A work of art, inside and out
A visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., was a great experience for me in many ways. The façade itself is a work of art with its projections and curves rather than the square-box design of many of the surrounding buildings on the National Mall.
Along the walkway to the building are a river, rapids, waterfalls and a swamp. The landscape has 25 native tree species and 150 species of plants including a crop area with corn, beans and squash. I was getting a feel for the American Indian story before I even entered the building.
As I stepped inside my first response was, “This architect must have studied with Frank Lloyd Wright.” This is one eye-catching edifice. In actuality the building was designed by Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfoot, and a team of Native architects.
At 254,000 square-feet the museum is an impressive size. Add to this marvelous setting great state-of-the-art media presentations and the intelligent use of exhibition space. Opened in 2004 the museum is a major addition to the already outstanding list of museums on the mall.
This mostly successful attempt to relate history from an American Indian point of view gets complicated by the fact that there were hundreds of tribes, each with a story and theory of the cosmos. As a result I was flooded with so many images that I could not sort out a coherent picture of the American Indian.
Instead I can only relate some of the pieces. A large wall map of the New World lights up sections showing how the diseases brought by Europeans decimated large numbers of Native Americans with smallpox, measles, cholera, and other illnesses that Europeans had developed defenses against. Clearly illustrated was the progression of these diseases that killed as much as 90 percent of the original population.
A major visiting exhibition, Identity by Design, was on women’s dresses and their decorations. The bead designs and cuts of the leather varied from tribe to tribe making recognition easy. One section shows the process by which hides were turned into soft leather with a combination of props (such as an untreated deer skin) and a movie to demonstrate how a combination of deer brain, fat and lye were used to soften leather and then how smoke was used to complete the process. Several of the displays showed how skins could be turned into dresses in different ways, one, two and three skin dresses.
One wall was covered with guns used by Indians against the Whites from the flintlock through Sharps, Winchesters and Colts up to the automatic rifles used at Wounded Knee.
The Native American stories are told in these displays with movies, posed manikins, domestic items, photos, verbal recordings and at one stop 3D moving figures walking beside us. The displays are cleverly arranged so that each is separated and individuated from the others. It was always clear what tribe’s artifacts one was viewing.
I took the hour-long highlights tour led by a woman of Cherokee and Creek background. At the end of the tour she told the real story leading to the Trail of Tears when her family was forced to move to Oklahoma, emphasizing that for too long the movies and books have told these stories from the White’s point of view.
I had lunch at the Mitsitam Café that had at least seven different counters with native foods from different parts of the New World. I picked up a trout sandwich, wild rice, corn on cob and seafood soup from the Northwest Indians’ counter.
Four floors of exhibits and several large screen movies are sufficient to make this a day-long adventure.