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American Indians Open a Massive New Museum in Washington

by WS Editors

Oct 15, 2004 | Culture


Some scholarly speculation has placed the beginning of Native American civilization in about 5,000 B.C., roughly 6,500 years before 1492 A.D., when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Although he was an avid ocean crosser, Columbus made four trans-Atlantic voyages from Spain, but never reached North America. Because he knew the earth was round, he reasoned he could reach “the Indies” by sailing West. He didn’t bargain on running into another, then unknown continent.

There remains disagreement over whether the American Indians came here by boat—and from where is even less certain—or if their founding fathers “fell from the sky,” as some Indian faith purports. But either way they came here more directly than Columbus.

In 1492 Columbus found the Canary Islands and then San Salvador, in the Bahamas, and claimed possession of them for Spain. By 1498 he had discovered, and had become viceroy of, other islands, including Hispaniola, the Leeward Islands, St. Kitts, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Trinidad and also Honduras. The people he met, he called “Indians.”

Mainland Indians were lucky that Columbus didn’t land there. His shipboard log described the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean that he corralled as so “cowardly” that they could be forced to “work and sow and do everything else that shall be necessary.” That legacy was remembered by 600 protesting Colorado Indians who blocked this year’s Columbus Day parade in Denver, carrying signs that said, “Not Genocide—Celebrate Pride.” More than 200 of them were arrested.

The Vikings, under Leif Ericsson, had discovered some of North America almost 500 years earlier. There is speculation about their landings, but the sites often mentioned include Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where Viking implements have been found dating back to the year 1000.

In 1585 English colonists landed on Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast, but ships that returned there in 1590 found the settlement abandoned, apparently because of disease or Indian attacks. The fate of “The Lost Colony” remains one of American history’s enduring mysteries.

The first permanent English settlement in America was built in 1607 on marsh land at Jamestown in southeast Virginia. After surviving some starving winters, the colonists were saved by the arrival of English supply ships.

Tobacco, long grown by the Indians of North America, began to be cultivated by the English settlers there in 1612 for profitable export to the millions who became hooked on it in Europe. Indians also showed the settlers how to grow other exportable crops, including corn, pumpkins, cranberries and tomatoes. And Jamestown became the home of Pocahontas, a daughter of the Pamunkey chief, Powhatan. After first being kidnapped for ransom by English settlers, she was wooed by and married a successful English tobacco planter, a union that brought a period of peace between the colony and Indians.

The celebrated Plymouth settlement in Massachusetts wasn’t established until 1620, when separatist English Puritans aboard the Mayflower failed to reach their destination in Virginia territory and landed at Cape Cod instead. A treaty in 1621 with the Wampanoag Indians brought both sides 50 years of local peace. That was not available in other bloody combats with Indians whom pious whites attacked, believing them to be agents of Satan.

Some of the English settlers of the Massachusetts Bay also profited from the agricultural training given them by a few Indians they befriended and excluded from their harsh judgement of other “savages” and “heathens.” The settlers, who experienced periodic starving times, learned how to plant and harvest corn, squash and beans and were shown the prime areas to fish and hunt. Still, some colonists favored taking over Indian villages, many of which were devastated by exposure to deadly European diseases, and were determined to drive the Indians away.

Some of that we knew. But how about the city of Cahokia, near what later became St. Louis, Missouri? According to Richard West, Jr., a member of the Cheyenne tribe and a Washington lawyer who is the scholarly, Harvard-educated director of Washington’s just-opened National Museum of the American Indian, Cahokia had an Indian population estimated at 50,000, or more than the population then of London, when Englishmen came ashore on the east coast of North America.
West says that “life was not pretty for much of the history of the Native Americans after the European encounter occurred,” bringing to them what he calls “the destructive edge of colonialism.”

But he adds that there are still more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the United States, proving that more than 2 million Native Americans “are still here,” and despite the lack of “mutual respect between non-natives and natives . . . we are not gone.”

EARLY RECOGNITION—The early natives set some lasting examples for the America we all live in today. Benjamin Franklin—and I should say that I am his namesake, not a descendantbecame so impressed with the Pennsylvania Iroquois’ tribal constitution, which he saw when he was hired as the tribe’s printer, that the Pennsylvania colony named him to his first diplomatic job, its “Indian Commissioner.”

In 1754 Franklin asked a gathering of American colonial delegates—white men—to use the constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, adopted in a peaceful merger of six combative tribes, as a model for what would eventually, in 1781, be ratified as the U.S. Articles of Confederation. The Iroquois constitution banned the forced entry of private homes by a tribal government, protected freedom of political and religious expression, and imposed the impeachment of corrupt leaders.

Among the long list of other fascinating Indian unknowns, the fact that Articles I, VI and VII of our Constitution are modeled after the Iroquois charter, is a story not widely perceived. Not until 1987 did the U.S. Senate finally pass a resolution stating that the U.S. Constitution had been modeled on American Indian democracy.

LEARNING HISTORY—We all have a lot of homework to do to begin grasping the Native American saga. For me, it included a long visit to the new American Indian museum, a curvaceous, cantilevered block-long, sand-colored limestone palace located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol.

The NMAI, as it is called in acronymic Washingtonese, is the latest part of the Smithsonian’s massive institutional accumulation along The Mall. Some critics of The Mall’s controversial architecture say it may be renamed “The Maul.” A separate museum on African-Americans is coming to The Mall next, in about 10 years.

I discovered, to my dismay, that one day was not nearly enough time to get oriented to the complex interior layout of the American Indian museum, much less to grasp the significance of the many poorly labeled displays.

The museum opened on September 21 with a drum-beating, dancing, costumed procession that got some media attention. An Episcopalian bishop, the Rt. Rev. Carol Gallagher, a Cherokee Indian and the Episcopalian Bishop who heads the Diocese of Southern Virginia, arranged a special service at the Washington National Cathedral that included Native American singers, drummers and dancers.

Richard West, the NMAI director, has said that “native peoples want to remove themselves from the category of cultural relics and, instead, be seen and interpreted as peoples and cultures with a deep past that are very much alive today. They want the opportunity to speak directly to our audiences through our public programs, presentations and exhibits—to articulate in their own voices and through their own eyes the meaning of the objects in our collections and their import in native art, culture and history.”

But in its first crowded weeks, the impression of the crowds was that the museum did not seem to be laid out in chronological or geographic sequence. The NMAI website also seems too unfocused, as yet, to be very informative. But it promises “vast stores of information” for all Americans, including the increasing number of Indians who have computers.

Additionally, the museum is so fascinating and instructive about a part of our own national heritage that we don’t know—but need to grasp—that it is worth a day, or more, of close attention whenever you are Washington. The museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

But better first to get a copy of the museum’s “inaugural book,” Native Universe—Voices of Indian America, a detailed, wonderfully illustrated and well-mapped, 320-page history of the Indian past and a glimpse into the future. I got mine for about $30 at www.amazon.com.

“HOW”—Many of us, if not most, recognize that word as the well-known, if hackneyed (by us), greeting of a Native American, the equivalent of “hello.” But how much else is known among us, the heirs of the white invaders who began arriving here five centuries ago, seems minimal.

Growing up in American classrooms and monitoring the radio, television and the movies, we knew about Tonto, the Indian companion of the Lone Ranger, who called him Kemo Sabe—supposedly “he who knows.” On the other hand, Tonto means “dummy” in Spanish—not very nice for your trusted Indian guide. We saw all those John Wayne and other Western movies, many of them replete with savage “redskin” villains. The prejudicial combat is not over yet.
TODAY’S WAR PATHS—The Native American “Trail of Tears” came into being in the 1830s when the U.S. Army enforced the expulsion at rifle point of 16,000 Cherokees from their historic eastern settlements in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, from whence they struggled to prairie land in what became Oklahoma. Some 4,000 Indians died during a deportation that the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson declared would “stink to the world.”

Indian abuse continues today as a fiscal holocaust. It is finally being challenged in court, but the 120-year-old government rip-off of the tribes by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) continues.

The BIA, originally part of the War Department because of the decades of armed combat with warrior tribes, is a notoriously blundering branch of the Interior Department. As we have noted before, its bureaucratic bungles have contributed to its parent agency’s on-the-street Washington title: the “Inferior Department.”

In 1887, as Indian reservations were being broken up and the federal government began leasing or selling the oil, mineral, grazing and timber resources on the Indians’ land to private developers, Congress passed an act allotting modest paybacks to the Indians who were the former occupants.

An ongoing, decade-long tribal lawsuit centers on the BIA, which doles out in small amounts about $500 million a year of the money owed to the Indians. The BIA’s so-called “trust fund,” now loaded with an undistributed $3 billion, has cheated hundreds of thousands of Indians for decades of $137 billion in royalties from the natural resource leases.

In 1994 Congress finally passed the American Indian Trust Reform Management Act, and in court in Washington since 1996 the BIA has been forced to concede that it has mislaid thousands of files and lost track of unpaid beneficiaries. The frequently exasperated federal judge hearing the case, Royce Lamberth, has called the agency’s incompetent conduct “the gold standard for mismanagement by the federal government for more than a century.”

Now comes another astonishing rip-off of Indians—again not widely covered by the media. It involves the shredding of millions of dollars from a few tribes with gambling casino incomes by two operatives of a non-government Washington institution, the lobbying industry.

Two Washington lobbyists, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, the latter a former aide of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), have come under belated public attack for chiseling more than $80 million in lobbying fees from six casino-operating tribes. (DeLay is also under crunching criticism by the House Ethics Committee for other shenanigans.)

The Indian tribes paying the lobbyists expected the two men to protect their casino operations. Instead, they were not only bilked, but as disclosed last month in the first of a series of public hearings by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the hired influence-peddlers sent each other a racially denigrating exchange of e-mails referring to their tribal clients as “monkeys” and “troglodytes.”

The lobbyists extended their contempt of their clients before the investigating Senate committee. Although both men were subpoenaed to be there, Scanlon did not show up, and Abramoff rejected questions, invoking the Fifth Amendment.

THE “RED” STATES—On campaign maps they are supposedly Republican strongholds. But as more of the American Indian electorate becomes active this year than ever before, that’s good news for Democrats.

The New York Times has reported that tribes with casino gambling income have contributed $4.9 million to federal political campaigns this year, 65 percent of it to Democrats. To help voter turnout, the Navajo nation, the largest tribe, with 300,000 members in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, moved its tribal government elections to November 2 to coincide with the Bush-Kerry showdown.

A particularly Indian-focused election is coming up in South Dakota, where Democratic Senator Tom Daschle, the Democrats’ Senate floor leader, is a major Republican target. Daschle may benefit from the support of one of the largest Indian populations in the nation.

The Rosebud Sioux gave Daschle the symbolic tribal honor of a red feather, granting him a chance to repeat the tribal turnout in the 2002 Congressional election. That helped give another South Dakota Democrat, Senator Tim Johnson, a 524-vote victory over John Thune, a Republican. Thune is now challenging Daschle. Daschle has campaign offices at all nine South Dakota Indian reservations.

The Democratic governor of Maine, John Baldacci, is cultivating the Pine Tree State’s Penobscot indians. Maine is setting up and financing its Penobscot reservation as the job-creating manager, warehouser and distributor of the lower-priced pharmaceutical drugs it plans to buy in Canada for residents of Maine, barring a federal government ban on the reimportation of drugs from Canada.

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