At New American Indian Museum, Artifacts Are "Alive"

John Roach
for National Geographic News
Updated September 21, 2004
When the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of the American
Indian opened today in Washington, D.C., visitors got their first
glimpses of many artifacts that, in the eyes of Indians, are literally
alive. (See photos of exhibits.)

"The items are alive, just like Indian people are alive," said historian Clifford Trafzer, director of American Indian Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Trafzer, who is of Wyandot Indian ancestry, co-edited Native Universe: Voices of Indian America, a book being published in conjunction with the museum opening. He said the access that American Indians have to the items in the museum helps keep the artifacts alive.

For example, certain cultures believe that wooden masks must be fed corn pollen or cornmeal—to demonstrate to the masks' spirits that they are being cared for. The new museum curators's allow tribal elders to do the honors.

"A lot of people would think that is crazy, but within the cultures that is the belief—that is the truth for them," Trafzer said. "The museum respects that truth."

Curator Mary Jane Lenz said the staff will even loan out items for ceremonial purposes. In fact, the museum recently loaned a beaded dance collar to a community in the U.S. Pacific Northwest to dedicate a new dance hall.

"It was not simple. There had to be careful work by the conservators to ensure its safety, it had to be transported out by hand, there was a lot of documentation of the whole process—but it worked out very well," Lenz said.

The Collections

The museum's artifacts include some 800,000 pieces and span 10,000 years. They hail from more than a thousand indigenous cultures in the Americas, from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America.

"One of the things that makes this collection unique is its hemispheric nature. Few places have extensive collections from all of the Americas," Lenz said.

There are wooden and stone carvings and masks from the northwest coast of North America, pottery and basketry from the southwestern United States, textiles and gold from the Andes mountains, and elaborate featherwork from the Amazon River Basin.

The collections also include funerary, religious, and ceremonial objects associated with living cultures. But such objects are displayed only with the approval of the appropriate tribes.

The museum has a strict policy on human remains, sacred objects, and any holdings acquired illegally. Any such objects will be returned to groups than can demonstrate a cultural affiliation or factual claim to them.

Asked if there is a most valued item in the collections, Lenz replied that it would be impossible to say.

"Many of the pieces are masterworks; many of them have great historical value; many of them would bring big bucks in the auction market. And yet trying to choose one would probably vary from one person to the next. Perhaps like choosing your 'most valued' child," she said.

The collection will rotate regularly, with the majority of the objects kept at the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. Opened in 1999, the warehouse was custom-built for the collections.

The Collector

Between 1897 and 1957 eccentric oil heir George Gustav Heye amassed what would become the cornerstone of the museum's collections.

Why Heye was attracted to Native American cultures is open to speculation. But "he did collect arrowheads when he was a boy, and his primary interest—at least in the beginning—was in archaeology," Lenz said.

In 1916 Heye established the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, and it continued to collect objects long after his death. In 1989 the U.S. Congress created a National Museum of the American Indian and transferred the collection to the Smithsonian Institution.

While some scientists abhorred Heye's voracious appetite for items, academics today praise the collection. "Because his style was so wide-ranging—he collected both the pristine and the broken and worn-out—it allows researchers a hundred years later to get a fuller picture of people's lives, not just the dressy stuff," Lenz said.

Over the past five years the Smithsonian has acquired several additional large collections through gifts. In a particular windfall, the U.S. Department of the Interior donated its Indian Arts and Crafts Board collection of approximately 6,000 items, which date from the 1930s through the 1980s.

The museum's current collecting focus is on contemporary works from lesser known Latin American groups, Lenz said. American Indians also send in newly made items "because it represents them, and they want to be represented in the museum collection," Trafzer, the University of California historian, said.

According to Trafzer, Native Americans have a love-hate relationship with the collection.

On one hand, they hate it because so many items are in the museum and not in their communities. On the other hand, they love it because so many items are there and thus still alive and protected. Indians also appreciate that they can go to the museum and handle the artifacts, he added.

"That is remarkable, to have such sensitivity," Trafzer said. "It reflects the community-based thinking of the National Museum of the American Indian. They are listening to the community. They want to be in partnership with the people."

Full Coverage of National Museum of the American Indian
New National Indian Museum Is Native by Design
Photo Gallery: National Museum of the American Indian
20,000 American Indians to March at National Museum Opening
Photo Gallery: Exhibits at the Museum
Fast Facts: National Museum of the American Indian
16 Indian Innovations: From Popcorn to Parkas

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