Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Hunkpapa in Vienna

Sitting Bull has been appearing all over town. A late period photograph of him--red eyes burning through the viewer--adorns a poster for a new exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology Vienna. The show is called Sitting Bull and His World. A few weeks ago, we decided we would like to see it. Then our friends Andy and Ursula, who also adopted their daughters, Teresa and Emily, from Ethiopia, decided to join us.

The other day, I mentioned our plan to Rosa, our radical history student babysitter, and she shook her head. "You know that's a bad museum, right?" she asked. She told me that this Museum of Ethnology possesses an Inca headdress which was stolen from its last Peruvian owner. The government of Peru has asked for its return, and the Museum said...Nope.

We went to see the show anyway. Man, that was some squeaky clean American a-history right there. The text placards of the show made frequent mention of the Lakota and the Sioux moving to reservations, and of their "awareness of the need to adapt," but scant mention of the betrayal, germ warfare and murder which forced them to those places. The exhibit named no causes, only effects. White people, if mentioned at all, were portrayed as the ones who gave the Indians horses, as patient negotiators, as brave initiators of "police actions," like the one which killed Sitting Bull at last.

In other words, bullshit.

Many Europeans are ignorant of some of the basic facts of American history; others tend to regard Native Americans as an exotic species. And a museum here is just as unlikely as any in the world to use the word "genocide" in an exhibition, even when it's appropriate. (Part of a near-universal unspoken agreement to avoid that word, lest we mistakenly tell the truth about something.)

I grew up with a different view of the Native American experience. My father was a social worker on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, and he often told us stories about Woody, a WWII veteran he met there. My father (and mother) told me as much of the truth as they knew about what happened between Native Americans and the Great White Father. But I think they also taught me to be proud of these amazing people who lived in North America so long ago. They made me feel like Sioux people were part of our heritage as Americans, our story. Crazy, right? What a concept!

Once, when my father visited me in New York City, I took him down to the National Museum of the American Indian. After walking through it, my dad couldn't stop talking about the Comanche. He insisted, with no little admiration, that Comanche horsemen were so skilled that nineteenth century European horse soldiers began to study and imitate Comanche strategies and maneuvers.

I wonder if the Lippizaner trainers over at the Spanish Riding School know that....


Ed Ward said...

And right there you have your difference between Germany and Austria. It would be inconceivable for the Ethnology Museum in Berlin's Dahlem complex to do the show that way. In fact, when you walk into the Indian section, which has tons of artifacts *bought* by some 19th century nobleman who became obsessed with Indians, the first thing you see is a display of stereotypes, along the lines of the Cleveland Indians mascot, and various appropriations of the Thunderbird, alongside an explanation of the Thunderbird cult. While it's true that the Germans have idealized the American Indian as an impossibly noble selfless person thanks to the works of Karl May (who never left Germany, and who is also represented in the stereotype room), when it comes to presenting their culture in a museum, they're quite realistic about what happened.

pat said...

Yeah, it could be that Austria is particularly provincial in this regard. Some volk I've met here regard cultural sensitivity as a bother, and express their bafflement with the idea of political correctness, as if to imply that it's merely another example of American wussieness. There are times I wish I had a Star Trek transporter device to send some of them to Harlem. It would be interesting to see how long they would last there if they then continued to refer to black people as "negers." Or Native Americans as "Indianer," for that matter.