Joe Nathan column: Wonderful museum honors people who ‘Never Gave Up’
Minnesota is mentioned several times at the superb, relatively new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Unlike most museums I’ve visited around the world, this one will produce strong, mixed emotions – sometimes admiration, sometimes smiles and sometimes shame.
You don’t have to visit Washington, D.C., to enjoy and learn from this free-admission museum. Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the museum, wrote on its website: “Our objective is no less than to change what the world knows about the Native peoples of the Americas and Hawaii. We seek to bring the Native voice into every school, every library, every university, indeed every home. Most Americans will never enter our museum, yet because of the digital revolution in communications we can reach them all.”
A vast array of resources is available on the museum’s website: http://www.nmai.si.edu.
But if you are able to visit, on the fun and smiling side, the museum features one of the most creative hands-on areas for youngsters ages up to age 12 I’ve seen anywhere. In the ImagiNations Activity Center, youngsters (and adults) can try balancing to feel what it’s like to ride in a kayak. They can build a mock igloo or a large woven basket. They can participate in various art activities, as well, if arrangements are made ahead of time.
On the more somber side, visitors can start on the top (fourth) floor to see the “Nation to Nation” exhibit. This traces history between whites and American Indian tribes via hundreds of treaties. A short video and multiple displays explain what accurate history shows. This country made hundreds of treaties with American Indian tribes and repeatedly broke them. This is shameful.
But at the center of the fourth floor is an exhibit titled “We Never Gave Up.” By videos, text and pictures, this area shows that despite broken treaties, American Indians (sometimes with white allies) have won victories. Minnesota controversies about fishing rights are among those cited in this area.
One of the most powerful areas of the museum is a temporary exhibit of art by Cherokee artist Kay WalkingStick. Perhaps my favorite of the more than 60 pictures is one titled “Farewell to the Smokies.” This is, in part, a beautiful landscape of the Great Smoky Mountains. But a small line of people are walking at the bottom. As the museum explains, these people represent “a bitter contrast with the natural beauty, “recalling the forced exodus of the Cherokee people from their homeland.” It’s a wonderful example of how a great artist can combine nature with historical events and produce a picture that is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. Examples from the WalkingStick exhibit are found here: http://s.si.edu/1WzVLFH.
The museum’s website has a vast array of materials, information and interactive games for families, students and educators. One game helps users learn more about American Indians living in various parts of the Americas: http://s.si.edu/1BTl6CQ.
The museum also offers periodic music and dance programs and has a terrific museum shop with a vast array of items ranging from a few to hundreds of dollars.
Viewing the website, or visiting the museum, produces a mixture of emotions. But along with shame and anger about what this country has done, I think visitors will come away with deep admiration and greater appreciation for people who “Never Gave Up.”
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected].