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Review: NMAI treaties exhibit exposes historical tragedies in US

From left: Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Oren Lyons, PhD; Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy Chief Sidney Hill; Suzan Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee), guest curator of Nation to Nation; Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian; and Jim Gardner, executive for Legislative Archives, Presidential Programs, and Museum Programs at the National Archives, unveil the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794, on loan to the museum. Photo from NMAI

A review of Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, a new exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.:
With a new exhibition on the history of treaties between the U.S. government and native communities, the Smithsonian franchise has done a museological volte-face. “Nation to Nation,” which opened Sunday, falls squarely in the mainstream of exhibition design: a chronological walk through history, supported by documents, artifacts, photographs and other images, leading to a clear and compelling argument. The history of treaties, like the history of native people on this continent, is a troubled one, full of sincere promise and wretched betrayal; but treaties are ongoing, and just as there are still dynamic native communities all across the country, there are still treaties in force that give them autonomy, dignity and hope for the future.

Judged side by side with other Smithsonian exhibitions, this first foray into a more mainstream presentation is successful. There are small gaffes, but these are easily remedied. In the future, the designers need to attend more diligently to the control and leakage of sound; it can be difficult to read wall texts over the pervasive noise of the videos. They might also reconsider the placement of specially designed lectern-like introductory stations, which weren’t the obvious first stop for visitors entering new rooms or thematic groupings. In a few cases, one also wished for a bit more identifying material: The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, an attempt to secure peace with the Iroquois (or the Haudenosaunee, as they are referred to in the exhibition), includes beautiful photographs of a northern lake, but a map would have helped locate it (Canandaigua is on the northern end of one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York).

But those are things to be tweaked, not greatly regretted. Otherwise, the presentation is clear, comprehensive and full of the intriguing and often maddening details of history. The exhibition is divided into three large chapters: the optimism and apparent goodwill of the early treaties, made by the young republic to secure peace, security and coexistence; the “bad paper” treaties of the 19th century, which were often little more than formalized theft; and the 20th-century legacy, in which native political and cultural leaders used existing treaties to negotiate and secure greater autonomy and independence from federal and state control.

Get the Story:
Review by Philip Kennicott : ‘Nation to Nation’: Full of the intriguing, often maddening details of history (The Washington Post 9/24)

Also Today:
Smithsonian exhibit says treaties with tribes are not a thing of the past (Cronkite News 9/23)

Related Stories:
NWIFC schedules briefing on 'Treaty Rights 101' on Capitol Hill (9/18)
NMAI hosts symposium on treaties to coincide with new exhibit (9/16)
National Museum of the American Indian celebrates 10th birthday (09/01)

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