Category: Belief and Worldview

The Land Has Memory: Indigenous Knowledge, Native Landscapes, and the National Museum of the American Indian

Edited by Duane Blue Spruce and Tanya Thrasher. 2009. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 184 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8078-3264-6 (hard cover), 978-0-8078-5936-0 (soft cover).


Reviewed by John Wolford, University of Missouri, St. Louis

[Review length: 842 words • Review posted on August 25, 2009]


This book is a documentation of the establishment of, and premises behind, the National Museum of the American Indian, the 2004 addition to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Like the museum itself, the book is an evocation of Native spirit and worldview, of the values that imbue traditional Native ways of life. As such, it is not what one might expect of a museological book. It does not dissect the character of exhibits nor discuss in the somber tones of an accountant what numbers are necessary to make the museum profitable. It does not even invoke professional chatter to theorize the variable fashions of presentation, outreach, and inclusiveness. Rather, each essayist has a specific topic to discuss and covers that topic in the language of Native values, the importance of how humans relate to the land, and how essential tradition is both in Native lives and in how the museum expresses it. As Johnpaul Jones notes, their museum is to be a “living” museum, not a dead museum (8).

In short, this is a refreshing book on museology. Hopefully, readers will be open to its sincere, value-infused presentation.

The book itself is replete with color photographs of the museum and its landscape, as well as of historic pictures and other graphics, such as landscape layouts. Noting the photographic feature is not just a descriptive element of this review. References to the landscaping of the museum grounds, how such landscaping is intrinsic to the museum experience itself, riddle the essays in this work: the photographs are pointedly integral to the book’s theme. Obviously, given the title, the land and people’s relation to nature is intrinsic to the development of the museum and serves as the basic message of the book. The absolutely beautiful photographs, reproduced on the glossy pages of this volume, go far in representing the vitality of nature and its importance to traditional Native Americans.

Seventeen authors wrote nine essays and ten sidebars (which range from half a page to several) that make up this book. Further, two appendices cover, first, resources the reader can access, and second, the names of the flora planted in the landscape around the museum. The editors have structured the essays (including the introduction) to provide a solid understanding of why and how this museum exists. The authors, all involved in the creation or the running of the museum, represent a wide range of Native Americans in the United States, as well as five who do not list a tribal affiliation. However, just as Native worldview obliterates boundaries, the NMAI does not limit its coverage only to those who live in the United States, but embraces Native peoples throughout the American continents, extending as well to Hawai’i. A prime example of this is the extensive research into and resultant procurement of the four marker stones that “‘anchor’ the museum to the site,” one from each of the Four Directions. The northern stone came from the Northwest Territories of Canada, the southern stone from Chile, the western stone from Hawai’i, and the eastern stone from Maryland (James Pepper Henry and Kristine Brumley, 34).

The overriding emphases in the book are on 1) being faithful to Native values and tradition, and 2) nature and landscape. Sequencing these two emphases is misleading, since the authors would see the two as not simply interrelated, but each intrinsic to the other. In his essay, Johnpaul Jones identifies the four worlds as the natural world, the human world, the animal world, and the spiritual world, and discusses how Native peoples understand that all are interconnected, interdependent, that all comprise a seamless whole (3). This understanding of the interconnected worlds resonates throughout each essay in the book, in order: continuity with the past and with ancestors, honoring the land on which the museum sits, recognizing the significance of the Four Directions, understanding the various peoples who inhabited the pre-Columbian Potomac area, poeticizing the sculptured landscape, explicating the interior landscape exhibits, exploring the character of seeds and the various landscapes, and describing what thrives in each season (as well as the difficulty of maintaining a “pure” landscape).

This entire book, like the museum itself, intends to be a symbolic representation of Native values and worldview. That is, the book’s presentation, in topic and in format, focuses on an organic understanding of the cosmos, interweaving different kinds of narrative—poetry, essay, academic exposition; humanism mixed with science, Native taxonomy mixed with Western—all heavily informed by pictures and graphics of past and present, near and far, the totality presented with a pan-Indian consciousness. Even the shading of the sidebars into the essays, while confusing at first, makes sense in terms of this organic composition. Abandoning oneself to the purpose of this book, just as one would at the museum itself, the reader comes away with a deeper understanding of the underpinnings of Native worldview, and certainly with a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness, the balancing, of the human, natural, animal, and spiritual worlds that comprise the landscape of which we all are so much a part.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.