Tribal Lessons: A Jewish Perspective on the National Museum of the American Indian
Michael Shurkin
with additional reporting by Esther Nussbaum on the new Yad Vashem museum

The Smithsonian--a museum synonymous with institutional history--has turned the idea of a museum on its head. In fact, its National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened in 2004, does much more than that. NMAI is a revolt against entire academic disciplines as well as a joyous celebration of life by a beleaguered and often invisible people. Jews would do well to take note.

It doesn’t take a graduate student in post-colonial or post-structuralist studies to realize that NMAI is, essentially, an anti-museum. Even the architecture suggests this: The flowing lines of the massive building--next to the National Botanical Gardens and roughly at the foot of the U.S. Capitol--contrast sharply with the rigid, classical lines of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), the historical home on the Mall of artifacts related to Native American cultures. But what matters most is inside. Visitors familiar with the traditional ethnographic museum such as the NMNH and countless others will not find what they expect. Odds are, they will be disappointed, and not entirely without reason.

Traditional ethnographic museums work by imposing upon human societies a taxonomy developed in the field, and in the university, by anthropologists and ethnologists. A taxonomy is a system of categories and hierarchies; it divides a large unit into groups and orders the groups relative to one another. When anthropologists and ethnologists encounter their objects of study, they are trained to understand what they see in terms of the relevant taxonomy. They divide, label, categorize, and organize. They put everything in its place. Museums, in turn, assemble visual displays that convey the information collated by the academics and field collectors in the form of artifacts and displays. They invariably organize exhibits according to the relevant taxonomy, expressing in concrete terms the divisions, categories, and hierarchies agreed upon by the academy.

Is this a bad thing? On one hand, no. Categorization and the creation of hierarchies are a fundamental part of how humans make sense of the world around them. Taxonomies work. They also provide the most effective method for conveying knowledge to others: Museums have to organize information somehow.

On the other hand, taxonomies don't merely understand the world; they aid in the domination it and control of it. In the case of botany or animal husbandry, fine, but with regard to humans, taxonomies reflect and perpetuate hierarchies and are tantamount to gross objectification. The “taxonomizer” can only impose its taxonomy on those that it dominates, and the hegemonic nature of intellectual structures such as taxonomies is such that they perpetuate domination by making the hierarchy appear self-evident and logical. For example, Western anthropology is based on the study of colonized peoples, and the anthropological exhibits in places like the British Museum and the NMNH--which inviariably deal with Africans, Indians, or Pacific Islanders--leave little doubt that they are more primitive, less modern, closer to nature, and somehow lagging in the teleology of Western progress. This is no accident. Placing colonized peoples next to other land mammals in a “natural history” museum is a powerful way to lend a political hierarchy the mantel of scientific “fact.” It makes their subjugation appear as self-evident as gravity. Moreover, there has always been a very fine line between field research and military intelligence. British and French anthropology (and museum collections) would be nothing if it were not for countless intrepid soldier/scholars/explorers for whom the field notebook was the perfect compliment to the trusted Martini-Henri rifle.

Americans need not look hard for our own examples: Since at least as far back as Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark, scholarly interest in America’s native cultures went hand in hand with conquest. By the time university researchers began exhaustively to catalogue and collect the remnants of “Indian” life, American Indians belonged already to the past, but the academic work made that fact appear as inevitable as gravity. The Indians themselves were prostrate before the government-sanctioned taxonomies: to this day it is the United States government that defines each tribe and determines who belongs to them, and the NMAI must include the word “Indian” in its title because it matches the language of the relevant federal legislation. Bereft of their own voice, Native Americans have had to acquiesce to the representations of them in school textbooks and museums like the NMNH, where they are mute objects of taxonomies rather than living subjects in possession of their own perspectives.

The NMAI changes everything. Gone are the taxonomies, even the basic categories familiar to us all from our elementary school textbooks such as “Plains Indians” and “Eastern Woodlands Indians.” There are no chronologies and little history. In place of the traditional forms of organizing ethnographic information is a concerted effort to give diverse tribes the opportunity to share their perspectives and speak for themselves. Thus the museum features three permanent exhibits, each loosely organized around deliberately vague themes: “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes our World,” “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories,” and “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities.” All three consist of displays put together by NMAI staff members--many of whom are apparently Native Americans--working in close collaboration with particular tribes. Within each exhibit, the displays appear to have no particular order, nor is there any effort to group tribes by region or even continent: all of the Americas are represented.

The result is chaotic, particularly when compared with traditional museums like the NMNH. The rejection of taxonomies does come at a price, the price being the effective transmission of positive facts. Visitors at the NMAI don’t learn dates, names, or any other readily identifiable piece of knowledge. What the museum transmits instead is a barrage of impressions, all of which communicate the same points: “We are still alive, we are living among you, we have our own names for things, our own perspectives, even our own taxonomies.” The NMAI makes visitors aware that Native Americans are real people and attempts to offer a glimpse of life through their eyes. Crucially, the NMAI’s docents are themselves Native Americans. It is one thing to see a display on government-issued Indian identity cards; it is another to have a living, breathing Hopi explain the display and speak of her own experiences. As always, the emphasis is on the subjective rather than the ostensibly objective presentation of positive “fact.” This is post-modernism at its best.

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Image: Still from NMAI Film, A Thousand Roads

May 2005

Guilt Envy
Dan Friedman & David Zellnik

When Dialogue Harms
Jay Michaelson

Friday Night Poetry
Sarah Cooper

Tribal Lessons:
A Jewish Perspective on the Museum of the American Indian

Michael Shurkin,
with Esther Nussbaum on Yad Vashem

What, me Tremble?
Jonathan Vatner on Mentsh

Zachary Greenwald

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From previous issues:

God Likes New Things
Abraham Joshua Heschel
trans. by Jonathan Boyarin

How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart
Jay Michaelson

Ari Belenkiy