The National Museum of Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

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Sept. 29 2004 11:24 AM

The National Museum of Ben Nighthorse Campbell

The Smithsonian's new travesty.

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The National Museum of the American Indian is backed into this corner by its mission of "survivance," a term (invented 10 years ago by an Anishinaabe scholar named Gerald Vizenor) that elevates the survival of ancient culture from the realm of fact to that of dogma. Survivance, as defined in the museum's exhibit, "Our Lives: Contemporary Lives and Identities," requires "doing what is necessary to keep our cultures alive." At the museum, that means willing into being an unchanging continuum between past and present that doesn't really exist. Yes, many beliefs and practices of these tribal cultures survive to this day. But it's absurd to suggest that, even with recent improvements in tribal economies—many of them achieved without building casinos—Native Americans live the same way in the 21st century as they did in the 16th. I'm not aware that any aboriginal culture in the world can plausibly make that claim at this late date. The continuum message is also condescending to the many Native Americans who revere their cultural inheritance but nonetheless live the way the rest of us do, surfing the Web, shopping at Wal-Mart, and so on. Modernity is no longer the "white man's ways." It's multicultural, and I can't imagine any Native American responding kindly if told he didn't belong.

The museum didn't have to be like this. Its satellite branch in Lower Manhattan, which opened in 1994, labels its artifacts conscientiously. The permanent collection on which the new museum draws is apparently quite vast and impressive, and the building itself is a beauty. (Regrettably, its distinguished Native American architect, Douglas Cardinal, was fired before he completed the job, and today he says the Smithsonian treated him like "Tonto.") One wishes that the curators would treat the older work with the same ease and frankness they treat recent work, like its exhibit on Native Modernism, which takes the trouble to provide some context for sculptures by two bona fide artists, George Morrison and Alan Houser.

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I have to believe that those responsible for the museum's botched debut have felt the sting of public opprobrium and will make changes that encourage the public to take it more seriously. Experienced museum directors (West is not one; previously, he was a law partner in the Washington office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) seek legitimacy among scholars, and we can probably expect quiet changes in that direction over the next few years. Native Americans, too, will likely chafe over the museum's amateurishness—if not now, then after the achievement of getting it built fades into memory.  But why should we have to wait? The Smithsonian should have gotten it right the first time.

Slate intern Louisa Herron Thomas provided research assistance for this article.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.