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Wowi in Washington

Would Ishi feel at home in America's newest museum?

October 10, 2004|Orin Starn | Orin Starn, who teaches anthropology at Duke University, is the author of "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian."

WASHINGTON — What would Ishi think of America's newest museum?

The fabled California Indian hid out in the mountains for 50 years after most of his Yahi tribe was massacred by white settlers after the Gold Rush. Anthropologists proclaimed Ishi "America's last Stone Age Indian" and brought him to San Francisco as a living museum exhibit. When Ishi died in 1916, his brain was pickled and mailed in a brown paper package to the Smithsonian, which wanted the brain of the last Yahi as a curiosity for scientific study.

Times have changed. Now, almost a century later, the Smithsonian has celebrated the opening of its new National Museum of the American Indian. The gleaming, $210-million building is a short stroll across the Washington Mall from the National Museum of Natural History, where Ishi's pickled brain was kept for more than 50 years on a backroom storage shelf.

That Indians now have their own museum on America's front lawn measures how much has changed in recent decades. Long presumed a vanishing race, Indians have not only survived but also possess greater clout than ever before. The showy protests of the American Indian Movement and other radical Indian groups during the Vietnam War years, such as the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island from 1969 to 1971, brought the injustices suffered by Native Americans into the spotlight. Activists persuaded the federal government to pass laws forcing museums to give back Indian bone collections over the angry objections of some archeologists.

But the museum is also a testament to the power of casino money. In the old days, Ishi's Yahi people loved to play gambling games with sticks. Now California Indians rake in more than $2 billion a year from their slots, video poker machines and blackjack tables.

The Museum of the American Indian would not have happened without what some pundits have called the "new buffalo" of casino cash. The Mashantucket Pequot in Connecticut run Foxwoods, the world's largest gambling resort. They alone donated $10 million to the museum. Newly wealthy tribes in California and elsewhere have contributed heavily to congressional campaigns. These donations helped cement support for the additional federal money needed to get the museum built.

Curious crowds have been lining up to tour the museum. Unlike the squared lines of the other big Washington museums, the design is curved and oblong. The unpolished, gold-brown Kasota limestone of the exterior is meant to invoke Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu and other icons of native architecture. The white liberal imagination has long fixed Indians as victims of massacres, broken treaties and squalid reservations. Although poverty and unemployment remain major problems for large tribes like the Navajo and Lakota, the museum marks the ability of Indians today to bankroll a monument to their own history and culture.

The director, W. Richard West Jr., a peace chief of the Southern Cheyenne, donned a feathered headdress for an interview with Tom Brokaw last month. West, a Stanford-trained lawyer, customarily appears in the expensively tailored business suit of a CEO. He belongs to a generation of well-connected Indian lawyers and business leaders, or "warriors with attache cases," as they have sometimes been called.

To have a museum with Indians in charge is a novelty. For decades, white collectors scooped up baskets, pots, arrows and bones to study and put on display. Like the Zuni war god figures packed off to the Smithsonian in the late 1800s, it seldom mattered to curators that some of these objects were sacred to their tribes and never meant for public view. Even today, you can find Indian artifacts in local history museums next to dioramas of the dinosaurs, as if both belonged to the same bygone era.

Now Native Americans have seized the right to represent themselves. Besides a team of native-born, professionally trained museum specialists, West involved "community curators" from local tribes. Elders, medicine men and tribal leaders from two featured California groups -- the Hupa from the Redwood Coast and the Kumeyaay from the badlands east of San Diego -- went to Washington to help in the planning. The day is long gone when anthropologists and other white professionals held a monopoly on the study of native life.

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