Tuesday, September 21, marked the Grand Opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, an event attended by the largest gathering of First Nations people ever to assemble in the nation’s capital.
All across the mall, the crowd celebrated unity in diversity. But what of the museum itself, fifteen years and $219 million in the making? As is often the case with inherited property, the museum and the history it embodies have engendered darker and more divisive opinions among those it’s meant to represent.
It is not lost on the Indian community that the government has found the money to create a showcase for the best of American Indian culture but has opposed programs to educate Indian children and to provide Indians with decent healthcare and housing. It has generally refused to offer any means of compensation for its historic devastation of the Native American way of life.
Clyde Bellecourt, who helped found the militant American Indian Movement in Minnesota in the late 1960s, came to Washington prepared to protest the offering of an official apology during the museum’s opening ceremony. Drafted by Senators Daniel Inouye and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the “Resolution of Apology to Native People, S.J. Res. 37” ends with the disclaimer: “Nothing in this Joint Resolution authorizes any claim against the United States or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”
“This museum,” Bellecourt proclaimed, “should be called The National Museum of the American Indian Holocaust…. Right now, over at the Mall of America, in Minnesota, where I live, they’re digging up the bones of my ancestors.” He was concerned that the praises of indigenous resilience would be sung by those who ignore the poverty still plaguing Native communities.
Senator Campbell’s politics, in particular, have earned him the nickname Ben “Nightmare” Campbell among some in the Indian community. In 1995 he switched his allegiance to the Republican Party because, he said, “I was tired of giveaway programs. And I think Indian tribes are a good example of people that have been almost forcefully made dependent on federal programs.”
Bellecourt, on the other hand, wants to know how the Bureau of Land Management managed to misplace what he estimates to be some $200 billion owed to the American Indians to “lease” their lands, while the federal government files successive appeals against indigenous claims of broken treaties.
The weekend before the museum’s opening, close to the Washington Mall, a much smaller group of Native Americans pitched tepees and participated in a less spectacular event, the eleventh annual interfaith conference known as the Prayer Vigil for the Earth. At the vigil, prayers were offered to honor each of the four cardinal directions, a central concept shared by many indigenous spiritual traditions.