American Indian Museum

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I went to the National Museum of the American Indian. I've been there several times, but when deciding what Smithsonian museum to see next, I went to look at their current exhibits page. One exhibit that attracted me to the American Indian Museum was called Section 14, which appeared to be a segregated section of Palm Springs. It turned out not to be that simple, see below.

Red Dresses

There are several status and exhibits outside of the museum building proper, so I wandered around through those. The most striking was the Red Dress exhibit by Jamie Black. I apparently just caught it, as it is going away at the end of the month. In North America, indigenous women suffer from violence at a far greater rate than non-indigenous women. The exhibit is a set of red dresses hanging in space throughout the grounds. They are hanging at shoulder height, but no attempt has been made to fill them out with a human form. I found the exhibit appropriately disturbing, as if the ghosts of the brutalized women were haunting the grounds of the museum.

It also reminded me of the dangers of idolizing Native American (or any other) culture. Native Americans have certainly been demonized and dehumanized throughout America's European history, and brutalized on that basis. But many like to idolize them and their connection with nature as well. But we can't ignore this violence to women underlying that connection. And we have to understand the history of that connection. The ancestors of the Native Americans caused the extinction of numerous species as they first spread across the continent. That's why there are no lions, elephants, or camels in North America. But again, neither can we discount that connection. There was much of Zen I saw in that relationship in the museum, such as Chief Joseph's statement that "The earth and myself are of one mind."

Section 14

Section 14 was a square mile piece of Indian reservation that happened to be right in the middle of Palm Sprigs, California. The maps of the Indian reservation at the exhibit showed parts of it as a checkerboard pattern. It turns out that when the cross-country raild road was build, the Pacific Railroad act gave every odd numbered parcel of land in the area to the railroads. Later, when the Native Americans were moved there, they could only have the even numbered parcels of land. But there was this one chunk right near downtown, and right on top of some springs, which of course had been discovered by the Native Americans.

This was of interest to me because of my studies on racism in America. While most of my work is on Mass Incarceration, all the other problems caused by our history of racism seem to feed into it. One is the use of zoning laws and lending policies to segregate blacks into ghettos. Certainly, we forced many Native Americans across the country (see below) whenever we found something we wanted on that land. But with Section 14 the Native Americans had sovereign rights that they used to stand their ground.

It wasn't just Native Americans in Section 14. The whites in town didn't want to rent to blacks and latinos, who didn't have a lot of money to spend on housing anyway. But the Native Americans welcomed them in, and rented housing to many people. And so the downtrodden come together, much as you are seeing Jews help Muslims and Muslims help Jews when their places of worship are attacked by racist whites.

The city wanted that land, and constantly harassed those who were living on it. The city refused to run power or sewer lines into the area, claiming the resident paid no property tax. None of the roads were paved. The residents had to burn their trash, dig their own septic tanks, and run their own power lines. Federal laws on leasing reservation land prevented long term leases that would have allowed for capital development. Interestingly, the city tried to use this forced lack of capital development as evidence that the Native Americans were not properly industrious with their land. This is an old line in America, dating back to the English colonies. Nancy Isenberg talks about this in her book White Trash, in the context of land appropriation as part of creating lower class America.

While the Federal law was changed in 1955 to allow longer leases, the new law included provisions for conservators and guardians to keep the Native Americans from being cheated. These conservators and guardians were, of course, rich white people, and in many cases they cheated the Native Americans.

Exactly what happened next is rather sketchy. The city of Palm Springs got the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the conservators and guardians to okay razing Section 14 for new development. Everyone was evicted from their homes, and many claim it was done without the required 30 days notice. As if 30 days is much notice. Eviction notices were provided to owners but not to residents, complicating the issue. This was investigated by the Attorney General of California, and eventually the Department of the Interior. These investigations led to the end of the conservator and guardian program in 1968.

It reminds me a lot of my hometown of Charlottesville Virginia. There was a black neighborhood call Vinegar Hill where the residents and business were forced out to make way for development. A poll tax was used to prevent the poor residents from voting on the issue. A lot of people in Charlottesville are still pissed about it. Searching about it on the web I found that a Vinegar Hill was the site of a battle during the Irish Revolution of 1798. Additionally, before African Americans moved into the neighborhood in the 1920s on, it was a predominantly Irish neighborhood. However, the city of Charlottesville web site says the origins of the name are "obscure."

The Indian Removal Act

I was intrigued by an exhibit on the Trail of Tears, which involved the forced relocation of 16,000 Cherokees. As part of my motorcycle riding, I have thought about participating in a yearly ride that tries to follow the Trail of Tears. It turned out to be far more than I expected.

We often think of the Trail of Tears as an isolated incident. But it was just part of a huge resettlement campaign started by the Indian Removal Act, which was passed in 1830. It was hotly debated at the time. Supporters claimed it was good for the Indians, and the act offered them lands in the West in exchange for land in the South. Again, the desire was to develop that land. The idea was first promoted by Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned a land of farmers and commerce. The Native Americans stood in the way of that vision, and Jefferson thought they should either be forced out or exterminated. Opponents to the measure felt it was a betrayal of the democratic values that the nation had been founded on.

These were not random tribes wandering around. The Native Americans in the South had established complex governments on par with their white neighbors. Unfortunately, they had also established slavery along with their white neighbors, although not to the extent that the whites were practicing it. When the Native Americans were removed, a huge influx of slaves were brought in, as the agriculture in the South was heavily dependent on slave labor. It was my thought that by exacerbating the South's dependency on slaves, the Indian Removal Act may have hastened the Civil War.

Indian removal did not just involve the Cherokee and the Trail of Tears, but also the Chickasaw, the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Seminole tribes. It was incredibly expensive and spanned nine presidencies. The Seminoles resisted, starting a war that cost the U.S. $20 million dollars alone. In the end, the Seminole tribe was not removed. The total cost was $100 million dollars. It may be a pittance in today's trillion dollar budgets, but this was almost 200 years ago. There were all sorts of problems getting the Indians to Oklahoma, even when they weren't resisting. The exhibit featured one notable river boat sinking trying to get the Indians across the Mississippi. The Trail of Tears itself wasn't even authorized by the federal government, but was enacted by the state of Georgia in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling.

Yet for all of this, it wasn't even talked about for generations. It was practically erased from the national consciousness until the early 1900s, when a group of female Indians, including some Cherokee college students, started telling the story again.

The Inka Road

Every time I go to this museum I have to checkout the exhibit on the Inka roads. This time around what really struck me was the extent of the system. It was almost 25,000 miles long, extending through five modern day nations. Despite the fact that the Spanish destroyed much of the system, either intentional or through over use with metal wheels and horseshoes, much of the road is still in use today. In fact, due to the destruction wrought by the Spanish, we are not even sure of the full extent of the road system today.

The road started before the Inka with the Wari. But the Inka expanded it tremendously, and upgraded many of the older sections of the road. It had to be built with extremely limited technology, as the Inka had neither iron nor the wheel. It faced a number of geographical challenges as well. It was a north-south road system, so it went through a wide variety of climates. And being on the Western side of South America, it had to deal with the Andes. Walls were built to keep out the deserts. Stairways were built into mountain sides. Suspension bridges made grass were made that could handle a caravan of llamas.

The Inka were certainly excellent engineers. They built Machu Pichu after all. The wonder of Machu Pichu is not just that it's a palace high in the mountains, or that the Inka road leads to it. It is also a marvel of water management. Heavy seasonal rains that would have eroded the palace's foundations were instead redirected and used for agriculture.

Random Bits

There is a section of the use of Native Americans in advertising, appropriately brightly lit with lots of neon. I didn't spend a lot of time in this exhibit. I was surprised by the amount they were used in military weapons. The seems obvious in retrospect, as Native Americans are often portrayed as a warrior race in American Culture. While much of this was rather interesting, much of it was rather cringe worthy, as you might expect.

I mentioned how Native American, African Americans and Latinos working together made me think of modern times. That was somewhat triggered by the mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, which happened a few days after I visited museum. I was also struck by the fact that the news of Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn reached the entire country within 10 days, due to new communication technology. There was a lot of fear and panic in white America because of this. And now we have YouTube, trying to block videos of the Christchurch massacre being uploaded once every second, while Facebook deletes millions of copies of it. Now it's not just the communications technology, but the way divisive forces in our society try to use it. Although, perhaps that was always the case.

There was a display of Apache playing cards among some Native American games (including hand games, apparently games of dexterity). As a general fan of games I was quite interested, but there were none for sale in the gift shop. The gift shop is very nice by the way. I especially liked the "Native Americans discovered Columbus" t-shirt. Anyway, the display said that the Apache saw Europeans playing with cards, and made their own, using elements of Apache culture. However, when I did web searches on them, I could find nothing but standard playing cards with Apache themes.

One of my best friends in high school was legally black under Virginia law, because his great great grandmother was black. By Virginia Law, anyone with 1/16 black blood was considered black by the Racial Integrity Act. But as originally written, the act defined any amount of non-Caucasian blood as making you black. It was changed so that white elites who traced their ancestry to Pocahontas could remain white.

One thing I found about the museum is that it is much more photograph and text oriented than the other Smithsonian museums. They don't seem to have a large collection of items to display. This isn't universal, and their have been large donations, including one from Evo Morales. However, much of what there is in the museum is more modern. While this includes (awesome) modern artwork by Native Americans, it also includes traditional items made in the modern time. I was especially impressed by the wood work on the canoes.