Exhibit of the week
The National Museum of the American Indian; Washington, D.C.; through 2022
For the oldest of Washington, D.C.’s “identity” museums, “this show is a breakthrough,” said Edward Rothstein in The Wall Street Journal. Fourteen years after opening its doors, the National Museum of the American Indian has finally found a way to pull all Americans into a lively conversation. The institution’s current featured exhibition gathers some 300 pop-culture artifacts that represent how deeply Native American imagery and language have been woven into the dominant culture’s vernacular. From guns (Savage Arms rifles) to butter (Land O’Lakes) to life insurance (Mutual of Omaha), American Indian iconography has been used to market just about every U.S. consumer product you can think of. The show even includes a Tomahawk missile. And as insulting as some of the appropriations can be, the undeniable common denominator is an admiration for the native people and cultures that the white settlers of the nation exterminated and displaced. “What a strange phenomenon!”
In the history reviewed here, the year 1876 marked “perhaps the strangest moment,” said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. White troops were famously defeated by Lakota, Arapaho, and Northern Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but then the U.S. Army quickly prevailed in the wider war, establishing white dominance from coast to coast. Almost overnight, the use of Indian iconography exploded: “It is almost as if a giant camera went off and froze the country’s image of the American Indian forever in time: warlike, independent, and proud.” There’s a straight line from 1876 to contemporary baby bibs bearing the Washington Redskins logo, but the show also explores the complexity of such imagery in a series of side galleries. One focuses on the cruel Indian Removal Act of 1830. Another gallery explores the myth of Pocahontas, a native woman so widely admired that in 1924, when Virginia ordered that every citizen be registered as “white” or “colored,” many wealthy white Virginians insisted on an exception enabling them to preserve both their claims to whiteness and to a distant blood tie to the 17th-century Powhatan princess.
Even Thanksgiving looks different in these halls, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. Co-curator Paul Chaat Smith, a Comanche writer who in the 1970s was a member of a radical native rights group, contributes a short animated video about the holiday in which he drolly jabs white Americans for failing to live up to the ideal of comity established at the original “brunch in the forest.” But Smith also points out that the reason Thanksgiving was revived and survives to this day is that commemorating that moment when two distinct cultures met in fellowship helps Americans aspire to be their best selves. And, as Smith says, “However imperfectly we remember Indians, we’re remembering Indians.”