- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian displays more than 7,000 objects — but they might not be the objects visitors expect, says Amy Drapeau, a museum spokeswoman.

“Some people come in with misconceptions. They think all Native Americans wear feathers, have horses and live on the Plains,” Ms. Drapeau says, “but you can’t generalize, because we’re talking about hundreds of native communities.”

She says there are more than 500 tribes in North America. South America is also home to many tribes. Two dozen tribes, including the Qasiq of Alaska and the Q’eq’chi Maya of Guatemala, are featured currently at the museum, which opened on the Mall last year.

“We plan to rotate the exhibits every year in order to give exposure to as many tribes as possible,” Ms. Drapeau says.

The 254,000-square-foot museum has four floors and takes at least 90 minutes to tour, Ms. Drapeau says. Visitors are advised to start at the top, which is home to the Lelawi Theater and two exhibits, “Our Peoples” and “Our Universes.”

“Children really like the ‘Our Universes’ exhibit. It has the star canopy, animated movies and the story about how raven stole the sun,” says Suzanne Davis, family programs coordinator.

The story about raven is a creation story. A long time ago, as the story goes, the world existed in total darkness. A greedy chief kept the stars, the moon and the sun locked up in carved boxes. A raven eventually liberated the light.

While the native communities have their individual traits and traditions, there are some common denominators. Storytelling is one of them, Ms. Davis says.

“Storytelling is a very important piece in native communities since traditionally there was very little or no writing,” she says. “So knowledge and tradition were passed down from generation to generation through storytelling.”

The “Our Universes” exhibit also features eight tribes and their views of the world around them — spirituality and the relationship among people, plants and animals.

The Anishinaabe (which means the “first people”), who live in Canada just across the Great Lakes, for example, believe that everything in the world is alive and has a spirit. It is the tribe’s responsibility to take care of mother earth, which includes showing respect for nature.

“In many native cultures, the belief is that there is an agreement among you, animals and God,” Ms. Davis says. “Part of the agreement is respect. If you’re going to kill an animal, nothing should go to waste.”

Whale skin, for example, was used to make baskets, she says.

Also on the fourth floor is the “Our Peoples” exhibit, which focuses on how American Indian culture changed after encounters with Europeans and their cultures.

This interaction devastated the American Indians. From 1492 to 1650, diseases claimed as many as nine lives out of 10, according to the exhibit, which also shows the tools of death: swords and guns used by the Europeans.

Another exhibit area shows artwork by George Catlin, an East Coast lawyer-turned-artist who traveled west during the 1830s to record the looks and ways of the Plains Indians. Catlin was convinced the American Indian would not survive westward expansion. Although decimated, many tribes have survived.

The Lelawi Theater is also on the fourth floor. A 13-minute movie highlights many of the individual and shared traits of tribes. The theater is in a round space with several back-to-back screens in the middle. Viewers sit in a circle.

“I don’t think this museum has a single sharp corner,” Ms. Davis says.

The third floor features the “Our Lives” exhibit, which focuses on contemporary American Indians, whether they live in urban communities or on reservations, such as the Yakama Nation in Washington state. It also showcases contemporary American Indian art such as a traditional-style basket made with camera film.

“These are dynamic and evolving communities; some exhibits show how these communities try to maintain their culture and language even with so much outside influence,” Ms. Davis says.

One exhibit features the Florida Seminoles, who not only survived the European expansion, but have grown in number, from 300 in 1850 to more than 3,000 in 2005. They are major cattle raisers.

The second floor has a gift shop, and the first floor has a cafe that serves native foods, an upscale gift shop (one sculpture has a $55,000 price tag) and a large, open floor space for demonstrations and temporary exhibits. Three kayaks from different cultures are displayed.

This open, circular space — the Potomac — is also a popular place for children to run and dance around when it’s not used for exhibits, Ms. Davis says.

Windows and prisms in the wall create different light patterns on the floor depending on not just the time of day, but also the time of year — equinoxes and solstices are important in native cultures.

“The kids love it — catching the prisms and dancing around in the light,” Ms. Davis says.

When you go:

Location: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is located at Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW, on the Mall a few blocks west of the Capitol.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily; closed Dec. 25.

Parking: Limited metered parking is available. Nearby Metro stops include the Smithsonian stop on the Blue and Orange lines, the L’Enfant Plaza stop on the Blue, Orange, Green and Yellow lines and the Judiciary Square stop on the Red Line.

Admission: Free

Information: 202/633-1000 or www.nmai.si.edu

Notes:

• The museum has a restaurant, the Mitsitam Cafe, that serves meals and snacks based on native culinary traditions. (Mitsitam means “let’s eat” in the Piscataway and Delaware language.) Dishes include bean-and-corn succotash and roasted venison.

• The museum offers frequent family events. The next major event, from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 3, will feature American Indian storytelling, drama, dance and music. Among performers will be Will Hill and Gennine DeMarco-Washington from Mahenwahdose, an American Indian theater based in Tulsa, Okla. Performances, which are open to children ages 5 and older, will take place at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the Rasmuson Theater on the first level.

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