Sunday, October 03, 2004

Native Universe: Voices of Indian America
Edited by Gerald McMaster and Clifford Trafzer
National Museum of the American Indian/National Geographic
320 pages;$40

In 2002, when Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to orbit the earth, he carried aboard the shuttle Endeavour a Hopi ceramic pot with a traditional corn motif. It was made by a contemporary Hopi artist and mechanical engineer, Al Qoyawayma, who has also patented internal guidance systems.

This is the new American Indian reality that this book portrays. It's the inaugural volume celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington this fall, and its themes corresponds to the those of the first exhibition: "Our Universes," "Our Peoples," "Our Lives." Essays and poems by John Mohawk, N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Wilma Mankiller, Linda Hogan, Victor Montejo, Sherman Alexie and others, plus historical photos and documents, provide context for lavish and evocative photographs of ancient and contemporary art and artifacts.

The presence of the past and the power of the timeless in the world of time that characterize Indian America are illustrated here in many ways. So essays on the political and cultural importance of the Alcatraz occupation coexist with a description of the Navajo First Laugh Ceremony. Yet this volume reminds us that the oldest cultures on the continent are still the least understood.

Perhaps the new National Museum, largely designed and administered by American Indians, will play a leading role in changing that. Then perhaps Allan Houser, for example, will finally be considered a great American sculptor, instead of solely a prominent Indian sculptor. And the important American tribal stories, so different in important ways from European myth, may be absorbed into our common cultural cornucopia, equal to the tales of Greece and Iceland. If so, this volume may also contribute, by attracting attention to the Museum, and enlarging upon the experience of travelers when they return home. It is also ably edited to perform that role on its own.