By Amy Ferguson
On October 9, 2013, Kevin Gover, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) gave a talk at the Harvard Peabody Museum entitled “Changing the Narrative: American Indians and the American Cultural Myth.” In 2007 Gover, originally from Oklahoma and a member of the Pawnee Nation, accepted the nomination to be director as “an opportunity to change the cultural understanding of Indians.”
Gover described the information on American Indians in formal education as “at best incomplete, much of it simply incorrect and inaccurate,” stating that if he had not grown up in an American Indian Nation he would know very little about the actual lives and histories of American Indians, even in Oklahoma, which has a high percentage of American Indian people.
As a mission for the museum, Gover outlines a “beginning of the defeat of stereotypes” about American Indians. Two claims that go against the grain of traditional stereotypes are that “Indians are still here, and they’re thriving,” and “Indians are tremendously diverse - what you know about one group may tell you nothing about the next one.” Despite the museum’s fresh perspective, Gover lamented that it has not “achieved a truly cogent narrative on native presence.” In order to create such a narrative, the NMAI is creating new exhibits.
The NMAI originated from the personal collection of George Gustav High, which included 80,000 items. Rick Wess founded a museum from this collection in 1989. It became a museum in Manhattan, then paired with the Smithsonian in the 1989 NMAI Act passed by Congress, which created the museum but also contained the “first federal statute ordering repatriation of American Indian human remains and sacred objects.” Gover described this as an “enormous breakthrough.” In 2004 the flagship museum was built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and to celebrate its opening 25,000 Native people came to march in solidarity.
Under Gover’s direction, the NMAI seeks to use “new museological approaches” and consult with communities when creating new exhibits. Gover described the historical shift from race science, once sponsored by the Smithsonian, and museums speaking “on behalf of cultures” to today’s vital participation of Indigenous Peoples in the material that represents them. Gover said these new approaches seek to re-examine how to manage and conserve material, what not to do, and how to handle materials in a way consistent with indigenous practice. Tribes and communities are consulted for interpretations of cultural objects.
The museum also allows people to use objects for ceremonial purposes and even encourages repatriation. This may shorten the life of the objects through wear and tear or remove them from the museum, but their real usage for American Indian communities is invaluable. Gover described that tribal consultants teach the museum so much about the items and their culture at large that it benefits the museum more than if they had kept the items. To date about 2,000 items have been repatriated, leaving a wealth of 78,000 items still at NMAI.
The museum seeks to uphold four themes. The first is Native knowledge, “underestimated and valuable” as Gover put it, which includes not only technologies but also ideas and philosophies. The second is the origin of American Indians, which research has not determined with certainty to be from the Beiring Strait or from the Americas themselves through multigenesis (which native mythologies tend to support through creation myths). The third theme is contact between American Indians and the United States, which Gover described as the “most fundamental contact in human history,” for reasons discussed below. Finally, the museum seeks to display American Indian expression through art.
The museum's new exhibits seek establish a more cogent narrative of American Indian life and history. Some of these will be constructed in a facility in New York City. The first, which will be unveiled in September 2014, focuses on treaties. Early treaties between the new United States and American Indian tribes were based around diplomacy, national boundaries, peace and war, and national security for the U.S. Gover says that these were taken very seriously as matters of national security, but were then betrayed after the war of 1812 until the end of the 20th century when American Indians were severely persecuted. During this period the “U.S. was in control of every event in Indian life” through boarding schools and the banning of native religions and languages. But due to tenacity among the natives, there has been a “restoration of the treaty relationship” as they have fought for their rights and received benefits such as repatriated items. American Indians have been “rebounding economically, socially, and in every way.” Gover explains that the exhibit seeks to “leave the visitor with a sense of responsibility” and “polish the covenant chain,” which is an Algonquin metaphor for caring for a relationship.
An exhibit will also dispel the idea that America was wilderness when Europeans arrived. Gover said that “every part of America was domain of native nations” which is “proved by Inca civilization, which had a territory as large as any empire in Europe, as well as political and social achievements,” an impressively long road, and, due to excellent system of food distribution, a lack of hunger.
A new permanent exhibit for the museum will be “Americans.” This was the early word for American Indians in the beginning years of the United States. This exhibit will “examine American cultural mythology” and execute an “anthropology of white people.” It will discuss the cultural myth of the first Thanksgiving, a myth of “racial harmony” that does not align with history especially in lieu of King Phillip’s War, which the museum will probe visitors to ponder why they have not heard of it (if they have not). It will discuss Pocahontas, a woman “reduced to a Disney character who talks to animals,” why we have not heard about her early death in England, and how narratives of native women in love with white men myopically describe that such women bring “civilization” to their people. The museum exhibit will discuss the “Trail of Tears,” the seeds of which were planted in the Louisiana Purchase by Thomas Jefferson as a way to “find land west to move Indians to” “in order to accommodate land grants to soldiers in the Revolutionary War”. It will also discuss the Gold Rush, where a “true genocide of natives in California” happened. Gover considers “genocide of American Indians too casual a term, except in California where there was an actual policy of murder and enslavement.”
The another permanent exhibit will focus on the contact between American Indians and Europeans. The devastation of American Indians by biological diseases was fierce. A population of approximately 40 million American Indians was reduced by 90 percent in 100 years. Gover surmised that this devastation would have occurred regardless of the warfare that happened with Europeans. The second major component of the exhibit will discuss Columbian exchange and the movement of products, wealth, people, germs, insects, that “led to massive changes around the world.” For example, the “increase in calories from native foods led to population explosion in Europe”, which caused many to seek land in the Americas. As Gover puts it, “that is when globalization really took place” and is why he considers the contact between American Indians and European settlers to be so fundamental to human history.
The final exhibit is to be named “Ancestors” and will show America to have been “quite fully occupied” and “thriving” before Columbus and the colonists. It will seek to “reinsert Indigenous history into world history and world history textbooks,” where they have been largely erased.
An ultimate goal of NMAI is to create curriculum materials for the classroom. The museum also strives to “not to make the same mistakes” as earlier museums in speaking on behalf of American Indians. Gover ended his talk by calling on the Smithsonian to continue to seek more accurate representation of American Indians and the true history of the U.S. in its exhibits.