About three years ago, during a spring break trip, my friends and I went to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. to view a new exhibition called Comic Art Indigene. This exhibit took the Native American tradition of story- telling and placed it in the modern framework of comic book art. As a comic book fan and history lover, I was really excited about this unique exhibit that focused on contemporary Native American culture instead of just the romantic images of native people of the past. The NMAI from its founding has focused on eradicating the “vanishing Indian,” myth that still seems to permeate textbooks and many other museum exhibitions. NMAI has endeavored to reveal a story of not just survival but the enduring vibrancy of Native American tribes from all over the country.
However the myth of the vanishing Indian still prevails today. Many students rarely learn of the Native Congress of American Indians or the American Indian Movement in before college, two groups that organized Native Americans from all over the country to protest and lobby for their civil rights during the tumultuous 1960s. It is no surprise, since the history of the Native Americans in the United States seems to end with the Trail of Tears and Indian Removal in high school history classes. I did not learn about the modern Native American Civil Rights movement until my third year in college. Many people, especially on the east coast, still mistakenly belief that eastern Native American tribes no longer exist.
This belief of invisibility has reinforced the myth and the perception that the “authentic” tribal traditions of the past should be preserved, often by non tribal members. In an article entitled the Museum of the Plains White Person, author Rayna Green mocks the ideas behind the impetus to create Native American History Museums that are meant to “preserve” the authentic Native American traditions of the past. Though there are legitimate concerns in preserving past Native American cultural traditions, it should not be an excuse to forget or dismiss the current tribal traditions and tribes that have adopted new ways of interacting with contemporary culture while maintaining their traditions. This romantic myth of the “real Indian” has also caused outside groups to question tribal affiliation and identity as many descendents of Native Americans do not fit the preconceived image of a “real” Native American. Outside groups question the “authenticity” of contemporary tribes that not only look different but act different from preconceptions by building casinos or engaging in popular culture like comic book art. Today’s tribal members reflect the diversity of the mainstream American society.
It is us to the rest American society to embrace and celebrate both the traditional and contemporary Native American identity as authentic. It should be up to museums like NMAI to reinforce the legitimacy of both.