Wowi in Washington

Orin Starn, who teaches anthropology at Duke University, is the author of "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian."

What would Ishi think of America’s newest museum?

The fabled California Indian hid out in the mountains for 50 years after most of his Yahi tribe was massacred by white settlers after the Gold Rush. Anthropologists proclaimed Ishi “America’s last Stone Age Indian” and brought him to San Francisco as a living museum exhibit. When Ishi died in 1916, his brain was pickled and mailed in a brown paper package to the Smithsonian, which wanted the brain of the last Yahi as a curiosity for scientific study.

Times have changed. Now, almost a century later, the Smithsonian has celebrated the opening of its new National Museum of the American Indian. The gleaming, $210-million building is a short stroll across the Washington Mall from the National Museum of Natural History, where Ishi’s pickled brain was kept for more than 50 years on a backroom storage shelf.

That Indians now have their own museum on America’s front lawn measures how much has changed in recent decades. Long presumed a vanishing race, Indians have not only survived but also possess greater clout than ever before. The showy protests of the American Indian Movement and other radical Indian groups during the Vietnam War years, such as the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971, brought the injustices suffered by Native Americans into the spotlight. Activists persuaded the federal government to pass laws forcing museums to give back Indian bone collections over the angry objections of some archeologists.


But the museum is also a testament to the power of casino money. In the old days, Ishi’s Yahi people loved to play gambling games with sticks. Now California Indians rake in more than $2 billion a year from their slots, video poker machines and blackjack tables.

The Museum of the American Indian would not have happened without what some pundits have called the “new buffalo” of casino cash. The Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut run Foxwoods, the world’s largest gambling resort. They alone donated $10 million to the museum. Newly wealthy tribes in California and elsewhere have contributed heavily to congressional campaigns. These donations helped cement support for the additional federal money needed to get the museum built.

Curious crowds have been lining up to tour the museum. Unlike the squared lines of the other big Washington museums, the design is curved and oblong. The unpolished, gold-brown Kasota limestone of the exterior is meant to invoke Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu and other icons of native architecture. The white liberal imagination has long fixed Indians as victims of massacres, broken treaties and squalid reservations. Although poverty and unemployment remain major problems for large tribes like the Navajo and Lakota, the museum marks the ability of Indians today to bankroll a monument to their own history and culture.

The director, W. Richard West Jr., a peace chief of the Southern Cheyenne, donned a feathered headdress for an interview with Tom Brokaw last month. West, a Stanford-trained lawyer, customarily appears in the expensively tailored business suit of a CEO. He belongs to a generation of well-connected Indian lawyers and business leaders, or “warriors with attache cases,” as they have sometimes been called.

To have a museum with Indians in charge is a novelty. For decades, white collectors scooped up baskets, pots, arrows and bones to study and put on display. Like the Zuni war god figures packed off to the Smithsonian in the late 1800s, it seldom mattered to curators that some of these objects were sacred to their tribes and never meant for public view. Even today, you can find Indian artifacts in local history museums next to dioramas of the dinosaurs, as if both belonged to the same bygone era.

Now Native Americans have seized the right to represent themselves. Besides a team of native-born, professionally trained museum specialists, West involved “community curators” from local tribes. Elders, medicine men and tribal leaders from two featured California groups -- the Hupa from the Redwood Coast and the Kumeyaay from the badlands east of San Diego -- went to Washington to help in the planning. The day is long gone when anthropologists and other white professionals held a monopoly on the study of native life.


The timing of the museum’s opening could not be better for Native America. As Arnold Schwarzenegger’s successful gubernatorial campaign made clear last fall, the rise of Indian casinos has stirred up plenty of controversy. Whites could feel benign compassion for tribes as long as they were poor and powerless. But casino expansion, coupled with the voters’ discovery that tribal sovereignty can entitle Indians to tax exemption for their gambling establishments, has produced resentment. The result has been new incarnations of the old stereotype of the evil savage. This time around, Indians figure in popular imagination not as bloodthirsty redskins scalping innocent pioneers but as lazy, greedy profiteers from tacky empires of sin. By contrast, the museum gives Native Americans some badly needed good press. The exhibits encourage visitors to sympathize with Indian tribulations in the storm of white conquest, marvel at the accomplishments and diversity of native cultures and admire tribal survival.

Unsurprisingly, the museum leaves out a great deal along the way. Nowhere in the display of lovely Mayan pots and Moche goldwork are we informed that these pre-Columbian kingdoms were deeply hierarchical, authoritarian societies that celebrated war and human sacrifice. One doesn’t learn that 19th century Cherokee planters had black slaves, much less about efforts by some Oklahoma Seminoles in 2000 to kick out African American tribal members. And the unseemly, ongoing controversies about the casinos barely get a mention in the exhibits.

A flavor of self-mythologization runs throughout. We are told repeatedly about the spiritual connections of Native Americans to nature; the sophisticated wisdom of tribal language, mythology and art and the importance of their heritage for Indians today. The truth is that the very nature of native identity and culture is far from straightforward in the 21st century. Most Indians have plenty of white and sometimes black ancestors after decades of intermarriage. In these new times when it can seem cool and exotic to be Indian, thousands of what anthropologist Circe Sturm calls “race shifters” check “Native American” instead of “white” on their census forms. Most Indians do not speak a tribal language. The museum largely ignores the realities of overlapping, mixed identities and sometimes tenuous tribal connections to the past as if the line between Indian and non-Indian were self-evident.

But early criticism of the museum was misplaced. One reviewer, for example, complained that the museum stood for “self-celebration” and “advocacy.” But don’t museums always have a point of view? The gigantic National Air and Space Museum is just next door along the Mall. It’s a great museum, but also a partisan temple to the glories of technology and the American way. You won’t find anything there about the thousands of Japanese children killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the millions of dollars wasted on white-elephant weapon systems or the other less rosy sides of American technology and its history.

At one entrance, a thoughtful welcoming video describes the American Indian museum as “giving voice” at last to American tribes. But curator Paul Chaat Smith, who narrates the video, also refreshingly admits that the museum has an agenda and invites visitors to “look with respect, but also skepticism.” Our latest national museum has plenty of gaps and silences. It is also filled with beautiful objects, moving stories and important information about the peoples who were the original inhabitants of this land we claim as our own.

In his five years in San Francisco, Ishi roamed the city, but he lived the whole time in the museum. The last Yahi came to call it wowi, or home, and did not like to be away for too long from his room and feather bed there.


I’d like to think that Ishi would have enjoyed a visit to the new Washington museum too.