Monday, February 02, 2015

GoofGirl visits the Museum of the American Indian

Inspired by a recent excellent expedition to the Museum of Natural History GoofGirl insisted - nay demanded - an excursion to the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian. It was MLK weekend and since the African-American Museum isn't open yet, this seemed appropriate particularly appropriate.

GoofGirl has always been fascinated with Native Americans, perhaps spurred by our regular trips to New Mexico. On any excursion, the Native American component tops her list of priorities.

It is a neat museum. The building is a vast, intriguing space. There are a range of permanent and temporary exhibits. Before we got to them, we went to the main atrium and learned about different boats built by various native American tribes. They are a bit small, but you can see a kayak and a canoe, and also a Hawaiian fishing boat. The Hawaiians also built somewhat bigger versions that were ocean-going and made their way around the Pacific in what strikes me as pretty heroic acts of seamanship.

Did Mayan banks give these
 for opening a new account?
We spent some time with the Mayan calendars: giant stone contraptions, that synchronized multiple harvest and festival schedules - structuring time is at the core of any complex society. The exhibit also discussed the lives of their present day descendants. Abuelo and Nana were from Guatemala and in the photographs of the activists from that part of the world I saw their faces. We looked for a section on Native Americans of northern Mexico. Abuela, who hailed from Guadalajara, was supposedly part Yaki Indian. But there was no exhibit on them. Still it was remarkable to realize the sheer variety of worlds GoofGirl straddles. I mentioned this to her, that she was probably two kinds of Native American, Spanish, and on my side Russian Jewish and a little German Jewish. She was less impressed, "Your side is the boring side Daddy."

I don't take it personally. Attending a Jewish Day School, my background hardly seems exotic or even interesting. There's a lot of Yiddishkeit - but not so many Mayan Warrior-Priestesses (or Conquistadors)!

There were many exhibits about the Native Americans of North America, including those of the Chesapeake region. One detail that struck me was an extensive collection of art using beads. Apparently the Native Americans treasured the mass produced beads of the Europeans. It revolutionized their art. This does not of course justify European (and later American) predation. The fundamental injustice done to the Native Americans pervades the museum, as it should. An exhibit on the history of U.S. treaties with the Native American tribes brings that home. But it is not a gloomy or oppressive place. The museum celebrates Native American culture and highlights its rebirth. Wiping away the injustice of the past is not possible, but the museum is a small step in the right direction where Native Americans have a prominent and respected place in U.S. culture, politics, and society.

Not an ocelot, but pretty cool!
One exhibit that interested us was on ceramics of Central America. Everyone knows about the Mayans, but just south of them in Central America were a number of sophisticated civilizations which built cities and crafted vast amounts of beautiful pottery. Some of the pieces were nearly 3000 years old. Ocelots were a major theme in their pottery, both as images on the vessel and actual ocelot shaped vessels! GoofGirl has a soft place in her heart for ocelots and was quite taken.

And then it was time for...

A highlight was unquestionably lunch. We ate at the Museum Cafe which features five different stations for different regions for dishes inspired by what the Native Americans in that region ate. There was a huge variety of choices, And of veggie and dairy options (although the Great Plains stand featured some good-looking chunks of buffalo meat while the Pacific Northwest station featured salmon) we hit the South America stand and the Northern Woodlands stand. We enjoyed yucca frites - I strongly feel that yucca fries could easily destroy world demand for French fries with their richer texture and flavor (we did also have some potatoes). We had sweet potato salad, a tomato soup, cheese bread and blue cornbread, and I had a half-coffee/half-Mexican hot chocolate (like a mocha con chile!)
It was an expensive lunch, but it was good and the museum is free so, it all works out.

After lunch we headed to the children's section. I thought, having gone through the adult museum, GoofGirl wouldn't be that interested. But she was, she climbed around. and explored at her breakneck pace. I found I liked it to. Having looked at stuff for hours, it was nice to go into stuff - see a house on stilts or the entire of a teepee.

And that was enough for one day.