When I was a child, my parents spoke of ‘holidays’, which became ‘trips’ and as I became a working professional, these evolved into ‘travel for work’. At no point did I ever regard any of these as ‘journeys’. I thought I was interacting with the world, but realised this was only a shallow, superficial passing-by as I consumed locations, people, cultures like so many others, without wandering outside my comfort zone – without arguing or engaging with anything I saw or heard. I’ve tried to change that in recent years. When I visit places, I try to pick one aspect that I want to learn more about and pursue my understanding of it doggedly. I don’t visit museums anymore unless they promise to offer me something new and exciting that I want to learn about. So, when I recently visited Washington DC, instead of dropping by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or the Lincoln memorial I decided to visit the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) instead.
I knew nothing about American Indians except the little I had gauged from watching John Wayne Westerns and Disney’s Pocahontas, where the American Indian is portrayed as a villain or as a vessel of some spiritual charm. I was determined to find out more about these indigenous peoples of America.
First off, the Museum building itself is something stunning to behold. Made entirely from sandstone, the building landscape has a story to tell. It contains over 40 rocks and boulders called ‘the elders of the landscape’ or ‘Grandfather rocks.’ Water cascades over these rocks and the garden landscape contains more than 33,000 indigenous plants of 150 species including native tree species, flowers and crops like squash. The landscape invites me in with its promise of a natural-built environment that has obviously had a lot of thought and passion put into it.
Once inside, wide open spaces and the Potomac atrium, a large public area, embraces me. Children are playing around the replica totem pole and mounted canoes. I’m advised to start on the top floor and make my way down the structure. On the fourth floor, I wander through the exhibits, lost at first, unable to find my bearings because there’s no sense of time guiding me.
Everything in the Anishinaabe world is alive. Everything has a spirit and everything is interconnected. The museum lay out isn’t set by standard western chronology. But I soon realise that it does have a beginning: Beliefs. The ‘Our Universes’ exhibition lays out the central belief systems of the various indigenous tribes of North America, Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii. I take a deep breath, let go and dive in – willing to absorb whatever comes my way and suddenly I see everything differently. I look up and this catches my eye:
“To be Anishinaabe is to understand our place in all creation. We are spiritual beings on a human journey. Everything in the Anishinaabe world is alive. Everything has a spirit and everything is interconnected.”
I blink. Turn my head. And my eyes fall on this:
“The Lakota universe can be described as Mitakuye Oyasin. That means everything is connected, interrelated, and dependent in order to exist. The universe includes all things that grow, things that fly – everything you see in the world or the place that you walk on. These are all included in what the Lakota see as the universe. All of this is related.”
My breath catches. Something stirs within me and all the stuff I know in my heart to be true but have learnt to bury over the years comes bubbling up to the surface. I look around. I’m surrounded by different Creation stories like, ‘How Raven Stole the Sun.’ In the story, Raven releases the sun and the moon from boxes held by a Tlingit chief. This gives light to the people and creates day and night.
Walking through ‘Our Universes’ I realise that native spiritual values live in stories that are passed verbally from generation to generation, preserving Native American culture, language and ways of explaining the universe. For example, I read somewhere that “In Native stories, the moon helps to create the universe, Native peoples, and life on earth. The cycles of the moon also provide a guide to the ways of the universe and a method of charting the passage of time.”
I gradually begin to understand how Native Americans perceive their place in the universe and order their daily lives. Their philosophies of life have been passed down from their ancestors, largely through a story-telling tradition, teaching them to live in harmony with all living beings around them and the spirit world. I learn from the exhibits that this wisdom is expressed in ceremonies, celebrations, different languages, arts, music and daily life. I’m learning about the Apache, the Blackfoot, the Cherokee tribes – all set apart by different fabrics, clothing, textile weaves, musical instruments, rituals, lifestyles and livelihoods. Each display case contains items from a historic past that represents the survival of a tribe from difficult odds.
I understand, and I don’t. Where has all this learning and living gone? I look around me – the hall is full of non-indigenous Americans and their children. They are watching the stories displayed for children in animation, staring at richly coloured feather headdresses, reading the same words I’m reading.
I put my mind on pause and descend to the next exhibition hall. Hundreds of earthenware and gold objects are on display. They were designed by artisans and craftsmen before colonisers arrived to tell them that they had something better to offer.
I read about ‘Contact’ with a growing sense of horror. When the Natives first encountered Europeans from Columbus’ first series of voyages for the Spanish Crown, their lack of immunity to diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza, mumps and others decimated nine lives out of ten between 1492 and 1650. Within 150 years, gold, silver and labour from the Americas made Spain an international superpower, whose empire stretched from Europe to South America and the Phillippines – the largest empire since the Age of Julius Caesar. Perhaps 20 million Indians died as a direct result of Contact. Tens of millions more perished from disease. Little of the gold made by native people before Contact survives in its original form. Museums and private collectors hold almost all of what remains.
I’m reading about the changing life-scape of the Native American by the introduction of guns. The interest in new technologies drove early encounters between indigenous people and Europeans. Then my eyes fall on this line: By 1633 households in Plymouth were required to be armed but colonists were warned, “…whoever shall shoot off a gun on any unnecessary occasion, or at any game except at an Indian or a wolf, shall forfeit five shillings for every shot.” I look around me again at the people staring at items, reading plaques and exhibition displays. Have they made that cross over in their minds, linking them to the understanding that their ancestors brought disease and guns into a new land, wiping out millions of people in the process? If they do, how do they live with it, I wonder. And do they still think the same way about indigenous peoples living on ‘their’ land?
I’ve read about colonization before in the Goan context. Every Indian has studied about the British Raj and the struggles for power between European colonizers and the Native people. You can’t be from India and not feel that the impact of colonization still weighs heavily on contemporary life, as this section of the museum reminds me.
In 1882, many native spiritual practices were outlawed. Indians under the United States jurisdiction were punished for participating in traditional ceremonies. Tribes were ordered to surrender sacred objects, which eventually found their way into museums and private collections. As a result, religious and ceremonial practices were often taken underground, away from government authorities and foreign, prying eyes.
Over time, Natives retained their traditional beliefs and practices by fusing them to Christianity. This strategy preserved ancestral teachings in an environment that spurned traditional beliefs.
Walking around two massive exhibition halls I realise that I’m exhausted from learning about the persistent and often violent forces that forever changed the lives of Native Americans. But, the journey has changed me. The irony hasn’t escaped me that Columbus was actually looking for the Indies when he ‘discovered’ the American continents. Their fate could have been ours. What if I was living on an ‘Indian’ reservation today subject to another country’s government and lifestyle?
Referring back to the stereotypes I’ve been groomed on, I realise that this museum contains a different version of history, one drawn up in consultation, collaboration and co-operation with the natives themselves – specifically a council of eight tribes still existing today. The museum founders have shared the power museums usually keep and the end result is that for the first time, the natives have been given a voice. Trauma and pain is written in every line of their history, and the beauty of their shared beliefs and universal theology is celebrated in such different though similar ways.
The creation of the museum itself reveals a much-awaited journey that is still ongoing for Native Americans as they struggle to live in sovereignty among people that once wished them dead. I am surrounded by evidence to support the extraordinary survival of tribes of indigenous people whose story, on reflection, seems so similar to my own Goan cultural inheritance in some ways.
As I exit the museum and turn left at the exit to walk towards the Smithsonian metro stop, I realise that the journey isn’t about the destination but about the journey itself.
Jessica Faleiro was born in Goa, raised in Kuwait and has lived in Goa, Mumbai, Miami and Paris before moving to London. She trained as an Environmental Scientist and pursued a career in international development. Her first book, Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa (2012), was published by Rupa Publications. More about her at: http://jessicafaleiro.wordpress.com/about