My wife and I went to the National Museum of American Indians in Washington DC. We saw lots of very pretty American-Indian artifacts at the museum. Lots of traditional costumes, jewellery, pieces of gold and silver from the times. Very impressive. Lots of colourful holographic displays.
In the midst of all the colourful costumes with multicoloured beads, sequined sashes and bold brass buckles, I noticed something strange. (And I noticed this even at the Hurd Museum in Phoenix which is also dedicated to American-Indian culture.)
The earliest exhibits in the museum were from the early nineteenth century, around 1800 AD. It seemed as though the entire existence of the American-Indian was tied to their interaction with European colonists and particularly after the American Independence. 95% of the exhibits and 99% of all written material in the museum is after the year 1800. Like they never existed before the nineteenth century.
Also the exhibits were mostly around attire, moccasins, pieces of human adornment, pieces of jewellery worn on the body. No mention of the social interactions of the Indian peoples, their currency, their socio-political structure in their villages, their trade and commerce, their transportation, the family structure, the medicine they practiced, the tools they built, their metallurgy, the crops they grew, the animals they reared. (The 5% of the exhibits before the 1800s were Stone Age tools. Tools that must have been more than a few thousand years old.)
Scientists estimate the first human inhabitation in the North American continent to be anywhere between 10,000 to 35,000 years ago. In the first 9,800 to 34,800, didn’t these people develop any kind of civilization of their own? Or did they evolve in a completely peculiar way, which was different from every other human society that existed around the same time? A way that is absolutely undocumented by any kind of archaeological evidence.
Or is it that we do not want to even acknowledge how these people went about with their lives before the advent of the European colonists? In the Hurd museum (Phoenix, AZ), there is extensive documentation of the history of several tribes in the South-West US, but all of it after they made contact with the US Federal authorities after around 1870. Basically, the same story.
I believe national museums are about honouring the people who existed before us, what they achieved, how they survived. A museum that merely showcases the “difference” is a curio shop at the end of the day. It is interesting but lacks soul.
When we left the museum, we were left wondering whether what was displayed in the Museum is what the American-Indians want us to know about their heritage or is it confined to what we modern-day Americans are content to know.
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