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.

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