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3.10.04

More On NMAI

I mentioned before that I'd had trouble finding articles critical of the National Museum of the American Indian to respond to. Now Timothy Sandefur has gone one up on the strange claims I linked to before, and actually offered the "NMAI displays should be vetted by science" criticism that I responded to at the end of my article (spinning off this provocatively titled article).

Understanding NMAI I think requires a bit of a frame shift. What you learn there is not "what are Indians like" -- facts about a detached object of study. What you learn is "what is being Indian like" -- a window into the experience of a group of people. (The latter can give you a glimpse of the former, of course.) That's captured in the fact that the displays don't reach into the deep past -- there are no exhibits on the various "moundbuilder" cultures, for example, since their connection to modern-day tribes is disputed even among Indians. From what I've read, it's a perspective that comes across as much in the presentation style as in the content of the exhibits.

My sense is that the museum's attitude toward science is at its nadir. NMAI symbolizes a triumph by Indians against the often-exploitative practices of archaeology and anthropology, a reclaiming of their right to tell their own story. So it's opening with a bold statement of the uniqueness of Indian experiences, focusing on the things that are untold by mainstream history and anthropology. But the fact is that many Indians are sympathetic toward science and the scientific account of their present and past. To stay true to its mission of representing the experience of all the continent's Natives, the museum will have to give that perspective a place. What's more, allowing the museum to present whatever unscientific perpsective it wants seems likely to increase the long-run rapprochement between Native cosmologies and science. One of the most consistent findings of the post-NAGPRA era is that when anthropologists give Indians the space and power to present their perspective, they are in turn more open-minded toward science. On the other hand, demanding that the superiority of science be recognized leads Indians to dig in their heels. Rejection of science can serve as an ideological defense mechanism on the part of those who feel they're victims of injustice.

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