A beaming Daniel K. Inouye, longtime Democratic United States Senator from Hawaii, stood in front of an ebullient audience of some 20,000 American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, the largest indigenous gathering in history in Washington, D.C. It was September 21, 2004, the grand opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. Inouye’s dream – and the dream of so many others – had come true.
The stage included such Native dignitaries as longtime writer, policy advocate and curator Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) and the museum’s founding director W. Richard West, Jr. (Southern Cheyenne and citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma), all crucial figures in realizing this dream. But U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R. - Colo.), Northern Cheyenne, introduced Sen. Inouye as “the man who, in my view, is singularly the most responsible person for this magnificent structure we will be opening shortly.”
Sen. Inouye, a war hero among the famed Nisei (Japanese–American) enlistees in World War II, was known for his modesty, and Sen. Campbell extolled him in terms Inouye would never have used for himself. “Among Native Americans whether they be from Hawaii, the lower 48, or Alaska, he is without peer. His quiet demeanor and gentle way, his leadership and perseverance, his record as a military hero for our nation and years of service in the United States Senate are well known to all,” said Campbell.
“Among our Native people he is known as a warrior chief among warriors.”
Sen. Inouye, Sen. Campbell, Harjo and many others, including Sen. Inouye’s longtime staff director and chief counsel, Patricia Zell, had traveled a long road together to this moment. The important achievements of Native peoples, so long ignored by a mainstream more interested in relegating them to Hollywood movies and the dustbin of history, would be appreciated and celebrated from one of the world’s greatest stages, the National Mall, and in one of the most visible and respected of the world’s museum complexes, the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1994, Harjo wrote “The NMAI: A Promise America is Keeping,” an article for the museum’s fledgling national fundraising campaign. She put into perspective the tumultuous years prior to 1989 – the acquisition of the collection of Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation, based in New York City, and the 1989 signing of the federal legislation that created the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The federal takeover originated in the attempt to save the holdings of the private Museum of the American Indian (MAI), obsessively accumulated since the end of the 19th century by the industrialist George Gustav Heye. These holdings, more than 800,000 objects, constituted the largest American Indian collection in the world, but the private museum had fallen on hard times, and the collection was deteriorating. The trustees, led by Harjo and Vine DeLoria Jr. (Dakota), felt salvation lay in incorporating the MAI into the Smithsonian system.
“The actual legislating to establish the NMAI was done at ‘lightning speed’ in Washington lawmaking terms, especially for a law dealing with broad Indian policy and prized federal property,” wrote Harjo. “However, the journey to that point had been slow going over rough roads.”
“In the late 1980s, Inouye was looking for more than real estate,” wrote Harjo. “Then Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he was trying to change a sorry history and to find solutions to two pressing problems. First involved the need for museum policy respecting Native American religious and burial rights and returning Native human remains and cultural property from federally recognized assisted museums and collections nationwide. The second involved salvaging the world’s largest collection of Indian art and artifacts housed in deteriorating and overcrowded conditions.”
The human remains issue at the time was the subject of emotional Congressional debate. In 1987, Sen. John Melcher (D.-Mont.) had introduced a bill that provided that if human remains of American Indians and associated funerary objects were found on federal lands, federal land managers would be required to repatriate them. The bill was reintroduced in the 1989 Congress and expanded to sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.
“The scope was pretty narrow from our perspective today but, back then, it was groundbreaking,” says Zell. “Sen. Inoye had begun serving as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in January 1987. On February 20, 1987, about six weeks after he became chairman, we scheduled a hearing on Sen. Melcher’s bill.”
Witnesses included Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams, who testified that the Smithsonian had 18,500 human remains of Native peoples (American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians) in its collections. The remains were primarily inherited from the Army Medical Museum, where remains were sent when they were found on battlefields. Overzealous soldiers had also disinterred remains, following a federal directive to procure them for anthropological study. Zell says the Senator was shocked by the statements and said later that this would never have happened if these were remains of Europeans, Japanese–Americans or others.
Harjo recounts the enormous amount of the time she and other prominent advocates, including Vine Deloria, Jr., spent calling for a national repatriation policy as well as a museum for Native peoples. “One of my memories is Sen. Inouye understanding what we were talking about,” says Harjo. “Repatriation was a very difficult subject as was building a ‘national’ museum of the American Indian, which at the time we referred to as a cultural center.”
Harjo says a turning point was the testimony of Smithsonian Secretary Adams about Native human remains. “He was not being dismissive of human remains but he was being insensitive,” says Harjo. “Sen. Inouye questioned the Secretary, asking what he meant by ‘bones,’ and the Secretary said, ‘bones, just bones….’ and Sen. Inouye asked, ‘Do you mean such as an arm bone?’ The Secretary responded, ‘Well, yes….’”
Adams continued to talk without realizing that Sen. Inouye had lost his right arm in World War II.
“After the hearing, the Senator said, ‘This is a shame,’” recalled Zell. “The Smithsonian remains should either be repatriated to their families or communities of origin, or we should build a memorial, sort of a ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,’ for those who cannot be identified.”
Zell recounted, “He said they ought to be reinterred with some dignity. They should not be sitting in boxes at the Smithsonian.”
Sen. Inouye charged his staff with investigating a site on the National Mall for a memorial to Native peoples. Their research uncovered one suitable spot left on the Mall. The only problem was that it had been reserved for the Smithsonian. “There were other federal sites in Virginia and Maryland but the Senator said, ‘no,’ that he wanted it on the Mall,” says Zell. “He said he might consider combining a memorial with the Smithsonian’s desire to build a Museum of Man on that site. This is the site now occupied by the NMAI.”
“The Senator called the Smithsonian Secretary and asked him what he thought about this and then mentioned that he’d been invited to New York City to see the Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation collection and asked if he would like to accompany him,” says Zell.
In April 1987, Inouye’s group visited the MAI in New York City. At its former Research Branch in the Bronx, says Zell, “everything was crammed to the gills.”
“There was a tall file cabinet, a whole row of tall file cabinets, and Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chief Counsel Alan Parker (Chippewa Cree Tribal Nation), saw a rifle butt sticking out from the top of one of the cabinets. Out of curiosity, he pulled it down. Allen, who is a great, great, great grandson of Chief Sitting Bull, looked it over and saw that it was Chief Sitting Bull’s rifle.”
Harjo adds, “When we first took the Senator to the collection, I was one of the Museum of the American Indian’s trustees showing him around. The museum’s director only wanted to show him ‘guns and gold’ in the vault at the exhibit area. Many of us wanted to show him the warehouse in the Bronx where 97 percent of the collection was stored. So he saw the guns and gold and was properly impressed, and we went to the warehouse.”
A shocking sight greeted them. Says Harjo, “There was a flood the night before. There were wharf rats, huge water bugs and, of course, the water damage was extensive. It was, for example, on the bottom of fringe of buckskin dresses – hundreds of them were lined up and hanging on one big metal brace. The floodwater and sewage water had gotten on the fringe and what happens is that it just doesn’t stop there but creeps – it was creeping upward and staining the bottoms, not just the fringes, but all the dresses. There was no way to stop it except to let it run its course.”
“At the same time,” Harjo recalls, “the inventory, such as it was, existed on recipe cards. A lot of them had gotten wet and were curled up like big Fritos. They had them on top of everything; on top of file cabinets and desks were these big Fritos. Some of them were fine because they were typed on index cards, but some of them were written in ink and were bleeding. You would not in the future really be able to tell what they said. This was the scene we walked into.”
“Granted, it was worse then it normally would be,” says Harjo. “But this was the Senator’s and the Smithsonian Secretary’s introduction [to the collection], its care and treatment, its inventory and its general state of being. This was behind the guns and gold.”
The prevailing opinion was that the collection had to be saved – and fast. Says Zell, “In any event, this took a long time, from our start in 1987, and scores of New York City meetings, and then very gradually getting to a point where we could work out all of the legal issues.” The transfer of the collection to the Smithsonian in D.C. raised numerous practical issues, says Zell. “How was it going to be financed, how it would be maintained, and a means by which the collection that came to Washington could also be made available to the New York entity, which would be the New York City presence of the museum. There were a lot of wrinkles to be ironed out.”
“However, the way in which all these events, pieces came together was really magical and mysterious,” says Zell. “There was an energy right from the beginning. There was a strong wind blowing and that strong wind was the desire to build this museum coming from maybe many generations past. That strong wind blew through, seemingly picking up all these people that it needed – Senators, people such as David Rockefeller of New York City, and many other people, and made them all pawns in this effort of implementing the vision of the museum.”
Says Harjo, “What was wonderful to me about Sen. Inouye was his respect for us, the way he listened to our oral history, the way he understood it, and the way he identified with what we were trying to accomplish when it came to human remains and to property and to sacred objects and all those things.
“His gateway was through the human remains and he understood that without any more discussion. Everything else was style and personal oral history, and he understood the heart of it and the passion for it.”
Says Harjo, “We wanted what we at first called a cultural center to be a place where the policy makers and the people who made laws about us would have to look us in the face while they were making these laws – so they would be better laws. Sen. Inouye really understood that.
“When it came time for us to really focus on a ‘place’ for the museum he literally looked down from his hideaway office balcony in the U.S. Capitol, saying, ‘What’s that blank spot down there?’ And we said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘The one between the U.S. Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.’
“His Capitol office looked down on the site that was designated to be the National Museum of the American Indian,” says Zell. “He was always looking at the site and said that one day there will be a museum. And it was appropriate that it would be facing the Capitol.”
Sen. Campbell remembers Inouye saying many times, and publicly, “This is a city of monuments [Washington, D.C.], and yet there has never been a monument to Native peoples.” The refrain became familiar to those who worked closely with Inouye and Campbell during the early years of the museum’s development.
“The museum became our monument,” says Sen. Campbell. “But, from the beginning, we didn’t want a place where you just warehoused pots and baskets. We wanted it to be a living museum to tell stories and to be a showcase for song, dance and Indian artifacts and all kinds of things. And to this day, this has been the mission. It is not a place where you look into glass cases and study old dusty archives.”
Sen. Inouye died in December 2012 at the age of 88. He lived through an enormous span of American history from the 1940s, when he served in World War II, to the second decade of the 21st century. His memory is writ large not only in Native history but also in the hearts and minds of all who worked most closely with him during the years leading up to the founding of the National Museum of the American Indian and to the opening of its building on the National Mall.
“Dan Inouye had a very deep understanding of the terrible tragedies that Native people had gone through,” says Campbell. “He understood history and geography well. As a thoughtful person he could look around Washington and realize that maybe 200 years ago somebody else called it a mosquito-infested swamp but that was home for a lot of Native people who lived in that area before the coming of the pilgrims or the coming of the people we know who established what we now think of as Washington, D.C. All of [the original Native people of the area] had been driven away. He believed they had an aboriginal right to Washington, D.C. and that maybe this museum was a way of reestablishing that right.”
“He put his reputation behind what we wanted,” says Harjo. “He put his power, status, reputation and his personal cachet behind what Native America had decided was priority, both the Indian museum and repatriation policy. And he did that as he was learning. He did it because it was our priority and he respected that we knew what we were doing and then he really took it to heart and internalized it and it became something he truly understood, beginning with his understanding of the loss of what was so casually called ‘specimens.’ You can’t ask a person to do more than that. He was personally engaged.”
“His legacy is that he gave it his all and he did that even before he turned his full attention to trying to get a World War II memorial, which was dear to his heart,” says Harjo. “That was his war and that was something he really wanted. But he put that on hold to get the National Museum of the American Indian.”
Richard West, Jr., says that Inouye, “has an immense legacy with respect to Native peoples and even more specifically with the National Museum of the American Indian.
“He was part of such important eras of American history, he had such an important role in history whether it was coming from a new territory, a new state, and in that state, shifting the political control of that state from those who had been there before, to those who, like him, had come had come as descendant of immigrants to the territory of Hawaii, and affecting political life there, and then moving to the American stage that accompanied the American civil rights movement, to his role in Watergate, to the National Museum of the American Indian and his involvement with Indian Country and chairmanship of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. What you see is a tracking of his own personal arc with the arc of American history at the time, which was very large.”
“It is that connection in his public life that I consider important in the evolution of American history and American culture that makes him such a large figure to me,” says West. “It is more than simply a statement of public history for me because I always look for the affective side in great public figures. And there was a human empathy to Daniel Inouye that was a source of great motivation to him. He understood, I think, the sweeping arcs of American history and public history. But at the same time there was something that came straight from his heart and very much human in dimension that he felt should be protected in the long run in the arc of American history.”
This legacy culminated in the grand opening. “We all knew that the museum would have an impact – we just didn’t know the impact would be on day one,” says Zell. “To see all those all those thousands of Native peoples marching from the Washington Monument toward the museum, in Native dress, with such pride and reclaiming their natural place in history was so overwhelming. Everyone went away and cried, including the senator. It was so much more than we had anticipated and obviously so much better in so many ways.”
“Everyone else was ignoring that it had been our initiative, our idea, and that it came from Native America and that there were real Native people,” says Harjo. “They were making it Sen. Inouye’s dream or his idea. But it was not. And he acknowledged that. That was very important because people were trying to write it out of our own history. That was history that we made, and that was history that Native peoples made. Sen. Inouye was someone who tried to keep that in the forefront, and that’s was why people thought he was being humble. He was merely stating the fact.”
“I think he realized and recognized that he was an instrument to make this happen – that he wasn’t the visionary, he was just the instrument of pulling all disparate forces together and putting them together, and also that he was in a unique place as senior member of Senate Rules Committee that had jurisdiction over the Smithsonian that he could make this happen with the help of many others,” says Zell.
“I would call him the father of the NMAI,” says Campbell. “His presence was felt everywhere in Indian Country. He was a dear friend. He had an Indian soul and way about him. In a lot of Indian cultures they think it is impolite to be a self-promoter so they don’t promote themselves. They let others promote them. Dan was that way. He was never looking to be at the front of the stage or the big guy on campus. He didn’t need to. People recognized greatness when they were around Daniel Inouye.”
West recalls the scene on the stage at the grand opening. “I remember him turning to me before we went on,” says West. “With that luminescent smile of his that went from ear to ear he turned to me and with that little nod he said, ‘Well, here we are, at last.’ One doesn’t forget moments like these.”