A Place To Bring The Tribe

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RIBBONS THAT BOW: Curving bands of limestone on the exterior evoke an eroded mesa; far left, a ceremonial Inca jaguar qero, or cup

George Gustav Heye was a whimsically self-indulgent New York City banker who plowed his millions into a massive collection of American Indian objects. He discovered his life's mission as a 23-year-old engineering graduate of Columbia University, working as a railroad-construction superintendent in Kingman, Ariz. It was 1897, a moment — after American soldiers had killed Sitting Bull, massacred hundreds at Wounded Knee and captured Geronimo — when the white conflict with Native Americans was at last almost entirely decided in the settlers' favor. Indians were beginning their final transition in the white imagination from serious competitors to something like endangered species, figures who could be romanticized or despised, sometimes both at once. Years later, Heye described his conversion experience as a collector: "One night I noticed the wife of one of my Indian foremen biting on what seemed to be a piece of skin. Upon inquiry I found she was chewing the seams of her husband's deerskin shirt in order to kill the lice." He bought the shirt.

For nearly 60 years after that, Heye bought just about every Indian artifact he could get his hands on — Kwakiutl doorposts, Mayan jade idols, Lenape wampum belts, Nootka whaleboats, plus every kind of headdress, breastplate and beaded skirt. You can see why he was once described as a man who "felt that he couldn't conscientiously leave a reservation until its entire population was practically naked." By the time he died, in 1957, he had amassed about 800,000 items and opened an overburdened private museum in Manhattan.

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For a long time, Heye's was a collection in search of a larger home. Now it has one more spectacular than even that insatiable man could have hoped for. Next week the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, for which Heye's collection serves as the nucleus, opens on a prominent corner of the National Mall in Washington, four-plus acres that adjoin both the heavily trafficked National Air and Space Museum and the iconic I.M. Pei — designed East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. A friend of Heye's speculated that his collection may have been a response to his father, a millionaire inventor of equipment used to drill oil from beneath the land that native tribes once occupied. By buying their cultural patrimony, Heye was giving money back to the natives in compensation for the riches they never made from their oil. At the same time, he was also besting the old man by getting more of their wealth than his father ever did. If you happen to be an Indian, or even if you don't, you can't much enjoy the thought of native culture being reduced to a pawn in some white guy's father-son competition. But as it turns out, it's the Indians, by way of this museum, who are getting to make all the moves in the endgame. The showplace is directed, curated and staffed largely by Native Americans and conceived through years of consultation with tribal groups all over the western hemisphere. The tribes are using Heye's collection to present themselves as they see themselves, not as the white man has preferred to show them. Checkmate? It's too soon to tell, but the game is bound to get interesting.

It is quite a setting in which to tell the tale. The flexes and curves of the museum's honey-colored limestone walls are meant to evoke wind-sheared Western mesas, and they do. (You can be forgiven if the cantilevered plate at the uppermost story makes it hard not to think of the Starship Enterprise too. There is no one high-minded enough not to notice.) In keeping with the themes of nature that are threaded all through the display areas, it's a building landscaped with 150 species of trees and shrubs in a design guided by Donna House, a Navajo ethnobotanist. There's also a lily pond, plantings of corn, beans, squash and tobacco, and massive Canadian boulders. This being Washington, the rocks double as security barriers.

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