American Indian museum says: We’re still here

        Let’s start with the National Museum of the American Indian, which was not the first museum we visited on our recent trip to Washington, D.C. In fact, it was the last one we saw and the least favorite of the three museums we visited: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Native American museum.

But some ideas came together there.

         The American Indian museum has a harder tale to tell than the other two. You can walk through the Holocaust museum tracing the antisemitism from ancient European pogroms to the death camps at Auschwitz. African-American museum starts in Africa and tells the degradation that have happened to black people from slave roundups in Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery in the Americas, Jim Crow, desegregation and the events that brought on the Black Lives Matter movement.

         The Native American museum tells the tale of many clans and tribes spread across the Americas. What those people believed, the stories they told and how they were treated by Europeans and colonists is hard to wrap up in a straight walk through the museum’s halls.

         I had expected our three-day, three-museum visit, which someone termed a “white liberal guilt trip,” to go this way: genocide, slavery and more genocide. But the word “genocide” was never heard or written in the exhibits I saw in the Native America museum. Instead, the theme seemed to be: “We’re still here!” Despite all that was done to us – disease, wars, massacres, reservations, boarding schools, restrictions on our languages – we’re still here.

         From all the products advertised with Indian names, you can’t deny their presence. The museum had everything from an Indian motorcycle to the maiden on the Land O’Lakes butter carton. There are several rooms telling how several tribes understand the universe. From duality to this wonderful story told through the glass art of Seattle’s Preston Singletary. (After January 29, 2023, the exhibit moves on to Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia, where it will be from March 3, 2023, to June 20, 2023).

         “The Raven and the Box of Daylight” tells a Tlingit creation story about how light came to the world. Part of the introduction to the exhibit includes this: “Shdal’eiw Walter Porter (1944-2013), the eminent Tlingit American historian, mythologist, and storyteller, once stated. ‘The importance of mythology is that it’s universal. Every culture has the same information disguised in story.’ We hope you recognize some of your own story here.” The part about immaculate conception in the Raven story has a familiar ring.

         This video tells the story of a fallen star, who is much more friendly than Lucifer, who would rather “reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” as Milton told us.

A star that wanders searching for the girl he loved

         The closest I saw where genocide got its due was in a room dedicated to the United States’ Indian Removal Act of 1830. Signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, it got its start from Thomas Jefferson, who said, “The end proposed should be their extermination, or their removal.” Encroaching colonists get Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and you get Oklahoma, after 4,000 of you die trekking there.

         While not aware of it, I first learned of the Indian Removal Act back in third grade when I read “Chief Black Hawk” by Frank L. Beals, part of the American Adventure series and I read them all. I’ve been trying to erase that glowing view of American history since about age 25. I’m still waiting for Chief Black Hawk to replace Andrew Jackson on the U.S. twenty-dollar bills.

         Jackson thought the act would “prevent annihilation, not cause it.” (“Andrew Jackson and his Indian Wars,” Robert V. Remini, Penguin Group, 2002, p. 228) Get away from us white folks so you can “perpetuate your race.” But Jackson’s tongue might have been “as forked as a chicken foot,” as Mastubbee, a Choctaw elder, said. (p. 248)

         My third-grade reading did not introduce me to those who had opposed the act: Jeremiah Evarts, Theodore Frelinghuysen or John Ross, a Cherokee chief. But they are there in the American Indian museum.

         This is where the museums start blending, where the ideas come together. The Indian Removal Act sounds an awful lot like Holocaust museum’s “Final Solution.” Where the horrible things that happened to Jews remind me of what has happened to African-Americans and Native Americans.

         Remini ends his book with this statement: “To his dying day on June 8, 1845, Andrew Jackson genuinely believed that what he accomplished rescued these people from inevitable annihilation.”

The American Indians are still here, as the museum attests. But I’m reminded of Seminoles begging at a roadside stand on a 1950s trip to Florida and then of children begging at the Wounded Knee site in 2015.

You’re still here, and I’m glad, but I hope the next 60 years are better for you than those that have passed between my visits to the Seminole stand and to Wounded Knee.

Best photo of the Trip Back East goes to . . .

Judging the photos Kathy and I took during our trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City, I’d have to give the top prize to Kathy for this view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. The light was just right, and she was quicker with her iPhone 8 than I was with my more expensive camera. We were standing on the terrace outside the Lincoln Monument when we noticed this view.

The walk to the Lincoln Monument has been on all my trips to Washington, D. C. I always start at the Vietnam Memorial and then start making the bend around the reflecting pool with a stop to visit Lincoln and read parts of his speeches craved on the walls there. With the sun going down, it was hard to read my favorite from his second inaugural speech. It’s the one that ends this way:

“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Despite not being able to read that speech, Lincoln was as impressive as ever and our walk was not done.

While we were visiting the Vietnam Memorial, we talked to a gentleman who was about our age (Remember the Sixties!). He remarked on it “being our war, whether we served over there or not.”

Certainly it had an influence on those of us growing up then. The draft. The draft lottery. Student deferments. Those who fought coming home and how they were treated. Those wounded or killed.

My only acquaintance with those names carved on the wall is a person who beat me up in the first grade. Still, I feel bad for him, and certainly bad for the 53,000 United States service people lost in a war that we as a nation can’t decide if it was worth it or not.

We were debating whether to walk past the Lincoln Monument to visit the Korean War Monument, which was not there the last time we had visited Washington. It seemed as though that monument got squeezed into a corner of the Mall and might not be worth visiting. Oh no, said our gentleman at the Vietnam wall. “Get there when it is raining and dark,” he said, “and you will think the soldiers there are alive and stalking their enemies. Don’t miss it.”

We did not, especially since it was getting dark and rain had started to fall.

The soldiers may not be alive, but your could almost feel the moisture seeping into their boots from the wet grass they were walking through. There is a list of those lost in the war, both U.S. and South Korean. The side panels that run along side the soldiers have an eerie feel to them depicting those who served in a war that is still going on. Would our nation decide to fight if one of Kim Jong-un‘s missiles did not quite reach the sea and fell on Seoul? That would be a decision for the nation.

That ended our evening walk. Earlier in the day, we had taken a bus to see the Jefferson Memorial, which I had not visited. Despite all the bad things said about Thomas Jefferson in Ron Chernow’s book “Hamilton” and the song the Jefferson character sings in the musical (“What’d I Miss”), I still hold Jefferson as a Founding Father who founded much of what formed our country, like “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” There’s also that master/slave matter of Sally Hemings. OK, he was a randy coward who skipped the fighting in the Revolutionary War, but I still like much of what he said, including this on the wall of the memorial:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in law and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Setting aside whether human minds have progressed past our barbarous ancestors, there’s six people on the Supreme Court right now who should walk down to the Jefferson Memorial to read that.

There was one other monument on the Mall that was not there the last time we visited Washington. It opened in April 2004, which shows how long it has been since we traveled to the nation’s capital.

The monument marks a war in which 416,000 Americans died, 45 million people world wide were killed and two totalitarian regimes were snuffed out. It took the nation 60 years to commemorate the achievement of the “Greatest Generation.” It’s a war most Americans have no trouble deciding whether it was worth it or not.

But the monument to World War II? My decision: It fails. To me, it seems as if someone or some committee decided to include all that they thought should go into a monument: fountains, lots of stone, statues, bronze plaques, arches, terraces. Build it in a prominent spot on the Mall and everyone will like it. But there is no there there. No symbolism as in the Vietnam Monument. Nothing to focus on as in the Korean Monument. No one statue that dominates as in the Lincoln and Jefferson monuments. Can we decide to do this one over?