Jacki Thompson Rand: Why I Can't Visit the National Museum of the American Indian

Historians in the News

[Jacki Thompson Rand (Choctaw) is associate professor of history at the University of Iowa history department. ]

I am often asked what I think of the National Museum of the American Indian. That I have nothing to say surprises the people who ask the question because usually they know that I worked for the museum for the first four years of its existence. The fact is, I have never visited the National Museum of the American Indian and declined the invitation to attend the opening. In her "Why I Cannot Read Wallace Stegner" (1996), an essay in a collection by the same name, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn expresses her rejection of Stegner’s autobiography Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1955) and his Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954). Cook-Lynn protests the colonial privilege and ideology that inspired Stegner’s romanticized view of the American West, with its tragically vanished American Indian. Such works have aided the disappearance of Native people from history. My inability to visit the National Museum of the American Indian stems from a similar sense about its mission and its exhibits. To me, the museum represents a lost opportunity to integrate American Indians into the national consciousness.

"We’ve been trying to educate the visitors for five hundred years; how long will it take to educate the visitors?" spoke an elderly Native woman at one of several community-based consultations I organized for the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) between 1989 and 1994. Her words—strong, angry, and impatient—formed a response to the question we carried to each consultation: what should the museum say about Native America? Her agitated comeback affected the remainder of my experience as one of the museum’s early planners and has remained with me for the past fourteen or fifteen years. Smithsonian representatives had no response for the woman then; today, the finished museum stands as a reminder of how the small-but-growing museum staff failed to find, in that tense moment of public scolding, inspiration and encouragement to tell the story that we know and the nation denies.

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