Remembering our past will guide our future
Congratulations are in order for the grand opening of the National Museum
of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. Sept. 21. No doubt the
grand opening of the NMAI will be a gala affair where people from all
across Indian country will gather together. The museum will show that our
respective Native nations and cultures are alive in the Americas.
The incredible Pequot Museum in Connecticut has demonstrated that the most
important function a museum can serve is to provide people with vitally
needed educational information. The NMAI promises to be a place where
people will learn about many of the past accomplishments of our respective
living nations and living cultures.
The longevity, richness, vitality, color, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom,
songs, and spirituality of Native cultures will no doubt come through in
the exhibits, public programs and publications of the NMAI. The staggering
panorama, beauty, and variety of Native cultural expression is enough to
take ones breath away, from Alaska, to the Pacific Northwest, to
California, to the Southwest, to the Great Basin, to the Great Plains, to
the Midwest, to the Great Lakes, to the Eastern Woodlands, to the
Southeast, to the Native nations in the Northeast, and, of course, the rest
of North, Central and South America.
Those of us immediately drawn to political and legal issues, will no doubt
wish to see the NMAI provide an educational context for visitors that does
not gloss over the brutality and destruction to which our nations have been
subjected at the hands of colonizing forces. But leaving this issue aside
for the moment, the world needs a place where the very best of living
American Indian cultures and traditions can shine, while being honored and
acknowledged. This too is part of our revitalization and healing from the
grief and traumatizing legacy of colonization.
Another part of our healing involves acknowledging that our respective
peoples have contributed much to the world in the way of language, cultural
knowledge, political systems, technological advancements, foodstuffs and
medicinal knowledge. Knowledge of what our peoples have contributed to the
planet ought to be more widely and commonly known throughout the world, so
that people will know us for the many wonderful things that our respective
peoples developed and devised. What better way to achieve this goal than to
educate NMAI visitors, an expected 4 million visitors or more in the first
NMAI Director W. Richard West Jr. knows that he, the museum trustees and
the rest of the museum leadership and staff have an awesome and solemn
responsibility to each of our respective nations. Part of that
responsibility is to be sensitive to our cultures, history and spiritual
concerns, while at the same time educating and informing the public at
large about our sacred birthright as originally free and independent
indigenous nations and peoples. The recent decision to take sacred
pipestone from the atrium floor of the new building is a testimony to the
capability of the NMAI to work through the cultural and spiritual concerns
of Native communities.
Thirty years ago, American Indians marched on the Longest Walk across the
continent to Washington, D.C., to protest the ineptitude of the BIA and the
terrible conditions on Indian reservations throughout this land. No doubt
most of the elders who joined in the Longest Walk have since passed on.
Many of the young men and women who participated in the activism of that
era are now themselves highly respected leaders and elders in their own
right. Some of them will probably be attending the NMAI opening.
Despite the Longest Walk and so many other examples of activism over the
years, the BIA is undoubtedly just as challenged as it ever was, as
attested to by the missing billions from Indian "trust" accounts. In some
cases, Indian nations continue to be shafted by the U.S. government as
witnessed by recent passage of the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution
bill, that falsely purports to do away with Western Shoshone title to their
lands. The conditions on many reservations continue to be abysmal,
particularly with regard to such health problems that result from
colonization, such as diabetes, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol
Although we have far to go, and there is always tremendous need for
improvement for our future generations, the opening of the NMAI in
Washington, D.C. provides an opportunity to reflect on all that we have
been through over the past 500 years, while congratulating ourselves and
giving prayerful thanks to our ancestors.
Though tragically some Native nations have been eradicated by genocide, we
have shown that the rest of our respective nations are not going away. The
Creator placed us here in this land, and here we will stay.
The NMAI is evidence that our Native nations will continue to work hard to
survive and to thrive, while carrying on, to the best of our ability, our
languages, cultures and spiritual traditions, within our respective
homelands - that is, within whatever part of our respective homelands that
have not been stripped away by the dominating society over the past
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at
Kumeyaay Community College (on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the
Kumeyaay Nation), co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a
columnist for Indian Country Today.