Patriot Nations at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian

I’ve not had the opportunity to visit any of the Smithsonian Institutions, though I feel like I know it very well. Throughout my short academic career, I’ve read about it in journals and books, and marvelled at pictures of the Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-sized storerooms. One of the more infamous moments in the history of the Smithsonian - one which many of us know so well - was the time they staged their 1996 ‘Enola Gay’ exhibition about the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War. In an attempt to tell both the bombing story and its effects in a balanced narrative, the Museum angered both Veterans and detractors alike. Thomas Gieryn, Sociologist Professor, came back from his visit to this particular exhibition:

Unconvinced that the inevitable world of multiple epistemic communities is something to celebrate (but rather, to struggle through), depressed by the realisation that none of our sometimes-well-intentioned rhetorical weapons (objectivity, interpretive skill, dispassion) is fail-safe in convincing everybody else to accept our stories over different ones. [1]

Yet, the Smithsonian and its many institutions continue to stage exhibitions that challenge us to think differently about the world in which we live, despite the lamentations and concerns of sociologists.

Like other cultural institutions across the world, The Smithsonian’s vast collection of 19 museums, galleries, botanical gardens and National Zoo have temporarily shut their doors to help stem the tide of COVID-19. As museums lose critical income streams, be it gift shop purchases or ticket sales, the wider museum community have come out on Twitter and other platforms to show their support for their favourite institutions, writing about online exhibitions and virtual tours. I want to take this opportunity to visit and celebrate the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and their online exhibition ‘Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces’.

I know nothing about Native American culture or history. I am aware that Native American men have long been portrayed in cinema as ‘warriors’, and savages with magical abilities, and Native American women are represented and objectified as beautiful, and over-sexualised, axiomatic of the orientalist gaze. These racialised stereotypes continue to inform cinematic portrayals and influence public perceptions and have real and often devastating consequences for Native Americans today. That is to say nothing of the bloody and brutal settler colonial relationship that has devastated Native American peoples since the arrival of the Spanish in the late-15th century. The Smithsonian’s ‘Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces’, is therefore absolutely necessary, instrumental and informative in tackling the under/mis-representation of Native Americans.

Of course, all representations are partial, and museums cannot be all things, to all people at all times. As decolonial criticisms deepen and proliferate, and multiple epistemic communities bring their many perspectives and critiques to bear on museum displays, exhibitions will be rightfully challenged. Patriot Nations will be lacking in many ways, but I want to take this occasion to highlight what I think is a sincere effort to tackle issues of representation in American culture.

‘Patriot Nations’ is an online exhibition about the history of Native American service in America’s Armed Forces. It tells the remarkable history of,

the brave American Indian and Alaska Native men and women who have served in the United States military. Native peoples have participated in every major US military encounter from the Revolutionary War to today’s conflicts in the Middle East, serving at a higher rate in proportion to their population than any other ethnic group.

(Smithsonian, National Museum of the American Indian, https://americanindian.si.edu/explore/exhibitions/item?id=959)

The online exhibition is part of a larger project by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, ‘Native Knowledge 360 Degrees’, which aims to improve how native American history and culture is taught in schools across American. The online exhibition is split into 6 main sections: ‘Introduction (Home)’; ‘Conflicting Loyalties’; WWI & WWII’; ‘Korea and Vietnam’; ‘21st Century Conflicts’; ‘Our Spirits’.

The exhibition begins with the following epigraph, ‘We serve this country because it’s our land. We have a sacred purpose to protect this place.’ (Jeffrey Begay, Diné [Navajo] veteran). This quote establishes the intellectual and narrative framework for the rest of the exhibition, challenging the oft-held trope of the United States as a newly forged nation, ‘discovered’ by European colonialist, and shows the complex relationship Native Americans have with their homeland in the context of serving in the U.S. armed forces.

This multifaceted relationship is immediately dealt with in the first section of the exhibition, with the question, ‘Why do Native Americans Serve?’, stating ‘It doesn’t seem to make sense: why would American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians serve a government that overran their homelands, suppressed their cultures, and confined many of them to reservations? The reasons are complex.’ This part of the exhibition seeks to challenge the idea of Native Americans as only victims of oppression and deepens our understanding of their complex spatial and cultural relationship with their homeland both before and after European colonisation.

The exhibition tackles this complex relationship and history throughout the remaining sections dealing with, for example, ‘conflicting loyalties’ during the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865), ‘Recruiting from Chilocco Indian School’ during the Second World War, all the way up to present day Native communities and the practice of traditional healing ceremonies which help ‘returned veterans heal in mind and spirit or assist those who died in finding their way in the afterlife.’ Each section is accompanied by a range of photographic material and objects to illustrate the narrative, including dance regalia, peace medals and service records.

Despite tackling this complex relationship and history in a coherent and thoughtful way, the exhibition still feels like an attempt to put an all-American gloss to this difficult history. A section at the end dealing with current political concerns of Native American communities would have been a welcome addition. I came away from this exhibition, however, a little more informed and eager to learn more about Native American culture and history, and I would recommend this exhibition to everyone who is looking for an educational virtual exhibition during this unprecedented period of isolation.

[1] Thomas F. Gieryn, 'Balancing Acts: Science, Enola Gay and History Wars at the Smithsonian', in Sharon Macdonald (ed.) The Politics of Display: Museums, Science, Culture, (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 225.

*    *    *

Samuel Aylett

Samuel Aylett is a historian of museums and British colonial History and was recently awarded his PhD in Empire and Colonial History from the Open University.