Show Examines Native American Imagery in US Culture

23 February, 2018

An 1830 law forced thousands of American Indians from their lands in the southern United States to areas west of the Mississippi River.

Expressions of support for the law are part of advertising for a new exhibit about Native Americans.

The exhibit, called "Americans," opened last month at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It explores the use of American Indian imagery over the years.

Two centuries ago, some people imagined a country free of American Indians. Others thought the removal of the Indians would lead to expanded wealth from cotton fields, where millions of blacks worked as slaves.

Cecile Ganteaume, a co-curator of the exhibit, admits the show is provocative.

Plains Indian objects on display in the Battle of Little Bighorn gallery of the
Plains Indian objects on display in the Battle of Little Bighorn gallery of the "Americans" exhibition at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018

Critics have praised the exhibit. They say it pushes the national debate over American Indian imagery and sports teams named the Chiefs, Braves and Blackhawks.

Washington is home to the National Football League's Washington Redskins. The team's colorful logo on one wall is meant to make visitors think about why it has been described as a unifying force in D.C. and offensive.

Yet some people say the exhibit, and its website, fail to capture the violence and horror of the Indian Removal Act.

The advertising is a strange way to explain an effort that lasted many years, said Ben Barnes, second chief of the Shawnee Tribe. He noted that at one time, one-fifth of all federal money went to the act's enforcement.

The law led to the deaths of thousands of people who were marched from their homes without full payment for the value of their land. And it affected far more tribes than the five described on the museum's website, Barnes said.

"It made it seem like it was a trivial matter that turned out best for everyone," he said. "I cannot imagine an exhibit at the newly established African-American museum that talked about how economically wonderful slavery was for the South."

Ganteaume said the website doesn't cover the subject in detail and neither it nor the exhibit is meant to dismiss the experiences of American Indians. Instead, she said, it asks people to recognize and explore their relationship with American Indians.

The Navajo Treaty of 1868 at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian
The Navajo Treaty of 1868 at Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

The exhibit has hundreds of images of American Indians on alcohol bottles, a bag of sugar, motor oil, and other forms of product advertising.

Several videos show how the imagery is a large part of American television and film.

But when historic or cartoonish images are the only pictures people have of what it means to be Native (American), they can't imagine American Indians in the modern world, said Julie Reed. Reed is a history professor at the University of Tennessee and a member of the Cherokee tribe.

"Even when I'm standing in front of students, identified as a Cherokee professor, making the point from Day 1 that I'm still here and other Cherokee people are still here, I still get midterm exams that talk about the...annihilation of Indian peoples," she said.

Ganteaume said that while Native people have strong histories in other countries, the United States is more likely to focus on images of them.

The exhibit expands on what is well-known to most Americans: the Trail of Tears, Pocahontas and the Battle of Little Bighorn. A film on the American celebration of Thanksgiving starts with a once widely used television screen test showing an Indian head. It goes on to question the importance of Thanksgiving when the country already had Independence Day.

People look at a section of the
People look at a section of the "Americans" exhibit that explores the historical context of the Trail of Tears, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018

Eden Slone, a graduate student in museum studies, said she liked the exhibit's design and interactive touch tables.

"I think the exhibition was carried out well and it definitely makes you think of Native American imagery," she said. "When I see images like that, I'll think more about where it came from."

Reed, the University of Tennessee professor and Cherokee woman, fears people will get the wrong idea about the Indian Removal Act from the website.

Yet she plans to visit the museum.

Reed said she will go because it is important to be fair and look at it before it is criticized. She added the exhibit may be better than the website.

I'm Susan Shand.

Felicia Fonseca wrote this story for the Associated Press. Susan Shand adapted her report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

provocative adj. causing discussion, thought or argument

co-curator – n. someone who helps to set up or organize an exhibit

logo n. an image or picture that is used to identify a company and appears on its products

trivial adj. not important

cartoon n. a picture or image meant as a humorous comment on something or a series of images in an animated film

annihilation – n. to destroy (something or someone) completely

focusv. to direct one's attention on something or someone

interactive – adj. designed to react to the actions or commands of a user