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National Museum of the American Indian to Open in Washington - 2004-04-03

The first new museum to join the Smithsonian complex in 17 years will open its doors this coming September. The National Museum of the American Indian, whose tan, wavy limestone façade suggests a rocky plateau in the American Southwest, fills the last remaining space along Washington's National Mall. VOA's Ted Landphair talked with the museum's founding director, a member of the Cherokee tribe from the Plains state of Oklahoma.

Like thousands of Native Americans, Rick West's ancestors were driven from their lands in Colorado and Wyoming and relocated to what was then called Indian Territory, on windswept plains north of Texas. Mr. West, who would grow up to become a prominent Washington lawyer and lobbyist for Indian rights, grew up in a log cabin, where his father - a sculptor and painter - taught his two sons Indian ways. As boys, they even danced in full attire on American television in the 1950s, when Rick met Jay Silverheels, an Iroquois who played a character named Tonto on a popular TV western. He was the so-called faithful Indian companion of a white hero named the Lone Ranger.

"Jay Silverheels, quite frankly, did a great deal for Native people in Hollywood at a time when Native people, as actors, could not even get their foot in the door," said Rick West. "Media's treatment of Native people, especially in film, didn't really change until the 1990s. It was full of stereotypes of [us] as kind of uni-dimensional Native people: barbaric, often savage, without feeling, without complexity, none of which is true about either Native cultures or Native people. The arrival of the film Dances With Wolves was really a pivot point in commercial film, in which there was added complexity and depth to the Native characters in that film, which, interestingly enough, involved a lot of Native actors for the first time in history, actually."

Although Mr. West uses the term Native people, he says he is not troubled by the designation of the new facility as the museum of the American Indian.

"I will not say that none of us distinguishes between 'American Indian' and 'Native American,' but the fact is that, as Native people of this hemisphere, we often use neither term," he said. "If you ask who I am, I will say that I am Cheyenne, or in our own language, 'Tsitsistas.' The term 'American Indian' to most people indigenous to this country is not necessarily pejorative [offensive]. It simply shows that Columbus was lost at the time he arrived in this hemisphere. [thinking he had arrived in South Asia, Christopher Columbus referred to the Natives he beheld as Indians.] The term 'Native American,' on the other hand, is slightly confusing. In a given roomful of people, almost everybody there is probably native American, even if they are not indigenous to this hemisphere, simply because they were born in this country. So both terms have their drawbacks. It is largely a debate that occurred in the non-Indian world, not the Native world."

The bulk of the 800,000 artifacts in the new museum's initial collection come from a much different sort of Indian museum in New York, founded by a wealthy eccentric named George Gustav Heye. He scoured Indian lands for artifacts, while paying little attention to the people themselves.

West: But I don't want to demonize him, in the sense that he is representative of lots of others like him at that time.

Landphair: Others have demonized him, though, as having the safari mentality. And yet you have named your education and exhibition center in New York after him.

West: As well we should. I think it was entirely appropriate. He was indeed of a rather colonial mentality. But the fact is, I would not be sitting here, talking with you about the National Museum of the American Indian, were it not for the efforts of George Gustav Heye.

The new Indian museum's curvilinear design and water treatments - including a free-running stream next to the building - are the product of conversations with Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. Rick West has received letters critical of the planned use of high technology to produce interactive exhibits and data bases accessible to Indian communities everywhere. This is Disneyland, they say: untraditional, and therefore un-Indian.

"And you know what I discovered is that every single one of those letters came from a non-Native," said Rick West. "That's not the way that Native people themselves will look at the matter. We have always been willing to engage new technologies in the preservation of ourselves and our cultures."

To an expected four to six million visitors each year, Rick West says, the new Smithsonian museum will tell a story that goes back many millennia, before whites invaded their midst and eventually decimated much of Indian culture. It is a history, he says, that Native people will tell in their own, unfiltered words. He adds that, in raising more than $100 million to build the museum, fundraisers have never played what he calls the guilt card.

"I do not dispute that everyone who calls himself or herself an American needs to reflect on the treatment of Native peoples in our history," he said. "But my father, actually, was the one who told me, early on, 'You can get only so far, personally or even collectively, trying to trump the guilt card.' If we act like victims, that almost always entails the invocation of guilt. We need to get beyond that."

Nor does Rick West apologize for accepting hefty donations from tribes that have grown wealthy off revenue from casino gambling.

"People can have varying personal views, moral views, if you will, about the appropriateness of gaming," continued the director of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. "I have seen, and I invite others to investigate, the transformation that has occurred in lots of contemporary Native communities because they have these resources. Let me give you one example of one of the tribes that has contributed generously to the National Museum of the American Indian: the Mohegan Indian nation in the state of Connecticut. They basically have completely overhauled their health-delivery systems, their educational systems. They no longer take money - not one dime, as I understand it - from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, because they simply know they are fully capable of supporting themselves and running their own lives."

Rick West says museums like his should be forums for the discussion of controversial ideas, such as the use of sports nicknames like Savages and Warriors that insult Native Americans. This is an apt subject in a city that adores its professional American football team: the Washington Redskins.

"I would hope that at some point great sport franchises will begin to reflect on the fact that Native people are complex, multidimensional human beings," he said. "If we do, there will come a time when those same sports franchises perhaps think again about whether they should be naming their teams after American Indian tribes or certainly setting up mascots to reflect those names."

Mr. West says he hopes that once the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian opens in September, visitors will walk away thinking not just about history, but also about the lives of 30 to 35 million Indians of today, who, Rick West says, insist upon a strong voice in their own cultural future.