Opening The Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian

In the New York Times today, the opening of the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. was covered. This article contains the following quotes:

On Monday, hundreds of people already were milling about the museum to get an early peek. “At last we’re getting some kind of recognition as Indian people,” said Lawrence Orcutt, from the Yurok tribe in northern California.

Dave Anderson, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the museum will allow Indians to open a new chapter in the United States.

“I look at this whole museum opening as an opportunity for healing, for optimism,” he said.

It’s correct that the Museum reflects a new recognition of Native Americans and that it celebrates the life and culture of many native tribes. However, the idea that this museum opening somehow heralds a “new chapter in the United States” for Native Americans is, to put it bluntly, historically impossible and preposterous. While I, for one, would certainly embrace such a change wholeheartedly, presenting this event as a cataclysm for future changes is stretching the idea of presenting the history of Native American tribes.

Quoting Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States:

In 1969, November 9, there took place a dramatic event which focused attention on Indian grievances as nothing else had. It burst through the invisibility of previous local Indian protests and declared to the entire world that the Indians still lived and would fight for their rights. On that day, before dawn, seventy-eight Indians landed on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and occupied the island . . . They said:

We feel that this so-called Alcatraz Island is more than suitable for an Indian reservation, as determined by the white man’s own standards. By this we mean that this place resembles most Indian reservations in that:

  1. It is isolated from modern facilities, and without adequate means of transportation.
  2. It has no fresh running water.
  3. It has inadequate sanitation facilities.
  4. There are no oil or mineral rights.
  5. There is no industry and so unemployment is very great.
  6. There are no health care facilities.
  7. The soil is rocky and non-productive; and the land does not support game.
  8. There are no educational facilities.
  9. The population has always exceeded the land base.
  10. The population has always been held as prisoners and dependent upon others.
— page 529-530

The United States has continued to deny the rights of Native American tribes in the practice of tribal and religious ceremonies, and has shoehorned them onto reservations and off of what whites consider “our land” since colonial times. This shoehorning has led to a massive loss of rights for Native Americans; in addition to the grievances listed above from the occupation of Alcatraz, the white man has made attempts (admittedly much earlier in history, but it continues today) to re-educate Native Americans into our own way of life.

We cannot declare a new age for Native Americans until we abolish reservations, allow Native Americans as much freedom as whites have continually been entitled to, and issue some form of apology on behalf of the United States for the oppression and subjugation of an entire way of life. Coincidentally, the same probably holds for blacks, and possibly Americans of Japanese descent who were put into concentration camps during World War II.

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