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American Indians Guide Their Own History

At a recently opened museum in New York, native curators emphasize context over isolation and analysis of objects

A ``fossil thought'' is how Henry David Thoreau described an Indian arrowhead. By studying an object, he believed others could understand the ideas that impelled its creation. The recently opened National Museum of the American Indian attempts to induce this response to the values expressed in artworks such as baskets, pottery, and rugs.

By virtue of its unsurpassed collection of more than a million objects spanning 10,000 years and an area from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, the museum will play a major role in defining American Indian culture. Its director, W. Richard West Jr., a Cheyenne-Arapaho, wishes to avoid previous Eurocentric exhibition styles that confined Indian art to dusty dioramas in natural history museums.

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``Native Americans were tired of being treated by museums as if they were extinct,'' Seneca art curator Tom Hill writes in the museum catalog.

The scholarly approach of art historians typically viewed esthetic objects from primitive cultures as meritorious for their animistic energy and departure from the Western approach. Anthropologists examined the objects as artifacts, approaching them through social science.

In contrast, the native Americans who created the objects often have no word in their language for art, culture, or religion because these values permeate all life. To the native artist, art is a crucial element of community life, and objects integrate utility, decoration, and tradition.

An Eskimo kayak on display makes clear the contrasting perspectives on these objects. A panel explains how an anthropologist would consider the cultural context of the kayak (from late-19th-century Alaska), its method of construction, and its use. An art historian would examine the carving and assess technique and esthetic principles of design. To present the native view, suffused with spirituality and kinship with the animal world, the museum displays a poem, ``Spring Fjord,'' by Armand Schwerner:

I was out in my kayak

I was out at sea in it

I was paddling ...

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the seal came gently

toward me

Why didn't I harpoon him?

was I sorry for him?

was it the day, the spring day,

the seal

playing in the sun like me?

Throughout the exhibitions, panels of text, videos, and soundtracks provide the native philosophy inherent in the objects. Clay pots are displayed amid rough adobe walls and wood beams. ``The same Tewa word is used for clay and people,'' a text explains. An artisan describes how to make pottery and sings on a soundtrack, while a Zuni prayer is printed on the wall.

Elsewhere, a Kwakiutl button blanket from the late-19th century is displayed flat in a glass case. On video, a woman explains how the blanket (``a robe of power'') was used in ceremonial dances, how it became ``like a member of the family. It represents all my family history. It goes back at least six generations.'' One sees the blanket flaring out, as a dancer spins around, bringing the design to life.

Similarly, a carved wooden bear-crest hat with eyes of abalone shell looks magnificent in its case. After appreciating the beauty of the solitary object, the viewer expands his field of vision to take in (on the circular walls of the gallery) full-sized photographs of a Chilkat elder wearing the hat, dancing in a Potlatch ceremony. ``Every object has breath,'' an Indian spokesman says.

The viewer can see a huge Pueblo dough bowl as an example of ceramic art, then hear Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo explain that the bowls are ``large and gracious'' because they represent hospitality. ``One household,'' she says, ``will feed 200 to 400 people in one day.''

We learn that the process of basketmaking involves singing to the reeds before gathering them, and singing while weaving, because ``a basket is a song made visible.''

The best example of how presentation expresses the ethos of an object is Gerald McMaster's display of hundreds of moccasins. Arranged in a circle (with a wedge missing where the viewer can stand and complete the circle), the pairs of footwear are all different - made of leather, raffia, beads, and silk embroidery - but all engaged in the same dance (each pair is posed with the left heel raised, toes pointed toward the center of the spiral).

The display suggests individual artistry and a tightly knit circle of common values. ``Everything we did was made with prayer,'' Indian artist Abe Conklin says.

The inaugural installation is divided into three sections. ``Creation's Journey: Masterworks of Native American Identity and Belief'' is an overview of 165 objects from 3200 BC to the present, featuring a Lakota dress with elk's teeth, an Acoma black-and-white jar, Hopi kachinas, and an Incan gold mask.

''All Roads Are Good: Native Voices on Life and Culture'' displays 311 objects chosen by 23 American Indians for their cultural and spiritual significance, like Crazy Horse's shirt and an eagle-feather war bonnet. These two exhibits fully achieve the goals of educating and delighting.

Only in the last exhibit, ``This Path We Travel: Celebrations of Contemporary Native American Creativity,'' a collaborative installation by 15 contemporary artists, does the didactic purpose overpower the art. The artists created Disney-ish Wild West scenes like a sandstone arroyo, complete with cliche sunsets and painted mesas.

Two installations in this section leave museumgoers with the impression that contemporary Indian art mainly deals in manipulative, politically correct harangues. A re-created reservation schoolroom illustrates how native culture was repressed by lessons on the blackboard like ``See Spot. See Jane.'' An ``Indian living room'' is also stridently propagandistic, suggesting that ``television is stealing the soul'' of native American youth.

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