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The Search for a Lost Identity

By Charlie Carroll

ArtsPost staff writer

For the most part, children are educated in grade school about the founding of this nation through a restricted lens, focusing on poems about how in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue or the American settlements of the English Puritans.  We learn about America’s dark past through slavery and the near destruction of Native American populations.  However, one of the untold stories about the interactions between the first three main groups of people that shaped the nation’s history is the way in which African Americans and Native Americans interacted and mixed with each other throughout American history.  “Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” currently being presented at the National Museum of the American Indian, is a wonderful and eye-opening exhibit about the history of mixed-heritage minorities that were significantly influenced by the development of the United States.

The story is one that is rarely told, or at least rarely explained and taught to the fullest extent.  Most people know that each group has suffered significantly over the last few centuries at the hands of colonial settlers, but little is known about the lives and experiences of those who share mixed ancestry and how the social dynamics of their interactions have shaped our perceptions of these people.  The Indivisible exhibit provides a valuable insight into the trials, tribulations, and successes that grew out of these interactions.

Indivisible is much more than just a museum exhibit, but an ongoing project brought together by a number of dedicated organizers.  All aspects of production for this project were undertaken on behalf of the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.  Aside from the larger organizations, a number of dedicated African-Native American men and women contributed to organizing the research through relationships with tribal communities as well as academic researchers from across the nation.

The 20-panel museum exhibit is located on the second level of the Museum of the American Indian, tucked away to a room near the main elevators.  The panels are divided into 4 main categories (policy, community, creative resistance and lifeways) with each panel analyzing a specific topic supported by copies of primary documents, such as original art, old photographs and slavery records.  In addition to the actual exhibit, the organizers of put together a 256-page book that includes 27 essays ranging from the Cherokee Freedmen debate to the effects of Jim Crow policy on the populations.

The exhibit does not boast any specific interactive or engaging multimedia elements aside from a 10-minute video looping at the back of the room.  However, the strength of the exhibit does not lie in the implementation of new technologies, but in the authenticity and details of the personal testimonials shown in the video itself.  In one testimonial, a young woman breaks down crying, saying that for so long a part of her was “shut off” and that she has been deeply moved by her new sense of belonging.  The need to belong and understand one’s true identity is the crux of the exhibit and is a basic human need that makes the underlying theme of the exhibit relatable to almost anyone.

The exhibit, which debuted on Nov.10 of last year, will be presented at the National Museum of the American Indian until May 31.  Following the Washington stint three copies of the exhibition will tour nationwide at a number of museums and cultural centers that will end in March of 2012.