the museum's Native-directed process, it's hard to see how opposing or unflattering perspectives will emerge--at least within the exhibitions themselves.

"I think it is an important point of discussion whether the museum is celebratory or a memorial," says Bernstein. "And I think that the decision of the museum at this point is that it's celebratory. It's a place that tells of the triumphs of Native people, the survivals and sovereignties of Native people. Now, if you're telling about the sovereignties and the triumphs, you've got to talk about some of the horrible things that have gone on, too--and perhaps some of the things that aren't so pleasant going on in Native communities today."

Embedded in that "perhaps" is the struggle the museum faces. Telling the complicated story of Indians in America--not just a triumph of survival or a tale of destruction and lingering despair, but both--will be hard to do. To manage it without deeply affronting either the museum's Native-American constituents or its mass audience will be a monumental task. ยค