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The Great Forgetting
Posted on Oct 5, 2007
By Eunice Wong
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, located on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is a monument to historical amnesia. The blond limestone building, surrounded by indigenous crops of corn, tobacco and squash, invites visitors on a guilt-free, theme park tour of Native American history, where acknowledgment of the American genocide is in extremely bad taste.
The beauty of the architecture and landscaping conceals the hollowness of the enterprise. The first two floors of the four-story building are turned over to gift shops and the cafeteria. The museum provides no information on the forced death marches, authorized by Congress, such as the Trail of Tears, the repeated treaty violations by the United States, reservations, infamous massacres such as Wounded Knee, or leaders such as Tatanka Iyotanka (Sitting Bull), Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht (Chief Joseph), Tashunka Witko (Crazy Horse), or Goyathlay (Geronimo).
“If it does not talk about massive land theft—3 billion acres of stolen land in the continental United States; if it does not talk about broken treaties—over 400 treaties violated by the United States government and its European American citizenry; if it does not talk about genocide—16 million native peoples wiped out by the United States and its citizenry; if it does not talk about residential Christian boarding schools, about the suppression of our languages, our Indigenous spirituality and religious ceremonies, and on and on, it is literally a whitewashed history,” said Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa of the Dakota Nation, professor and head of the Indigenous Nations and Dakota Studies Program at Southwest Minnesota State University. “And then they get our colonized, Christianized Indian colleagues to tell the same story that has been told by the European Americans for generations.”
The lobby of the museum is a soaring, glass-domed atrium filled with natural light. The walls are smooth and white, and a large circle of honey-colored wood, resembling a dance floor, is set into the dark stone of the ground. Three small boats, all built in recent years—a Peruvian reed boat, an Arctic kayak with a cedar frame and nylon covering, and a Hawaiian canoe—are displayed on the floor, dwarfed by the open space.
The Chesapeake gift shop, with its glass cases of aquamarine stones and glittering silver, all artfully lit, faces the lobby. The shop displays silk scarves, pottery and handmade designer jewelry, such as a necklace of sterling silver and turquoise for $1,800, or a belt made entirely of tiny beads for $4,000.
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The Roanoke gift shop occupies the entire second floor. Dream-catchers, medicine wheels, aromatic herb sachets, tote bags and books are for sale. The designer jewelry in this shop runs about $100 to $180.
The exhibits begin on the third floor. There is a hall for temporary exhibits. When I visited, it was filled with spot-lit mannequins in native women’s dresses. The permanent exhibition on this floor focuses on contemporary native life and identity. There is a hulking Bombardier ice-fishing vehicle, an Alaskan-style mask made of dental mirrors and tea strainers, and a re-creation of a contemporary native living room, featuring traditional Indian blankets on the couch. There is a pair of red Converse sneakers, entirely beaded, with Indian figures on the high-top ankles. The tongues are blue with white stars.
It is on the fourth floor that the expunging of history begins.
A video installation, “The Storm: Guns, Bibles and Governments,” is featured prominently in the center of the fourth-floor gallery on native history. Tall, curving fiberglass panels enclose the viewing space, backlit in shifting shades of blue and gray. Television screens are set into the panels.
Rapidly scudding clouds appear on the screens, tidal waves, palm trees lashed by typhoons, the debris of cars and houses in floods. Howling wind, shrill flutes and ominous music are heard as a voice intones:
The hurricane. A turbulence. A steady pressure. Unpredictable. Uncertain. It brings death and life. It creates and destroys.
The video tells us, in oblique, lyrical terms, why guns, Christianity and foreign governments are both bad and good things. Of Christianity, the narrator says:
We all know Jesus. He has been with us for a very long time. Christianity, a weapon of forced conversion, slavery and oppression. A weapon of liberation and social justice, salvation and eternal life. Today, many of us are Christians and many are not.
The video closes:
The storm is powerful and unceasing. It creates and destroys. It offers life and death, hope and despair. It is never simply one thing. The storm is an opportunity. The storm teaches. We have learned much.
“The Storm” turns the American Indian genocide into a faceless, mindless natural disaster with a silver lining.
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