Trip to the National Museum of the American Indian, Battery Park
It has become a cliche in American culture to represent Native American peoples as "closer to Nature," and this representation has had both positive and negative outcomes for Native American peoples themselves. On the positive side, the romanticization of Native American cultures has emphasized the importance of the survival of these "exotic" cultures to non-Native Americans;
many people who would otherwise have no point of reference for studying Native American cultures and lifeways have become interested in and defensive of Native American peoples because of their conception that Native American cultures provide more positive examples of human stewardship of the earth. On the negative side, this close association between Native Americans and Nature has allowed some to argue for the extermination of these "less civilized" and "savage" and even "animal" peoples; and even the romanticization can have negative effects because it makes real and diverse people into one-dimensional cartoons. It is important to remember, in addition, that no culture developed without being connected to the nature around it. In Western European traditions that contact is obscured, for various reasons. Because Western Europeans "forgot" that their cultures had developed in an environmental context, they were able to construct Native American cultures which remembered this contact as "different," as "other," and as unconnected to themselves.
Native American cultures--like every other culture on the planet--have developed in contact with the environments in which they developed. Materials available to specific groups governed their arts, rituals, food, and every other aspect of their lives. Shifts in available resources, in the places tribes called home, and even in the cultural meanings of their surroundings are reflected in the
artifacts of each culture.
The National Museum of the American Indian represents a great revolution in presenting Native American artifacts. The "American Wing" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, did not include a single Native American work of art; the few Native American works in the collection were displayed in the "Primitive Arts" section of the museum. When I asked the curator who took us on a tour of the American Wing where one might find Native American Art, he directed us to the American Museum of Natural History. If you go to the AMNH, you will find the impressive Native American collections first arranged by Franz Boas in the 1920s. The exhibits you find there are consistent with what Boas arranged. Because much of the collection was gathered by Boas, they reflect his interests; there are very good exhibits on the Central Eskimo, or Inuit, peoples, and the Pacific Northwest--especially Haida and Tlingit--tribes are well represented. Tribes in the Southwest and on the Great Plains are less well-represented. If you look at the captions with the artifacts, they provide information about what the item is and what
people produced it and where they were. Captions do not provide the following information: the name of the person who made the item (or other characteristics such as gender, age, tribal status, etc.); the year during which the item was made; the reason for the production of the item.
The question of why this information is not provided is a revealing one. In contrast, the NMAI provides very different captions. Think about this difference and what it reveals about the differing missions of each museum. What is the difference between the way that the AMNH and the NMAI present Native American artifacts? How does this reflect differences in each institution's views of Native American history and cultures?
Once we have finished going through the museum as a group, you will have time on your own in the interactive area of exhibits, where there are touch-screen interviews with Native American artists and hands-on exhibits to explore. Using that experience to reflect on these issues, address the following questions in writing:
Turn in a copy of your answers to Professor Lavender; retain a copy for yourself for use in class discussion.
- 1) Find and document five examples of ways in which the environment in which a culture developed shaped the artifacts of that culture. Find and document three examples of changes within a culture's artifacts which reflect alterations in available resources, geographic locations, or cultural meanings of items.
- 2) What sorts of information are available on the captions in the NMAI? How have the curators balanced the authorities on the subjects--anthropologists from outside the cultures who speak "scientifically" about the cultures balanced against cultural insiders, Native Americans from other tribes balanced with members of the tribe from which the artifact is drawn, etc.? In what way is this balancing act part of the mission of the museum?
- 3) How many different tribes and how many different culture groups are represented in the museum? What are the geographic boundaries of the museum? Does this mean that these different peoples have the same history or a shared history? What history connects them?
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (The American Experience--Social Sciences), The Honors College of The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York, Fall Semester 1998. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Wednesday 24 February 1999.