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‘Americans’ exhibit considers Native American imagery

An ongoing exhibition that opened in 2018 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., got some renewed attention this week.

The museum’s director, Kevin Gover (Pawnee), was the guest on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program Feb. 20, as previously reported by the Seminole Tribune.

During the one-hour call-in show, Gover discussed the “Americans” exhibit and several Indian Country issues.

The exhibit looks at how Native Americans have been, and are still, presented in popular culture through different examples of imagery. Examples include food products (the Land O’Lakes butter maiden) motorcycles (Indian Motorcycle) and even U.S. military weapons systems (the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, Apache helicopter and Black Hawk helicopter).

The Calumet baking powder can is one of the more well-known products to use Native American imagery.

But it’s not just products. The headdress, too, became a symbol for all Native Americans. In reality, Gover said, the headdress was mostly confined to the Plains Indians and only for a short period in history.

The exhibit features examples of Native American imagery in popular culture. Photo: Paul Morigi/AP for NMAI.

“There were tens of thousands of Plains Indians, but many millions of other Indians that had inhabited the Americas for thousands of years – yet that’s the image,” Gover said on the telecast.

There are sports mascots, of course, and representation out of Hollywood in television and movies. Some will remember past images of Elvis and Cher donning Indian headdresses.

“We’ve become intrigued by how Native American imagery is used broadly in American culture,” Gover said. “We use it as wallpaper [in the exhibit] to make the point – Indians are everywhere in the popular culture, but remain unknown to most people in the U.S.”

It’s a phenomenon that Gover argues is one of the more profound issues facing Native Americans today.

This “Hanker Chiefs” product is an example of the use of Native American imagery to sell a product. (Courtesy NMAI).

“Americans get their information about Native Americans from two primary sources: one is the formal education system and the other is the popular culture,” Gover said. “We show in this gallery that the popular culture creates wildly misleading and, frankly, very strange ideas about the Native Americans of the past and present.”

He said the education system can be even more problematic.

“School information is at best incomplete and all too often inaccurate. Children are learning a version of history that more reflects the stereotypes of popular culture than reflect reality,” he said. “We need more Native American people teaching Native American history.”

Gover said the good news is that Native Americans are not as invisible anymore; as many tribes have increasingly thrived economically and in other ways.

He points to the Native Americans population as proof of its resilience. The 2010 Census counted more than 3 million Native Americans who are considered official U.S. citizens.

“But if you add all the people who identify themselves as Native or part Native, there are over 5 million,” Gover said.

In 1900, the number was about 250,000.

To view the “Washington Journal” program online in its entirety, click here.

More information on the museum and its exhibits are here.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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