Celebration of Survival, Rethinking History

By Karen Rubin

Once you have spent time in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., you cannot react to Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving Day for that matter, in quite the same way.

The curvilinear building that is deliberately pointed to face the Capitol Building, the “grandfather” rocks that welcome visitors, the pond with ducks. Each element is deliberately selected, and reflects the philosophy of the Native peoples, the American Indians, who populated the Americas by the tens of millions before the arrival of the Europeans in 1492.

The museum, itself, is a testament to the improbability of the survival of these indigenous peoples – who should have rightly become extinct or become assimilated to the point of obliteration of their culture and identity.

The tone that greets you as you enter the museum is respectful, even joyful, a chance to make visible the heritage of peoples who have been for so long all but invisible and ignored in the story of this nation. It offers a celebration, in fact, of the profound fact of survival.

The museum began with Congressional enabling legislation in 1989, took 15 years to build, and is the end product of a collaboration among the many different Indian peoples.

“That was important to us,” says cultural interpreter Shirley Cloud Lane, a Navajo from Arizona, who was to be our guide, as we gather for a highlights tour.

Docent Shirley Cloud Lane describes how dresses are clues to history and heritage of native peoples at the National Museum of the American Indian (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

This was not a simple thing, since the native peoples are all different, speak different languages -much as the nations that span the European continent are different -and have very different traditions and lifestyles.

In fact, as you enter, there is a welcome wall of video screens that greets visitors in 150 Native languages, conveying the significant presence and diversity of Native peoples throughout the Americas.

She explains how the architecture of the building, how it is placed on the site, its interior design, the materials, all have meaning, and from the first moment, you are taken in.

The five-story, 250,000-square foot, curvilinear building was built on the last open space available on the National Mall, located between the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol.

Set in a 4.25-acre landscaped site with wetlands, the textured golden-colored golden-toned Kasota dolomitic limestone from Minnesota exterior evokes natural rock formations formed by wind and water through time.

More than 40 “Grandfather” rocks line the entranceway, “like the elders welcoming you.”

The door does not face South or North like the other buildings of the Smithsonian on the mall, but instead, is purposefully placed to fast east, to honor the sun, and not coincidentally, to look out at the Capitol Building, as if to “keep an eye” on the legislators who have not always acted honorably to native peoples.

The building itself represents Mother Earth -you enter into a clockwise direction, considered the polite way to enter a room to create “positive energy.” All around are symbols and forms that reflect the Native universe – sun, moon, stars. Mother Earth, plants, animals, rocks, water, other humans.

The shape of the building is a dome and circular -like an igloo. The circle is an essential symbol, she notes.

“Native peoples think in terms of circle. We use circular thinking -we end where we begin. European logic is linear.”

This difference in thinking and perspective goes to the heart of the clash of cultures that ensued. “How we see things versus how Europeans see things, is why the big clash,” she says.

The native peoples are very different, “But where they meet is a creation story,” she says, as she takes us to the exhibit called “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World”.

The exhibit explains Native cosmologies and the spiritual relationship between mankind and the natural world. It explores annual ceremonies of Native peoples as windows into ancestral Native teachings -such as the annual Denver March Powwow, the North American Indigenous Games in Canada and the Day of the Dead in Mexico – as seasonal celebrations that unite different Native peoples.

Here, you begin to appreciate the importance of the oral tradition, and the venerated role of ancestors in maintaining and passing along that tradition.

Native peoples did not have written language, and as a result, were viewed as savages -godless heathens, uncivilized, “stupid,” and “dumb” – by the Europeans, who felt they had the right to Christianize them or remove them. Then, when, in their attempt to forcibly Americanize Native peoples, they outlawed speaking their Native languages, they effectively destroyed their history as well because nothing was written down.

The “Our Universes” gallery is constructed according to seasons, because these lessons are learned in the course of a year. It takes a year to learn the full creation story, because many parts of the story -and the ritual – only happen in those seasons. (It strikes me that this is similar to how the Torah is throughout the year, which also was an oral tradition).

“We didn’t have religion that we practiced on Sunday. Ours was a way of life -a journey. Everything important is a circle of life. Everything connected to each other, what we call ‘Keh’. We believe in balance and harmony�” Learning the lessons of life is a long process, she says. “The creator knows that, so gives the gift of a lifetime to learn to become a human being -that’s life’s journey.”

There is a night sky of stars. “There are stories are in the stars -constellations, songs, ceremonies, there is healing power in the stars.”

There are seven values and virtues: truth, humility, honesty, respect, courage, love, wisdom.

“How do we learn? Create a problem, challenge -the ‘aha’ moment when recognize are on this journey. Gray hair means that you have had aha moments; all white means you are ‘a human being.’ We want elders in our home, community -is a blessing.

“We do not have doctrine or creeds; this is a journey, whether you want to be on it or not.”

Youngsters use interactive computers to get more information on the thousands of artifacts on display at the National Museum of the American Indian (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

There are any number of “aha” moments as you experience this museum. Nothing like being hit in the head, but by virtue of coming face-to-face with the artifacts, and even faces, of Native peoples.

In my own mind, one of these “aha moments” forms about another difference that was at the heart of the clash of cultures: that Native Peoples’ cultural orientation was to focus on the past, doing things as their ancestors did -a philosophical foundation that enabled them to survive tens of thousands of years by finding a balance with nature-but ultimately clashing with a culture focused on pressing forward. Being American was to break with the past, to do things differently from European ancestors -being progressive.

The museum’s collection consists of some 800,000 objects of aesthetic, cultural, historical and spiritual significance (about 8,000 are on view at any one time). The objects, spanning 10,000 years of Native American heritage, were mainly collected by George Gustav Heye, who gathered something from every native community throughout North and South America on his journeys between the 1870s to 1920s.

Shirley Cloud Lane notes that Europeans’ identity is based on the last name; in Navajo, the last name is the clan family, and someone’s full name literally traces their ancestry from the very beginning.

It is important to know who you are descended from, because people are not allowed to marry within their clan -an animal clan can marry a water clan.

“We can be from different parts of the world and still be in the same clan. Among my people are 150 clans and the cousin clans.”

But a lot of that identity, the “who we are” piece is lost because of the loss of language -the lost songs, the lost tradition.

“It is gone forever. Native people are teaching young ones the language, trying to train linguists.” They are trying to draw upon “cousin” languages to reconstruct.

Native peoples have other records of their past -petroglyphs, the drawn symbols (only men were allowed to draw realistically; women could only use abstract symbols, such as in the clothes they made); talking sticks, totem poles. The colored patterns of shells and beads also tell a story -the white and purple beads of a wampum belt symbolizes two Natives walking together without interference, which signifies a peace agreement.

In another section, she describes the system of government -based on checks and balances. Men were leaders (not one chief, but several leaders), and clan mothers had the responsibility to insure that decisions were made according to moral tradition.

In fact, the federal-style system of the Iroquois Confederation, with its system of separation of powers, is believed to have provided a model for the U.S. Constitution. Some of the delegates to the Convention knew of the Confederation (notably Benjamin Franklin) and the two documents share many concepts.

‘Identity By Design’

The benefit of taking this tour with Shirley Cloud Lane is eye-opening when we enter the special exhibit that is currently on view (through Jan. 2, 2008): “Identity by Design.”

Normally, I would have breezed through the exhibit of 55 dresses and 200 accessories, including belts, leggings, moccasins and purses from the Plains, Plateau and Great Basin regions of the United States and Canada. But under her tutelage, I appreciate how these provide a window into the stories and history of the people, embedded in the design and the materials.

“When you wear your dress,” she says, “you’re carrying the spirit of all the people who gave you the lessons of life, who made dresses before you.”

Surely the design and materials reflect the physical environment -the animals and plants that were available and the climate. But just as we discover from the “grandfather rocks” and the positioning of the building, there is spirituality and tradition sewn in every stitch, while later, the styles, patterns and materials tell of the more contemporary history as the clash of cultures unfolded.

For example, in making a three-hide dress in the ancient tradition, a deer-hide would be folded over to make the top, and two legs would hang down on each side of the dress, kept as a marker to show the respect for the animals that gave their lives for the dress. The tail of the animal is also placed close to the heart, to honor the animal’s sacrifice to protect the person from elements.

There are sacred animals, like the Eagle, which flies the highest and is seen as a messenger from the Creator, so Eagle feathers are used in specific ways.

A mother and son use a computer database at the National Museum of the American Indian (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

The dresses have abstract designs, she says because by tradition, “women not allowed to draw as they see, only men can show ‘reality’ because they carry the stories.”

There are dresses that are specially made to mark a Native girl’s rite of passage to womanhood. When girls reached adolescence, they were required to wear and sometimes help make special outfits -which gave them a sense of confidence, self-respect and a sense of belonging to the tribe.

But the design and materials of the dresses change with the increase in encounters and trade with Europeans. That’s when glass beads and other materials gathered from all over the world, are used as decoration in place of natural materials like shells, feathers and plant dyes. The dresses begin to be made in bright colors and of cloth.

“Native women are no different from any other woman in the world -they like bright colors, pretty things,” she says.

After a short time, a new art form was born -the glass beads allowed women to experiment with a diverse number of colors, techniques and designs that led to distinct beadwork styles among tribes.

In another “aha moment” it occurs to me that as the dresses turn more and more away from the honor and respect for past traditions, and more toward the new ways of the Europeans, the native peoples get into more and more trouble -first through an economic dependency on outsiders.

After President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, defying the U.S. Supreme Court in forcing Indians to march 800 miles from their ancestral homes in places like Georgia to reservations in Oklahoma over what came to be known as a “Trail of Tears” for the thousands who died, Indians were barred from practicing their culture.

They were prohibited from hunting, so instead of being made of animal hide or even the cloth they would have traded the hides for, the dresses in this period were made from cheap muslin supplied by the federal government.

The American government “didn’t allow celebration of native ceremonies, so we learned when they celebrated American holidays and we did our own in secret. Everyone wanted natives to become Christian -so we put these symbols -American flags and crosses – on clothes to make the government believe were assimilating.

“They didn’t know what to do with us,” she related, “We were confined to prison, shot. It becomes hopeless. There was no one to speak on your behalf.”

“We did what we do in our five-finger, two-legs way -we called out to the Creator.”

A Payute man had a revelation about a “Ghost Dance -that if they wore this white shirt and danced, they could not be harmed. “It was a piece of hope, and it spread like wildfire.”

A group of Lakota at Wounded Knee danced the Ghost Dance. Articles about the ceremony written by reporters, sensationalizing what was going on to sell newspapers, raised concerns that the Indians were dancing a war dance and an uprising was in the making. Federal soldiers were sent out and a massacre ensued.

There are three of the “Ghost Dance” dresses on display that were worn by women. Tellingly, no photographs are permitted of these because they are regarded as sacred.

She says, “I didn’t tell about Wounded Knee, about prison, because we are angry -to say ‘This was your fault,’ but to show how far we’ve come.

“We have the opposite attitude: ‘How would you know something is beautiful?'”

Indeed, the final section of “Identity by Design” is about “Celebration” -magnificently beaded dresses used in important celebrations.

“We’re celebrating because we are still here,” she says in a quiet, deliberate voice. “Now we have a museum where we can tell our story in our way. This is the last piece of property on the mall -right across from Capitol Building where all those terrible decisions were made. We are still here because we were meant to be here. These are powerful stories, songs. We celebrate. We still decorate with glass beads, dancing, singing our song.

“The only reason we are still here: intelligence, spirituality, a view to the seventh generation, and humor. If the government wanted to shoot us all, they could have.

“Eck and ho-jo and things to come. The native way is to make decisions with a view to the ‘Seventh Generation’. We think ‘How will decisions today affect the seventh generation?’ -that is this generation today, who would be here, to give honor to our ancestors for decisions that they made.

“The fourth reason have survived,” she adds, “is humor -a powerful tool. Today, in the seventh generation, we laugh a lot. Something may be hurtful, but we can laugh. We tell jokes about Custer, the American government -not to make fun but to show healing.

“Now we can tell the story -who we really are. We are the name, ‘The People.’ This is our story,” says Shirley Cloud Lane.

Exploring the Museum

With this newfound understanding, I go off to explore more of the museum.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors to the public on Sept. 21, 2004. The museum, which was 15 years in the making, is the first national museum in the country dedicated exclusively to Native Americans, the first to present all exhibitions from a Native viewpoint and the first constructed on the National Mall since 1987.

Circular lobby introduces visitors to elements of beliefs, culture (© 2007 Karen Rubin).

“Visitors will leave this museum experience knowing that Indians are not just a part of history. We are still here and are making vital contributions to contemporary American culture and art,” museum founding director W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne) said.

A central message is of the diversity among American Indians, reinforced in a 13-minute multimedia experience, “Who We Are” which prepares museumgoers for their visit.

The museum’s signature film, “A Thousand Roads,” has daily screenings in the Rasmuson Theater on the first floor. The 43-minute film, directed by award-winning independent filmmaker Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), is a fictional work that follows the lives of four contemporary Native Americans as they confront the crises that arise in a single day. With epic-sized settings that include the crest of the Andes, the ice floes of Alaska, the mesas of New Mexico and the concrete canyons of Manhattan, “A Thousand Roads” takes viewers on a memorable Native journey (recommended for children ages 12 and older.

In addition to “Our Universes,” there are other permanent exhibits.

“Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities” examines the identities of Native peoples in the 21st century and how those identities, both individual and communal, are shaped by deliberate choices made in challenging circumstances. Videos, wall labels, holographs and 300 objects work together to bring important Indian issues to the forefront. The exhibition also deals with the turbulent times of the 1960s and 1970s when the “Red Power” movement was born.

“Window on the Collections: Many Hands, Many Voices” exhibition offers a view into the vast collections of the museum by showcasing 3,500 objects arranged in seven categories. Objects include animal-themed figurines and objects, beadwork, containers, dolls, peace medals, projectile points and qeros (cups for ritual drinking).

“Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake” educates visitors on the Native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region-what is now Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware-through photographs, maps, ceremonial and everyday objects, and touch screens. This compact exhibition provides an overview of the history and events from the 1600s to the present, which have had an impact on the lives of the Nanticoke, Powhatan and Piscataway tribes.

The museum includes the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, which offers authentic entrees, snacks, desserts and beverages based on Native culinary traditions of the Americas. The name Mitsitam (mit-seh-TOM), meaning, “let’s eat,” is taken from the native Piscataway and Delaware languages. The Mitsitam Cafe features menus from five geographic regions covering the entire Western Hemisphere: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Meso America and Great Plains. The Zagat-rated Mitsitam Cafe is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the full menu is available from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Two museum stores-the Chesapeake Museum Store and the Roanoke Museum Store-sell Native arts and crafts, souvenirs, books, recordings and other merchandise. Both museum stores operate from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

‘Giving Voice to Our Histories’

The area I find most compelling is “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories,” which highlights historical events told from a Native point of view. The exhibition presents Native Americans’ struggles to maintain traditions in the face of adversity. It includes a spectacular “wall of gold” featuring more than 400 figurines and gold objects dating back before 1491, European swords, coins and crosses made from melted gold, and a central area called “The Storm,” with glass walls that change with shifting colors and video screens that present a narration of a vastly changed Native world.

There is an entire wall of portraits from the early 19th century -and a challenge to interpret the history differently.

But the fact is that in 1491, America was inhabited by tens of millions of native peoples.

In the period of the European invasions, from1492-1650, nine out of 10 native people died.

“Survival is the extraordinary story…History is not known -we encourage skepticism, reflection, argument.”

Up until now, none of the histories nor the collections had been created by Native Americans.

“The subjects -us -were always portrayed from outside, from their own agenda…There is the paradox of being visible but invisible, stripped of our history.

“This Museum is the end product of sharing, giving voice. It has a point of view, an agenda also. It is our way of looking at the Native American experience -told through the history of selected native communities.”

Up until now, the history of America begins in 1492, when Christopher Columbus discovered “The New World,” and 1620, when the Pilgrims established the first permanent settlement at Plymouth. The aim of the National Museum of the American Indian is to shift that starting point, “where the Americas’ heritage begins. We hope that visitors will walk away with a sense of their own origins and the origins of the United States and all nations in the Western Hemisphere.”

Visiting is like joining the journey to knowledge, which Shirley Cloud Lane spoke of -at the end, you question whether our materialistic, live-for-today culture that is in such contrast to the philosophy of Native Peoples (there is actually a modern incarnation of this, in New Age, and ancient elements in Wicca) will serve us as well as the philosophy of Native Peoples -the balance and harmony with nature, and thinking about the 7th Generation in making decisions.

The Native Peoples who had survived so successfully for tens of thousands of years on the land before the Europeans arrived, still have much to teach us. Indeed, we have coined a modern term for this: “sustainable development.”

And what’s old has become new again -truly the circle that Shirley Cloud Lane had described.

Footnote: after the “Identity By Design” exhibition closes in Washington, D.C., Jan. 2, 2008, it will travel to the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, where it will open in Fall 2008 (Alexander Hamilton US Custom House, One Bowling Green, 212-514-3700).

The National Museum of the American Indian is located at 4th Street & Independence Avenue SW, 202-633-1000, It is open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; admission is free.
© 2007 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to .

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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