I had the opportunity to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. yesterday. The architecture is grand if not overly stated. It is difficult to imagine that the seemingly organic facade is representative of a people who place great respect upon the earth.
In another context the curves could portray elegance and wonder. But as a welcoming to a museum which presumes a tribute to indigenous people, I immediately felt a disconnect. It seems that assimilation is at play here.
After revealing our metal objects and being wanded by museum staff, we followed the signs over the elevators and followed the suggestion above the elevators to begin our tour on the top level, four.
We were immediately submerged into a series of curvy chamber like rooms, very dark, each profiling a tribe of the Americas highlighting distinctive features. The exhibit space was confining and not intuitive to navigate. Each exhibit was like a singularity or a pod and stood disconnected from the others. The connecting hallways were confusing and crowded.
Everything was untouchable and behind glass. I kept thinking this is so antithetical to a culture that I have come to admire for their connection to our planet. None the less, the prevalent slickness of the skilled placement of beautiful and often authentic objects combined with the pinpoint accuracy of lighting couldn’t dispel the sadness of the plight of a beautiful culture.
A tribute to the demise of a culture or maybe its survival in spite of the efforts of their rivals and adversaries couldn’t be more clear, than here, in DC. This location, “our great Capitol,” represents what I was taught in public school to be the essence of our democracy, the essence of sanctimony.
After self guiding ourselves through the upper level we stepped down into level three. This is where things became confrontational. The exhibit was titled Nation to Nation and featured many, I think dozens of broken treaties between Sovereign Natives and the U.S. government. Each treaty featured the Native vs US interpretation of the specific treaty and how each meant different things to both parties and how each have been broken.
I noticed that we were the only whites in my view in the museum at one point which heightened my shame for my ancestors and contributions I unwittingly make to colonialism. There was a mural depicting a treaty signing that looked like the same white male model was used to depict about 30 U.S. representative signees. It was deplorable.
At some point we walked over to the sound of Hawaiian children signing Native Hawaiian songs on the ground level in the Rasmuson Theatre. They were being accompanied by adults with instruments. The voices and instrument tones were coalescing upward to us from the vast open area from which we were looking down over a railing with a dramatic view. It sounded very pleasant and celebratory. My heart could not bridge the gap and I felt only sadness as these young people jubilated their Native songs with pride. We retreated back into the broken treaty exhibit to dismay.
We could hear Robert Redford narrate the horrific injustice imposed on Natives by westward expansion on a video in a nearby theatre. The treaties were commingled with quotations of our founding fathers, including Jefferson. My feeling of angst and shame continued to escalate. How could one nation commit such atrocities to another people?
And then, as I walked into another gallery, there was the Indian Removal Act. As hideous as all this had previously been, I became at an even higher level of consternation and disbelief. Graying ink on a large sheet of parchment proclaimed the removal of Indigenous people from their land and to the east of the Mississippi. How could this all be possible, how could my European forefathers and mothers perpetuated genocide, willingly and orderly without regard for moral impairment?
The Trail of Tears bears witness to the abhorrent removal of Native people by the U.S. government from lands that had been occupied by their ancestors for thousands of years.
At this point of our museum visit I was overwhelmed by emotion and conflicting thoughts. The museum, at the heart of the Nation’s Capitol put much resources into the exhibition of a genocide it committed and has never ended. Native people have never been rescued in the way that Jews were liberated from the concentration camps. Rather, they were pushed further and further and in many cases required to assimilate with their white oppressors.
On the lower floor, we rushed through, as it was getting near closing time. In a very large gallery there was an exhibition of posters that demonstrated how influential Native American life has been in marketing U.S. goods, products and services. As we exited this gallery there was an exhibit on Pocahontas. As I tried to read the many interpretations of her life I mostly thought of how trump mocks Elizabeth Warren by bullying and trivializing a great people and how we continue to dehumanize a frail culture and have brought them to the brink of non-existance.
The atrocities committed by the country I was brainwashed, from an early childhood, to respect is morally corrupt and a dark cloud upon humanity.
I didn’t discover methods for reconciliation, healing or positive reflection during or after my visit. The experience was more like I had been reported to about a terrible, hateful country of which I am a part. The National Museum of the American Indian (although informational) highlighted, brazen and without accountability, the Native American Genocide. How shameful.