We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Of all the pop-culture artifacts on view in Americans, nothing sticks to the theme like the packaging for Land O’ Lakes butter. The transcendentalist box art features a Plains Indian maiden kneeling on virgin homeland, eagerly awaiting a pilgrim on whom to bestow her gift of salted sweet-cream butterfat. The contents of the product have as little to do with Native Americans as they do with a heart-healthy diet. If it isn’t in your fridge, it’s definitely in your closest dairy aisle.
Nearly 300 objects make up the salon-style centerpiece of Americans, a show at the National Museum of the American Indian with a Warholian view of American history. Several examples cut a more striking image than a box-o-butter, including a vintage 1948 Indian Chief motorcycle and a Tomahawk missile. But nothing quite drives home the theme of the unrelenting ubiquity of America’s first brand like slapping a pretty Indian lady on a consumer staple.
Curated by Paul Chaat Smith and Cécile R. Ganteaume, Americans surveys the sweeping breadth of the American Indian image in the marketplace—and its staggering lack of depth, too. The museum has given the show a blockbuster touch, with a modern installation designed by the au courant firm Studio Joseph. Prints, products, and reproductions of native visuals hang from an angular scaffold that hugs the walls of an otherwise blacked-out gallery. To complete the secular look, a fractured screen at the gallery’s end shows a loop of American Indian depictions in film, from slapstick to stoic to savage, like a peculiar, shattered mirror.
Here the overall presentation is critical to the show’s plot. Viewers confronting a tin of Red Man chewing tobacco or Cher’s 1973 album Half-Breed might be tempted to weigh these images by their moral disposition—to measure them against some kind of cultural appropriation quotient to determine exactly how offensive they might be. But the panoptic installation serves to flatten American Indian images into a more generic category, a visual commodity, like pin-up girls or Art Deco fonts. A photo of lily-white Karlie Kloss walking the runway in an eagle-feather headdress and little else is given the same assignation as a satirical R. Crumb drawing for the New Yorker. The point is to make viewers see the forest for the trees, but not necessarily to guide them through it.
This posture of neutrality gives rise to funny juxtapositions throughout the main gallery. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s southern-fried, rebel-tinted appropriation of native imagery hangs here, as does Kanye West’s ironic appropriation of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s appropriation for his Yeezus tour. Washington, D.C.’s professional football team is represented by a branded teddy bear and infant security blanket, a contrast to the hurt that the racial slur causes—but also, just one more exhibit in a hall of crimes and misdemeanors. Courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian
Smith and Ganteaume never invest too much focus on any specific example, instead allowing the sheer pervasiveness of the commercial white gaze to make the case for greater thoughtfulness. In the adjacent galleries, however, Americans confronts four quintessential popular myths about American Indians, tackling them one by one—Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Big Horn. In these rooms, the script flips, and the museum mounts an advocacy campaign to sort out several big misperceptions about American history.
This part of the show reads as opportunity casting by the museum: Now that all these viewers are here for a glitzy installation of strange and familiar visuals, what should we do with them? One answer might have been rooted in the visual lore: a decade-by-decade look at the evolution of the American Indian image in pop culture, maybe. That is the secondary show that viewers may regret that they aren’t seeing, since a catalog of visual information is harder to come by than accurate historical details—although Americans isn’t wrong for trying to set the record straight. Many viewers may be embarrassed by how much they learn.
The exhibit on Pocahontas showcases the double-whammy that American Indians suffer: exalted as prestige Americans, but erased as human beings. For example, a 1924 law in Virginia called the Racial Integrity Act required all residents to identify themselves as “white” or “colored.” The law backfired for a fraction of the whites it was designed to benefit. Virginians who had always claimed some ancestral connection to Pocahontas, the first lady of the commonwealth, wanted a carveout. They wanted to continue to claim Indian heritage without it making them effectively black. The aristocrats got what they wanted: The law was changed so that Virginians with 1/16th Indian blood could still be classified as “white.”
Heavy on the infographics, these smart history halls follow a recent trend in exhibition design across the Smithsonian Institution (and perhaps most strongly felt at the National Museum of African American History and Culture). Sometimes, these data-rich exhibits run low on authentic experience. Not so with several Americans exhibits that center on objects, especially a monumental late-19th century muslin painting by a Lakota follower of Sitting Bull named Strike the Kettle. An impressive eagle-feather headdress, a larger-than-life display, makes it immediately clear why every H&M-type fashion campaign that borrows the headdress as a motif is destined to failure. An 1839 painting that hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, “Baptism of Pocahontas,” shows how far back in history the H&M-ification of the American Indian goes.
Aside from the four historical displays, Americans doesn’t settle on any answers or even resolve into a common set of questions. A funny video narrated by Smith explains the warped history of Thanksgiving, tracing its transformation from a historical footnote into a defining myth about a forest brunch with the pilgrims, while recognizing the holiday as wonderful and awful at the same time. Americans works as a framework for acknowledging just how much of America’s popular self-conception is just warmed-up Native American imagery. But it’s up to Americans to do the work from there to sort out why that matters and what needs to change.
4th Street and Independence Avenue SW. Free. (202) 633-1000. nmai.si.edu.