MUSEUM: Our precious place in the universe

Posted on June 8th, 2010 by americanindiannews in Recent News

By Tim Johnson

Before it opened, founders of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian heard from Native peoples that one of its most important roles would be to teach all children the true history of the Americas.

By Marilu Lopez Fretts - Tim Johnson, Associate Director for Museum Programs, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian

In this undertaking, I cannot overstate the importance of what José Martí, the Cuban poet and thinker, wrote in his 1891 manifesto, “Our America.” He stated, “The American intelligence is an Indian headdress.”  What Martí was saying grew out of his observation that human progress must not only factor in economic considerations, but must also include social, cultural, and familial dimensions. He came to this understanding by listening to what Indians had to say.

I think one could even venture to say that the future belongs to the American Indian. That might sound a bit grandiose and perhaps ethnocentric, but it emerges from Native cultural perspectives and underscores the relevance of Native knowledge and experience in the world today. In order to survive, the world will have to arrive at many of the same principles, values and social life-ways of Native cultures, which will produce a more balanced way of living for the future.

On Dec. 1, 2002, I spoke with Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington while he was circling the globe in the space shuttle Endeavour. I was at the end of a phone line in a log cabin on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, and Commander Herrington was hundreds of miles above the Earth, at that moment hurtling over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America.

Prior to Herrington’s historic odyssey, I sat with editors at Indian Country Today to determine the questions we would ask him during the in-flight interview NASA had granted the newspaper.  Mission Control allowed only enough time for about six questions. Access to the communications feed was narrow, given the speed of the Endeavour. In addition, several news agencies were bundled up in a queue. As a result, we put a good deal of thought into the questions we would ask.

We considered technical questions concerning Herrington’s responsibilities for construction on the space station and the hazardous business of space walking, and what it meant to him to become the loftiest of all Indian steelworkers.  We considered questions about his example as a role model to thousands of Indian children who were tracking his voyage from schools across the hemisphere. We considered, and eventually asked, a question about NASA’s prohibition of his bringing along tobacco, which is used in ceremonies by many Native peoples. But, ultimately, we decided the first question needed to address the philosophical or spiritual nature of the experience.

“Commander Herrington,” I said, “please describe as best you can what you are seeing and feeling as you look down upon our Mother Earth from the Skyworld.”

With characteristic humility and eloquence, traits which have endeared him to the American public, Herrington spoke of humans finding themselves living on a remarkable life-giving planet set in the midst of the vastness of the universe.

He spoke of the grandeur of the Earth and observed how thin the atmosphere appeared by comparison. He reflected upon how minor human beings seemed in the larger scope of things. And he talked, clearly with awe, about his realization of the “grand scheme” of our living earth. He spoke as one of the relative few to ever occupy such a remarkable vantage point.

Our conversation was emblematic of the distance Indian peoples had traveled, both figuratively and literally, in our related struggles to keep our ongoing stories alive. For the newspaper, connecting to outer space from a log cabin on Indian Territory was intentional. Its purpose was to reveal the powerful adherence Native peoples have to place, to our lands of the Western Hemisphere, and to symbolically express the numerous cultural entreaties made from our lands, over millennia, to the great unknown.

Herrington’s reverence at the vision that appeared before him, combined with his inclination to appreciate its complexity, was not dissimilar to the fundamental propositions that serve as a foundation to American Indian cultural inquiry, to Indian thinking.

Let us all strive to fly as high as Commander Herrington, with dignity and purpose, toward educational enlightenment.


Tim Johnson, who is Mohawk, is associate director for museum programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The American Indian News Service is an outreach of the National Museum of the American Indian. All content is free to publish or post. Email the editor at Visit the American Indian News Service at


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