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National Museum of the American Indian Controversy
Our effort is to be responsive in as sound a way we can to community wishes with respect to culturally-sensitive matters. The difficulty is that sometimes the wishes of a community differ within that community. That is clearly the case here. —Statement from National Museum of the American Indian
The conflict between restricted and free use interpretations of pipestone tradition came to the forefront again in 2004, when the new National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) commissioned a floor installation that included pipestone in both the forms of raw stone and pipes. Travis Erikson, a Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux artist and member of the Keepers, was chosen to do the work. Erikson is a fourth-generation quarrier, and has been quarrying and carving for more than twenty years. He completed the installation in June 2004. A ceremony representing multiple tribes accompanied the installation of the floor piece.
After a significant Native response in opposition to the installation, it was removed in July 2004, well before the museum’s opening in September of the same year. The Native people in opposition to the installation highlighted multiple problematic aspects of the artwork. First, they objected to the use of pipestone in the floor because anyone who stepped on or over it would be committing a serious act of disrespect. Second, they thought that Erikson should not have received compensation ($50,000) for the work. Last, they were offended by the display of joined pipe bowls and stems, which was itself a ceremonial, sacred act.
In our traditional ways, in our protocols, ceremonies, in our sacred way of life, we respect everything; everything is sacred. —Arvol Looking Horse, Lakota
Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota man who is the 19th-generation keeper of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman Pipe led the protests against the installation. Looking Horse says, “In our traditional ways, in our protocols, ceremonies, in our sacred way of life, we respect everything; everything is sacred. For instance, a child, you can't put our children's clothes on the floor. You can't even walk over our children's clothes.” In light of the concerns, the NMAI removed the pipestone floor installation because it did not want to maintain such a controversial piece against the wishes of a substantial portion of the Native community. "People have very strong views on both sides of this, but the weight of the sentiment was to remove the stones," said the Director of the NMAI in 2004. The Director continued: "Our effort is to be responsive in as sound a way we can to community wishes with respect to culturally-sensitive matters. The difficulty is that sometimes the wishes of a community differ within that community. That is clearly the case here."1
- Adams, Jim. "Pipestone Embroils New NMAI Building in Sioux Theological Debate." Indian Country Today Media Network.com. August 8, 2004. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2004/08/18/pipestone-embroils-new-nmai-building-sioux-theological-debate-93892. ↩