Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The National Museum of the American Indian: Under the Flip-Flop
written by Cory Oberndorfer
The National Museum of the American Indian is visible from across Washington, D.C.’s Mall area. The curvilinear limestone building reminds me of how Frank Lloyd Wright stole many of his ideas from nature’s own architecture, combined with the technological advances that allow for the shapely form. As I stepped toward the front entrance, I couldn’t help but notice that the shape of the building resembled an upside-down flip-flop. It was quite unfortunate.
Once inside, I headed to the 4th floor and worked my way down. What I had expected to be a place dedicated to the rich history and culture of the native peoples was actually a sad tale of their disappearance. There were no totem poles on display, no pottery, few arrowheads, few figurines. Instead, there was a display consisting of a wide array of guns. The guns that were used to kill the American Indians and wipe out the buffalo--their main source of food. Around the corner there was a display of bibles. There were nearly 75 bibles that had been translated into indigenous languages in order to convert the natives and renounce their own faiths. The oddest aspect of seeing these bibles was the fact that they all seemed to be new editions. None had signs of age, and all were closed and did not allow the viewers to see the words inside. Yet another display was a case holding many styles of the swords used to kill the American Indians. These swords easily pierced Indian shields, as they did not have adequate defenses. There was also a great amount of information given on the 367 treaties made with Native Americans as they were pushed off their land. As I looked around, there were very few artifacts on display that were created by American Indians. Even the weaker museums I have visited in the past have had better displays. My disappointment set in deeper as I realized this was not a museum dedicated to celebrating rich cultures, nor was it a proper memorial to dead and dying cultures. Instead, it was a shrewd guilt trip. I was very surprised not to find replicas of smallpox-laden blankets on display.
Hoping to find something more interesting, I made my way to the 3rd floor, which was dedicated to celebrating the Native Americans living among us in the 21st century. This level was packed with monitors and video projections of interviews and stories, but it was nearly impossible to focus on each one, as it had to compete with the video being played nearby. An area was dedicated to the prominence of gaming casinos on reservations, a bottom-of-the-barrel way of creating revenue. A small room was filled with examples of contemporary art. It seemed very wrong that the most prominent display of Native American artwork in the building consisted of a basket made of 16mm film, a mask built of spatulas and dental mirrors and some Chuck Taylors embroidered with beadwork honoring Aw-day children. At this point I wanted desperately to leave, but felt obligated to experience the remaining floors.
The second level is a museum store. You can find sacred patterns screenprinted onto pink children’s shirts or DVD’s of tribal dances.
The main floor has a large theater for special events, another museum store, which I couldn’t bear to go into, and a café.
As I left the building I passed an area no larger than my front yard that was landscaped to imitate natural wetlands. There was a small pond with a family of ducks huddled together for warmth in the semi-frozen water. I couldn’t decide who I felt sorrier for--the ducks, the American Indians or myself. I believe we were all cheated.