National Museum of the American Indian will open its first exhibit
exploring the contentious issue of treaties between the U.S. government
and Indian Nations next week.
"This exhibit is a tangible reminder of the federal government's
relationship with sovereign tribal nations of this country," Senate
Indian Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Thursday. "It's
also a reminder of the moral and legal obligations that the United
States has to honor and uphold our treaties with Indian country."
Tester addressed a group gathered at a day-long symposium at
the museum discussing the exhibit. "Nation to Nation: Treaties Between
the United States and American Indian Nations" opens Sept. 21, which
is the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum. The exhibit
will continue until the fall of 2018.
Museum Director Kevin Gover said during a preview Tuesday that
the display was years in the making and came at the request of a
number of tribes and members of Congress.
Gover said one of those members pushing for the exhibit was
retiring Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., who spoke with Gover about
a treaty exhibit when he was chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee
that oversees Smithsonian museums.
"There was a time when the American Indian Museum looked like
a glorified arts fair," Moran told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday. "And
I think it should be an instrument for teaching and generating some
empathy and understanding of the way this country has exploited
its Native American population, taken their land and their resources."
Moran said he would probably visit the exhibit soon. When he
does, he will be sure to find an exhibit that demonstrates how Native
Americans have struggled to secure their rights under treaties.
And, as the end of the exhibit displays in crisp white letters
on a deep purple wall, "The struggle continues."
Each of the four sections in the exhibit highlights a few treaties
centered around a theme and time period. At each turn, the displays
also provide American Indian and European viewpoints side-by-side
to show both perspectives of the treaty process.
"Their perspectives were vastly different, and in some cases
it's just miraculous that a peaceful resolution was found," Gover
Museum visitors can also view nine of the original treaty documents
over the course of the next few years. The treaties will be on loan
from the National Archives and displayed on a rotating basis.
The first document on display is the Treaty of Canandaigua from
1794 and bears the signature, "G. Washington."
The original document welcomes visitors to the first section
titled "Serious Diplomacy," which focuses on early treaties.
Each of the sections is a circular room with a gigantic replica
of a two-row wampum belt suspended from the ceiling. The belt is
a symbol of the first treaty with Europeans and the two rows signify
that Indian and European nations were equal, sovereign nations.
The next section titled "Bad Acts, Bad Paper" explores a dark
time in the 1800s when the U.S. government forcibly acquired land
through the treaty process and removed American Indians from their
Visitors next walk to "Great Nations Keep Their Word," a section
that documents how Indians united to use treaties to assert their
rights. The final section is titled "The Future of Treaties," showing
that the treaty process is ongoing and that American citizens are
also affected by the agreements.
Congress is a focus of third section, which details Indian Nations
traveling to Washington to lobby lawmakers.
In the center of the circular room, a video narrated by Robert
Redford plays on repeat, showing clips of Native American leaders
and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, speaking
about Indian Nations.
Some of the exhibit's 125 artifacts are displayed in this section
A gavel adorned with beads hangs in a glass case along the wall.
The gavel belonged to the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii,
who was the first non-white lawmaker to chair the Senate Indian
Tester, the current chairman, said Thursday that the committee
continues to foster the relationship between the 566 sovereign Native
American tribes and the U.S. government.
"Our mission is to uphold these treaties and ensure tribes not
only survive but thrive," Tester said, though he noted that there
is still much work to be done. He later added, "We are woefully
under serving and underfunding our obligations to Indian country."
Tester's presence at the symposium was welcomed and encouraged
by the museum staff, since lawmakers play a central role in negotiations
with Native American tribes.
"This [exhibit] is about the relationship between the United
States and the tribes," said Gover. "And so there should be representatives
of both the Untied States and the tribes."
Gover said he hoped citizens will walk away from the exhibit
with a sense of ownership for the relationship between the United
States and Indian Nations.
He also said he hoped lawmakers will use the exhibit as an opportunity
to educate themselves about the treaties of the past and their responsibilities
for the future.
"Congress is making decisions all the time that deeply impact
Indian country," Gover said. "And our job is not to push for a particular
policy outcome. But hopefully we can inform that conversation with
exhibitions like this."