Recognizing Indians in the 21st Century

Culture & Identity | Virginia Indians

<p>National Museum of the American Indian>

National Museum of the American Indian>

When it first opened in 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) on the Mall in Washington, D.C., promised to usher in a new period of understanding between Indian and settler cultures in the United States. Yet, the public response to NMAI has been mixed. VFH Fellow Monika Siebert is examining the reasons behind the public’s mixed reception to the long-awaited museum.

More than 25,000 Indians from more than 500 nations and communities across the Americas converged on the National Mall to celebrate the opening of the NMAI. It was the largest ever gathering of indigenous people in Washington, D.C. They formed a grand procession marching past the Museum of Natural History to the new NMAI, where director Richard West welcomed indigenous peoples home and all others to a Native Place. West hailed that day as a beginning of a new period of mutual understanding, respect, and reconciliation between American settlers and indigenous peoples.

National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian.

Siebert will explain how the museum’s conception—from its architectural design to its exhibition strategies—has been governed by two contesting claims to recognition: the recognition of the United States as a multicultural democracy (in which we see American Indians as one among many ethnic groups) and the recognition of American Indians as members of sovereign nations (set apart from all other Americans). She argues that NMAI is best understood as a contemporary version of a meeting ground where diverging claims to sovereignty by American Indians and to multicultural democracy by the United States are negotiated.

When the NMAI opened, mainstream press commentators complained about radical departures from established museum practices. These included the involvement of tribal communities in the curating of exhibitions devoted to their nations, an emphasis on contemporary art and material culture over archival objects, and an abandonment of an ethnographic approach in favor of highlighting political histories and contemporary dilemmas. The NMAI also made the very idea of exhibiting Indian objects in Western cultures a subject of exhibition. In the nine years since the museum’s opening, the debate over its virtues and failings has continued, revealing what Siebert contends is a broad public misunderstanding of the forms of recognition the NMAI was designed to present.

Siebert is an associate professor of English at the University of Richmond, where her research focuses on late twentieth and early twenty-first century American literature and culture, ethnic literary and cinematographic traditions, and Native American studies.