Native Voice, NMAI, and “Infinity of Nations”

When I was thinking about what to write for my blog post on an exhibition or cultural institution that relates to this week’s theme, which is Native Americans, I immediately thought of NMAI. In this week’s readings for class, we examined the necessity of a Native voice when interpreting and exhibiting Native American history, art, and culture. We read “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz”, by the Indians of All Tribes. This proposal, written 1970, was part of an effort by a group of San Francisco Bay Area Indians, to seize the land on the island of Alcatraz to create a space for cultural interpretation by Native people.

The National Museum of the American Indian, established as a three-part institution of the Smithsonian in 2004, celebrates the contributions that Native people have made to this country and to the world, and does so with a Native voice [1]. As NMAI is the largest institution in the world dedicated to, and run by Native Americans, perhaps they succeeded in fulfilling some of the hopes of the Indians of All Tribes.

NMAI on the National Mall, Wikimedia Commons

One of their online exhibits to explore, which emphasizes and presents the Native voice, is “Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American Indian.”

As a permanent exhibit at NMAI, “Infinity of Nations” presents 700 works of art from North, Central, and South America [2]. The objects were chosen to show the geographic and chronological scope of the museum’s enormous collection. Organized by geographic areas, such as Patagonia, the Andes, Amazon, the Southwest, Plains, and Woodlands, each section begins with a brief description of the area, some of the history of the Native people, and 15-20 images of objects to click on. Once you click on an object, you are brought to another page of layered information. A large image of the object, with identifying information is included, and a quote.

The quotes feature both historic and contemporary voices of Natives, about the objects seen in the exhibition. Some are short, and reference the object from a personal point of view, such as this quote for  a beaded Inuit women’s parka:

“I like the sound the beads make as I walk.”

—Arviat (Inuit), seamstress [3]

Other quotes relate to the owners of the objects, such as this one for a set of moccasins owned by Peo Peo T’olikt:

“After the soldiers left, we returned to our ruined homes. Several teepees had been burned or otherwise ruined. Much had been carried away and many objects destroyed or badly damaged. Brass buckets always carefully kept by the women, lay battered, smashed…. Growing gardens trampled and destroyed. Nearly all our horses were taken and every hoof of cattle driven away.”

—Peo Peo T´olikt, the attack on the camp at Clear Creek [4]

Other quotes provide historical information about the object from Native sources, like this one, about a medal presented to Kiyo’kaga:

“The many moons and sunny days we have lived here will long be remembered by us. The Great Spirit has smiled upon us and made us glad. But we have agreed to go. We go to a country we know little of. Our home will be beyond a great river on the way to the setting sun. We will build our wigwams there in another land. The men we leave here in possession of these lands cannot say Keokuk or his people ever took up the tomahawk. In peace we bid you goodbye. …If you come see us, we will gladly welcome you.”

—Keokuk, 1834 [5]

Although it is not on Alcatraz, it would seem that NMAI has succeeded in capturing some of the goals presented in the Planning Grant Proposal, to create a Native-run cultural-educational center, on a national scale, for Native Americans.






One thought on “Native Voice, NMAI, and “Infinity of Nations”

  1. I really like the inclusion of personal quotes. I think too often with artifacts we remove the personal and lose some of the meaning behind them.

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