“Americans” Exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian

SEAL team 6, native americans
United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (aka SEAL Team Six) insignia worn by the Red Squadron, 2016. The badge reads, “God will judge our enemies. We’ll arrange the meeting.”

Marabou recently checked out the “Americans” exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, DC that explores the prevalence and ubiquity of Native American imagery, words, and (attributed) values in the United States. Visitors are meant to confront the Native American imagery that has become a part of everyday American life. Instead of accepting this type of representation as status quo, the museum prods visitors to think by asking questions and challenging preconceived notions. An introductory gallery text entitled, “Indians everywhere” says the following,

Indians are less than 1 percent of the population. Yet everywhere you go in the United States, you see images of American Indians. Why?

How is it that Indians can be so present and so absent in American life?

These questions are posed in the center gallery of the exhibition where the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with examples of Native American imagery used on advertisements, product packaging, professional sports team swag, a model of a Tomahawk missile, children’s toys, and more. The rear wall projects twentieth-century television and film clips on loop, including snippets from Saved by the Bell, South Park, and Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman.

native americans, indians, NMAI
Marabou in the main gallery of “Americans.” Imagery of Native Americans covers the walls from ceiling to floor. A model of a Tomahawk Land Attack missile hangs from the ceiling on the right.

butter, indian maiden, native american

Land-O-Lakes butter and margarine boxes from 2016. Created by Arthur C. Hanson, the logo was updated in the 1950s by Patrick DesJarlait, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe.

The curated collage of images and objects is meant to overwhelm the visitor, driving home the point that Native American imagery has historically been used and still is used, more than we may even realize. Marabou found it effective to see Land-O-Lakes butter boxes, an Indian (brand) motorcycle, models of US military helicopters, and a bottle of Coppertone suntan lotion all together in one place. It helps visitors realize that these completely unrelated objects are tied together simply because of a shared imagery. Further engaging with the objects on display, visitors may realize that an “Indian maiden” is a nonsensical spokesperson for mass-produced butter and might be shocked to see the unapologetically racist use of a Native man in a feather headdress on a bottle of suntan lotion with the tagline “Don’t be a paleface.”

sure foot, native american
Three Sure Foot Rubber replacement heels (c. 1950) with the image of a Native American man’s head in the center of each heel.

NMAI provided detailed labels only for select objects in the center gallery. Visitors are invited to look up unlabeled, but numbered objects, on a touchscreen table in the middle of the room. Marabou was curious about the naming of Sure Foot Heels (rubber replacement heels for shoes) because Marabou had once heard people say Native Americans were hired to work on skyscrapers and bridges because of their supposed biological sure-footedness, implying they could naturally could walk narrow passes, like a single I-beam, at great heights with no problem. Upon entering the object’s designated number on the table, this explanatory text popped up, “The portrait of a Plains Indian wearing an eagle-feather headdress on the bottom of these replacement shoe heels shows how imagery of American Indians has been used on virtually every possible product.”

Marabou is looking for some more context and wonders if there is a connection between the “Sure Foot” name brand and the conception that Native Americans naturally have better balance.

NMAI missed an opportunity to talk about another Native American stereotype. There is more to the idea of “Sure Foot” than a willy-nilly use of a Native American man’s face on a pair of rubber heels. With some quick research, Marabou was able to locate an article from the October 17, 1959 issue of The New Yorker that either creates or perpetuates this idea of the steady-footed native in the American imagination. Written by Edmund Wilson, the article is entitled, “Apologies to the Iroquois.” In it, Wilson reports,

A good many of the Mohawk Indians, if not the majority of them, are steel-and-iron workers. They are equipped with what one Mohawk described to me as “an uncanny sense of balance” and an astonishing coolness in working at heights, which evidently derive from their earlier life, from threading forests and scaling mountains, from canoeing in streams rough with rapids. A very important factor is, undoubtedly, their habit, in walking, of putting one foot in front of the other, instead of straddling, as, when they see our tracks in the snow, we seem to them to do. They do not need to make an effort in walking a narrow beam. That this aptitude of the Iroquois was well developed before modern engineering was known is shown by a passage in an early English book, John Lawson’s “History of Carolina,” published in 1709: “They will walk over deep brooks and creeks,” he writes of the Tuscaroras, “on the smallest poles, and that without any fear or concern. Nay an Indian will walk on the ridge of a barn or house and look down the gable-end, and spit upon the ground, as unconcerned as if he was walking on terra firma.” And today–it is a proof of their persistence of their strength–they have found in the construction of bridges, high buildings, and power-line towers an incongruous opportunity for exercising their traditional self-control, their muscular coordination, and their indifference to physical danger.

Marabou is going to leave this excerpt for your analysis (there’s so much to dissect!), but will say this content and perspective could have added another level to the exhibition’s exploration of Native American stereotypes and imagery for capitalist profit. There are plenty of random and completely unrelated uses of Native American imagery on products throughout US history; Sure Footed Heels is not one of them. However, this Friskies dog food ad from 1960 with a basset hound wearing a beaded headband with feather is one of those random examples.

beagle, friskies, native american
A 1960 advertisement shows a beagle in a beaded headband with two red, black, and white feathers. The ad reads, “Out Scouting for Friskies…Put a feather in your cap. Feed your dog Friskies…”

Zooming out of the collage in the main gallery, there is are two repeated Native American types, a man wearing a feather headdress and an “Indian maiden” wearing a deerskin dress with a feather or two in her hair. The outer galleries delve into the seeds of these stereotypes as well as the roots of the United States’s convoluted relationship and fetishization of Native Americans. In these smaller galleries, there is a lot of myth-busting and filling in of information gaps found in elementary and high school history textbooks. The popularity of the feathered headdress worn by Plains tribes, like the Lakota and Cheyenne, as a signifier of “native-ness” is explained as a result of the press coverage of The Battle of Little Bighorn, one of the first times imagery and descriptions of Native Americans was circulated to a mass audience. The battle created a fascination with native people. Wild West shows were created to capitalize on this growing interest. These shows perpetuated the idea of what a Native American looks like and also started to tell a narrative of how the West was “won,” not stolen. Another gallery deconstructs the mythology of Pocahontas, including the Disney film, and tells visitors why she is an iconic figure in American history. A third gallery discusses the Indian Removal Act in plain terms and is frank about the economic greed and racist forces behind the legislative language that framed the act as benevolent. The tone of the gallery entry walls is more conversational and contemporary than traditional museum vocabulary. For example, the gallery about the Indian Removal Act greets visitors with “Trail of Tears: not what you think. Not even close.”

trail of tears, cherokee, native american, american history
The introductory walls to the smaller galleries in the “Americans” exhibition greeted visitors with bold, graphic statements. This gallery discussed The Battle of Little Bighorn.

The exhibition’s conversational tone and candid approach, at times spelling out the US government’s atrocities imposed on indigenous populations, can be seen in two ways. For some critics, this approach is too simplified and caters to audiences with shorter attention spans, in other words, lowers the bar. However, Marabou sees this bare-bones approach as accessible to audiences of all levels. Perhaps the curators were thinking of this exhibition as a big draw for school groups and made sure the explanations were understandable for those of elementary school age and older. In all honesty, Marabou thinks that the curators may also be responding to their audience, recognizing that, for the most part, the general population does not fully know or understand US history from the Native American perspective. As shared in a previous post, NMAI conducted a survey of high school US history textbooks that are 800-1,000 pages in length. On average, 5 pages of text total are dedicated to Native American content. So, maybe it’s necessary to make this history as clear and approachable as possible. What Marabou appreciates about “Americans” is that the curators even made the difficult-to-face history understandable for all learning levels. The ugly parts were not left out simply because younger audiences may not be able to handle it. Since fanciful language wasn’t used in the galleries, there is a straightforward honesty in the information delivered, no hiding behind florid vocabulary or coded metaphors. The curators clearly presented content in the galleries and took visitor engagement a step further by creating Gallery Discussion Guides to fuel conversation about issues addressed in the exhibition. The guides are likely used for school groups, but are placed in the gallery for anyone to grab. Marabou thinks that the guide’s questions and prompts to further investigate the exhibition content could be directly integrated into into the gallery spaces. Invitations to examine language and consider whether you think the US government made a just and rational argument about Indian removal creates a dialogue between visitor and content, disrupting the traditional museum monologue.

Even though the curators of “Americans” obviously put a lot of effort into making the exhibition accessible to a variety of audiences, some have found it polarizing. NMAI is an institution representing indigenous cultures from the entire Western Hemisphere, from the North Pole down to the tip of South America. The choice of the title “Americans” for a United States-focused exhibition has been seen as a US co-opting of the term “American.” “American” can technically apply to populations from North, Central, and South America, so for some, there are issues of representation and identity. Other critics found fault in the lack of native voices within the exhibition itself. Marabou agrees. There is the curatorial voice that leads and explains. The only other perspectives in the exhibition are from non-indigenous people responding to the question, “Who is Pocahontas?” It would be interesting to hear a contemporary perspective from Native Americans of multiple generations on both the historical and contemporary use of stereotypical imagery.

Overall, Marabou left “Americans” with a lot to think about, from the issues presented in the exhibition itself to the curatorial choices and methods of visitor engagement. What Marabou particularly liked is that “Americans” did not provide visitors with a clear answer to “Why do Indian names and images surround us?” The exhibition acknowledges that the answer is complicated and sometimes contradictory. An example of this is the US military’s use of Native American words like Tomahawk (for the Land Attack missile) and names like Apache, Chinook, Lakota, and Iroquois for types of helicopters. NMAI explains that the “US Army uses Native American names to ‘suggest an aggressive spirit, and confidence.’” This naming process seems to celebrate native cultures, but at the same time there is a devastating history of US military forces being used against indigenous populations to break their communities, spirit, and confidence. American history is complex and confusing. “Americans” leaves visitors with a better understanding of the general history between the US government and native populations, and how these relations resulted in a strange fetishization of Native Americans in US visual and pop culture. “Americans” does not provide visitors with sense of ease or reconciliation, nor should it.

Marabou doesn’t want to give the whole exhibition away. “Americans” is on display until 2020, so you have plenty of time to plan a visit to the museum. If a trip to Washington DC isn’t in your future, check out the “Americans” website with many digitized versions of the objects on display and pages dedicated to Pocahontas, The Battle of Little Bighorn, The Indian Removal Act, and Thanksgiving.

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