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.
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.