OCCUPYING THE LAST open space on Washington's Mall, the new National Museum of the American Indian suggests a powerful irony of American history: The people who were first on the ground are the last to be commemorated.
But the new museum also carries other messages about how Americans, past and present, view that history. As passers-by can see at a glance, the museum is powerfully different from its neighbors. Architecturally, its curving sandstone walls, said to recall the famous cliff-dwellings of the Southwest, stand out radically from the would-be classical styles of Washington's other public buildings. In more senses than one, this is not a white building.
Nor is this even a museum in the traditional sense of an exhibit of things. Its designers, all of Native heritage themselves, wanted a living place, advertising living cultures, and even a site in which religious rituals can be carried out (and on federal property!). Throughout, exhibits advocate the glories of Native American societies, which -- according to one curator -- are rooted in the teachings of the ancestors who "taught us to live in harmony with animals, plants, the spirit world, and the world around us."
No less interesting than the museum itself is what its presence on the Mall suggests about the attitudes of the mainstream culture that supports it and which will supply the vast majority of its visitors. (Some four million are expected in the first year.) Conditioned by decades of highly sympathetic depictions in popular culture, most non-Native observers today tend to accept the portrait of idyllic harmony the museum presents and bemoan the destruction of utopian, earth-sensitive, spiritual Native societies by patriarchal, sky-god-worshipping Puritans. Visitors to the new museum will see Indian objects, Indian art, Indian realities -- but there is a sense in which they will also be gazing into a mirror.
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It was not that long ago that Indian peoples and cultures were seen in much more hostile and even despairing terms. Ever since colonial times, mainstream America has reimagined native peoples according to its own dreams and nightmares.
Usually, the vision of the Indian has a kind of inverse relationship to the confidence of the mainstream society in its own values and culture. When Europeans were first staking their claim to the continent, Indians were seen as savage followers of the Devil, and their removal justified the colonial errand into the wilderness. Cotton Mather celebrated how God's "Divine Providence hath irradiated an Indian Wilderness," and one aspect of this Providence was the epidemics that vacated the land for white settlement.
Until the early years of the 20th century, confidence in American expansion left little place for the Indians, who were seen as a vanishing people. In 1896, travel writer Julian Ralph chillingly described Indians as "a dead but unburied race." Either Indians would adapt to white ways and survive physically, or they would maintain their stubborn heathen customs and die out. Museums of the period presented Indians as living fossils of a bygone world. This was the age in which America's great museums collected tens of thousands of Native skeletons, in order to preserve some material remains of people believed to be on the verge of extinction. When a lone Yahi Indian was discovered wandering in the northern Sierras in 1911, he was billed as "the last of his tribe," dubbed "Ishi" ("man" in Yahi), and sent to live in a San Francisco anthropology museum, where he died of tuberculosis five years later.
The classic image of the dead-but-unburied Indian appeared at just this time, when James Earle Fraser's famous statue titled "The End of the Trail" appeared at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, held in San Francisco in 1915 to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and the projection of American power across two oceans. Fraser's figure of the exhausted, defeated Indian warrior, slumped over his horse in weakness and despair, contrasted sharply with the national mood of expansion and optimism.
But far from nearing the end of the trail, Indians survived, and white Americans' views of Native culture were already in transition. Following the slaughter of World War I, writers and intellectuals, some of whom had been settling in the Southwest since the turn of the century, began migrating there in large numbers. These disaffected newcomers thought they had found the living remains of a perfect primal society of social justice and sexual freedom, of stunning but unrecognized artistic achievement.
Mabel Dodge, leader of the Taos artists' colony, and perhaps the most influential pioneer of this generation, found among the Indians a society "where virtue lay in wholeness rather than in dismemberment." Poet Robinson Jeffers described white arrivals in the Southwest as "Pilgrims from the vacuum/People from cities, anxious to be human again." When Aldous Huxley wanted to imagine the last bastion of true humanity holding out against the deformed post-industrial society of his "Brave New World," he placed it on the Zuni reservation in New Mexico.
Views of Indian religion also began to shift. Even into the 1920s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under pressure from Christian missionaries, officially prohibited Indian religious practices, the dances and rituals, on the simple grounds that these were not even religious but were rather primitive superstitions. But the mystical image of Native American religion that appeals to today's spiritual-but-not-religious crowd first emerged in these same years. One prophet of idealized Indianism was John Collier, who in the New Deal years would become the overseer of federal Indian policy. In the 1920s, he had described one Pueblo ritual as "religious (as we white people know it) and cosmical (as we white people do not know)." Indian religion, Collier wrote, "was of a kind that our modern unsophisticated mind knows little about."
From the 1920s, the development of cheap tourism and better roads made access to Indian Country available to quite ordinary white visitors as well. Even while Hollywood was still depicting Indians as shrieking savages, the image of the Native as Natural Mystic was becoming steadily more popular. Already in the 1940s, the popular mystical books of Frank Waters were claiming that Indians were part of a great ancient civilization, possibly linked to ancient Atlantis, and with many parallels to the Buddhist and Hindu worlds.
The synthesis of mystical ideas that would later be called New Age was clearly in place. By the 1960s, that era of renewed romanticization of all things Indian, Waters's "Book of the Hopi" was a fixture in college dorm rooms around the nation.
The idealization of Indian cultures has continued unabated ever since, even as the material conditions of many Native Americans remain dire. However much we hear about the "new buffalo economy" made possible by legalized gambling, many Indian communities are still devastated by systemic poverty, substance abuse, and pollution -- aspects of Indian life that few white New Age wannabes wish to emulate.
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Some early responses to the National Museum of the American Indian have complained about its departure from the familiar idea of what a museum should be, its rejection of conventional academic approaches. But this rejection is scarcely surprising. Indians spent too long being treated -- sometimes literally -- as museum objects. It's understandable that they would instead want to celebrate continuity and survival on their own terms.
Someday, the museum's authorities might do worse than to exhibit Fraser's "End of the Trail" as a recollection of how bad things once were, and a symbol of how very far Native peoples -- and non-Native attitudes toward them -- have come.
Philip Jenkins teaches at Penn State University. His latest book is "Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality" (Oxford University Press, 2004).