The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was established in 1989 through enactment of the National Museum of the American Indian Act and brought together the existing holdings of the Smithsonian Institution and the collection of George Gustav Heye (1874–1957). The museum is home to more than 800,000 Native artifacts from throughout the Western Hemisphere, as well as an archive of more than 125,000 photographs. In addition to mounting exhibitions at the museum in Washington, DC, and the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, NMAI operates the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, which houses the museum’s collections, research facilities, and repatriation program. Kevin Gover (Pawnee) has been director since 2007.
Kevin Gover: The National Museum of the American Indian was founded because Indians were demanding a new relationship with museums. Its establishment was really a result of advocacy on the part of Native Americans, and their insistence that the Indigenous objects and artifacts in museum collections (like the calendar stick shown here), were part of the histories of living, as opposed to vanished, cultures—which, unfortunately, is not how those museums tended to present that material.
We had a chance to reinvent that relationship when Congress created the museum in 1989. We didn’t have to carry with us the baggage of our predecessor institutions, and their anthropological approach to the collection and display of cultural artifacts. I think the tribes expected great things from us in terms of interpreting the material and, at the same time, telling the story of their history with the United States. Hopefully, we’ve delivered on those expectations.
In our collecting, we largely focus on contemporary art. We are often offered troves of ethnographic material, and we still receive those. No collection is encyclopedic, and we want to continue to fill the gaps in ours. But when we actually go out to spend money, it is on acquiring modern works.
For instance, in our ongoing “Ancestral Connections” exhibition in New York, we are showing a blown-glass piece by Seattle artist Marvin Oliver (Quinault/Isleta-Pueblo), who passed away just this summer. It is in the shape of a traditional Northwest Indian fish trap, a loosely woven basket with a narrow opening at the top that the fish swim into, with three blown-glass fish suspended inside.
Besides how beautiful it is, there are a couple of interesting things about this sculpture. One is that the fish have human hands. The artist told me that this is because the Northwest Coast and Columbia River tribes consider themselves fish people, that they are relatives of the fish. And so, they assign human qualities to the fish they are capturing. Another significant element is the photograph reproduced on a portion of the basket—a quite famous photograph of Indians fishing at a place called Celilo Falls. Celilo Falls was very important to the livelihood of the Plateau tribes of the Columbia River Basin, but what the work doesn’t tell you is that the falls were destroyed in 1957 with the damming of the Columbia River. And yet they exist deep in tribal memory.
Then, on view here in Washington, is a rather amazing object that we acquired a couple of years ago. During the 2016–17 Dakota Access Pipeline protests at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, someone put up a post ten or eleven feet high, and people started nailing homemade mile markers on it with the names of the places they were from and how far they had come. So, for instance, a marker might say “Mississippi River 837 miles,” or whatever, and soon the post was covered with hundreds of signs pointing in different directions.
At some point, through indirect channels, we were asked if we might want it. And I said, oh yeah, we would like that. And these folks, being who they were and obviously not much interested in governmental red tape, showed up at our collection center a few days later with the post, saying, well, here it is. It’s now in our exhibition “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.”
As valuable as the objects in our collection may be to the society at large, they are even more valuable to native communities. We view those communities as our primary constituents, so making sure that the collections are accessible to the tribes and to individual native researchers is a very high priority. We also respond to repatriation requests for sacred objects, objects of cultural patrimony, and—above all—human remains and funerary objects. We are really pleased to have repatriated somewhere near 3,000 objects. Which leaves us with a mere 797,000. . . .