Background
During the 1980s many states began passing individual laws that resembled the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. NAGPRA is a Federal Act that was instituted to protect the rights of Native American remains the way previous acts had protected material artifacts. When these laws began taking affect the possession of remains or objects removed from federal land or Native American land became illegal and was accompanied by severe punishments that had museums and scientists scrambling to unload anything that might incriminate them.

At the time these laws began forming the Smithsonian Institute housed thousands of uncataloged Native American artifacts and remains. They quite literally did not know what they had or how to begin to find everything. With the amount of remains alone the Institute housed the legal charges from NAGPRA could have crippled and possibly closed the museum.

Years earlier (1874–1957) had lived a New Yorker, George Gustav Heye, who had amassed a huge private collection of Native American artifacts. He quite literally had more than 800,000 pieces, and by the end of his life he was looking for a new home for them. The Smithsonian made a deal with Heye that they would create a museum dedicated to Native Americans if he gave the artifacts to them. The artifacts given by Heye accounts for some of the Smithsonian's collection in the 80s, but not all of it. The rest had come from excavations, borrowed collections and random donations made by people who wanted to help in education about the past.

This vast collection and this deal to form a museum about Native American history is the reason that NAGPRA does not apply to the Smithsonian's collection. Something that has wrankled many NAGPRA advocates. Decades after an act of Congress established the plans for the National Museum of the American Indian it has finally come to realization.

The NMAI
On September 21, 2004 the Smithsonian opened the doors of the NMAI in Washington D.C. to the public. This beautifully designed building on the D.C. mall is the center piece of the NMAI but it is not the only building in the museum. On Oct. 30, 1994, the George Gustav Heye Center of the NMAI opened in New York. This center serves as a preview of sorts to the larger facility, it has it's own exhibitions that it rotate. And there is yet another building located in Maryland, the Cultural Resource Center, that was completed in 1998. It is this third building that serves as a home for the vast collection of the NMAI that is not on display, as well as a center for continuing research on items in the collection. It is possible to tour the CRC.

By having all of these facilities the Smithsonian ensures the public the ability to see a larger portion of the collection. This aspect becomes important when you actually visit the D.C. museum and see how much of the space is dedicated to showing art and artifacts.

The D.C. museum has four floors and houses three exhibitions, several museum stores, two theaters, a resource center and a restaurant on the first floor. The exhibitions are split into three categories: Our People, Our Universe and Our Lives. The organizers of the museum worked closely with Native American tribes in both the design of the building, the layout and content of the exhibits and the landscaping surrounding the building. Though it is located in D.C. and much of the area has been developed, they took care to reserve portions of the site for vegetation. Portions of the landscaping includes crops Native cultures used and one section recreates the wetland that once existed in the area the building stands upon.

Personal Opinion
For an Archaeology assignment a group of students and I went to the NMAI and critiqued one of their exhibits. Our goal was to determine what the curators intended the viewer to walk away with and then decide if they accomplished it. The exhibit we observed was Our People and what we observed was surprising. Each of the members in my group, including myself, were attending the museum for the first time since the opening so we had no idea what to expect as far as content goes.

There was an amazingly large amount of artifacts in each display case within the exhibit. The layout of the exhibit itself was impressive in that the shape of the exhibit was incorporated into the message of the exhibit. Where there were artifacts that belonged to a tribe you had circles, curves and waving lines. Where there were artifacts that belonged to the European 'invaders' there were straight lines breaking up or reshaping those circles and curves. This was not only true of the individual artifacts but of the walls they were suspended from. In one example a 'room' within the exhibit was oval shaped, a contrast to the circle shaped 'rooms' the individual tribe displays were in. The change in shape reflected the forced alteration of the Native peoples by European colonists. The content of the room was largely that of streaming video on several monitors set inside walls all around the room. The video told the story of the children of tribes and how they were taken from their homes and placed in schools where they were forced to wear 'white' clothing and speak a language foreign to them.

Overall we were impressed by the design of the exhibit and it's accomplishment in adding to their intended message. The place where we felt it fell short was in representation and explanation. It was amazing how biased the exhibit felt towards North American tribes, almost completely pushing South American tribes into corners. And the Mesoamerican cultures of the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, etc. were barely mentioned if they were mentioned. Although their artifacts hung at the entrance there was no text identifying which culture the artifacts were associated with. The small paragraphs displayed on the glass of the display case spoke in generalities about the cultures as a whole and their interaction with Spanish conquistadors.

I recommend visiting the museum and looking at the exhibits yourself. I definitely intend to take a second look at it and see if the other two exhbits were similar to Our People. Unfortunately I didn't have time that day to spend visiting Our Universe or Our Lives.


References:
Avey, Gary. Welcome Home: National Museum of the American Indian Opens at Last. Native Peoples Magazine. Sept/Oct 2004.

National Museum of the American Indian www.nmai.si.edu

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