Thursday, January 3, 2013

Senator Daniel Inouye and the Museum of the American Indian




National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.
The recent passing of Senator Daniel Inouye caused me to remember Alvin Josephy’s respect for him and a story that I tell now in hopes that someone still alive can corroborate or deny it.

The Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation was established by George Gustav Heye in 1908 and opened to the public in New York City in 1922. Heye, a wealthy New Yorker obsessed with Indian artifacts, sent expeditions from one end of the Americas to the other and accumulated over a million of them. He died in   1957, leaving his museum to the People of New York. 

But the museum came on hard times in the 1970s. Its neighborhood had deteriorated, attendance had dropped, and artifacts been sold to keep the place running. My recollection from Alvin is that he, his former classmate at Harvard, David Rockefeller, and a few others were appointed to the MAI Board to straighten things out. I know that Alvin was involved in a long effort at establishing museum collection policies (I believe this effort had influence beyond the MAI, but that “study” waits for another day), and that there was then a long period of political maneuvering about next steps for the museum. 

Politicians Alfonse D’Amato and Daniel Moynihan fought to keep it in New York and fought over where to put it. Ross Perot offered to build a new $70 facility in Dallas, Texas, and the Board of Trustees actually entered into negotiations with him. The whole thing drug on for more than a decade.

And then Senator Inouye, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, suggested that the Museum be moved to Washington D.C. and be made part of the Smithsonian, and introduced legislation calling for $100 million to build a new facility. More long negotiations followed, and eventually an agreement was reached—legislation passed in 1989 with amendments in 1996. Senator Inouye and Alvin Josephy were both named to the Board of Trustees, and Alvin was elected as its first chair. A new satellite museum, the Heye Center, was opened in New York City at the Customs House (honoring the Heye stipulation that the collection be “for the people of New York”) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened on the Mall in Washington D.C. in 2004. 

Here is the story that I remember Alvin telling, though I took no notes and cannot find written confirmation of it now: While negotiations were going on with Ross Perot in New York, it came to Senator Inouye’s attention that the vaults of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. held the skeletal remains of some 16,000 American Indians. There were pressures from other groups—women and African Americans as I recall, to build the next Smithsonian Museum on an open place on the Mall, but Inouye was outraged with the story of skeletal remains, and pushed for the Smithsonian to make things right with Indians. First Americans should have a place in the Capitol. As circumstantial  corroboration of this story, Inouye also introduced the “Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990,” causing the Smithsonian to send remains back to tribes for proper burial. 

In the news following Inouye’s death, which was almost lost in the blitz of holiday and budget crisis reports, Indian leaders eulogized the Senator as a champion of Indian rights and civil rights for all Americans. It could be that the Smithsonian’s own dubious holdings—the result of “scientific collection” over decades—were not as large or of as much significance as I remember Alvin describing them. But I think that the essence of the story, the ways in which some humans dehumanize other humans, even in the name of science, is a lesson worth remembering. And if it helped to spur the construction of that marvelous place in Washington D.C., repatriation of remains, pride among American Indians and  respect for them by the rest of us, the good Senator showed how decades and even centuries of wrongs can be turned towards the good.

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