- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Countless American Indians have visited the nation’s capital ever since the chiefs and village elders encountered by Lewis and Clark came east in stately dignity 200 years ago to meet in Washington with the “great white father,” President Thomas Jefferson.

But the grandeur of those visits would pale in comparison to the six days of gala celebrations planned for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) here next Tuesday.

Consider: Beginning at 8 a.m. and lasting until noon that day, a Native Nations procession will bring together tens of thousands of Indians from the entire Western Hemisphere — from far north to the Andes and southward, many of them garbed in the brilliant colors and handsome designs of traditional dress — for a historic walk from the Smithsonian Castle to the foot of Capitol Hill for the museum’s opening ceremonies.

Organizers see this grand parade as providing a vivid symbol of a new era for the Indian peoples of the Americas: a celebration of a significant first for Indian America, a permanent place for Indian culture and history on the Mall, at the very heart of the nation’s capital city.

“An institution like ours considers itself as a husbander of our cultural patrimony and an assembler of the wonderful material culture of native peoples,” says NMAI Director W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne.

“But it is also an international institution of living cultures. It anticipates a future for native peoples, not just a past.”

• • •

The great procession Tuesday will be just the beginning. During five more days of festivities, more than 300 visual artists and performers from more than 50 tribes — storytellers, dancers, musicians and major recording artists such as singer Buffy Sainte-Marie of the Cree — will show their crafts and arts on the Mall. Indian food — buffalo, caribou, beans, squash and corn, as well as a variety of desserts — will be available to satisfy hunger and curiosity about Indian cuisine. An Indian marketplace will offer Indian arts, crafts and CDs.

That this celebration should be so grand in scope should be no surprise: The 250,991-square-foot NMAI is the culmination of 15 years of planning and struggle, beginning from the moment in 1989 when the first President Bush signed into law the bill that authorized its creation.

For Indians throughout North and South America, its opening is a shining moment, a sign that Indians are at last a part of the country’s mainstream.

Five stories tall, with an exterior of Kasota limestone quarried in Minnesota (a stone whose light-tan coloring suggests rock outcroppings), the building occupies the last available space on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

From the beginning, NMAI’s design, both of the exterior and interior, was regarded as a cooperative endeavor, with input by a number of architects and designers. Canadian Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfoot and the highly regarded designer of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, contributed greatly to the museum’s conception. Others played significant roles too — including Johnpaul Jones of Cherokee and Choctaw descent; Hopi Ramona Sakiestewa; Lou Weller, a Caddo; and the ethnobotanist Donna House of the Navajo and Oneida.

The museum faces due east toward the rising sun, in keeping with Indian custom. At the four cardinal points, there are direction markers, each about 1 cubic meter in size. The marker for north comes from the Northwest Territories of Canada, the southern stone from Isla Navarino in Chile, the eastern stone from nearby Great Falls, Md., and the western stone from Hawaii. (The people of Hawaii, which is outside the Western Hemisphere, are included because their island group is part of the United States.)

Constructed inside and out with traditional Indian materials and packed with Indian symbols and imagery, the building is a “completely Native place,” as its designers intended.

The museum’s planners wanted it to be a place where American Indian history and culture could be preserved, but they also wanted the building to be much more: They wanted a site that not only celebrates a great past but that actively participates in Indian culture today, which is very much alive and impressively creative.

In the words of Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small: “Its importance cannot be overestimated.”

• • •

Why “National Museum of the American Indian” rather than the more politically correct “Native American”?

“It is almost irrelevant whether ‘Native American’ or ‘American Indian’ is used, since both are generic and collective,” Mr. West says. It is far more important, he says, that American Indians be identified with the tribe they belong to — Southern Cheyenne, Navajo, or Cree — rather than with a collective noun.

Moreover, Mr. West adds, “‘Native American’ is confusing because it can be applied to everyone who was born here,” not just Indians. “What ‘American Indian’ shows is that Christopher Columbus was woefully lost,” thinking he had arrived in India rather than in a world unknown to Europeans, Mr. West says.

NMAI planners have spared no effort to make the new museum building itself an outstanding work of Indian art and culture. Beginning as early as 1991, Indians and their representatives were consulted on a regular basis for their input on what architectural features should be adopted. They were also asked what they thought the museum’s various activities should include to reflect Indians as closely as possible.

One result is a cultural arts program that will reach out electronically, through touring programs and other means, to tribal colleges and other American Indian institutions. NMAI will sponsor regular seminars and symposia on issues important to Indians, and there will be a biennial film festival that shows movies by Indian artists — as well as many other outreach programs.

NMAI also has a growing publications department. The “Tales of the People” is a series of books for older readers, and the museum puts out a monthly magazine, American Indian.

As part of the opening celebrations, NMAI, in association with the National Geographic Society, has published the handsome coffee-table book, “Native Universe: Voices of Indian America.” It is packed with photographs and pictures, with essays by leading Indian writers. A shieldlike insignia on the book’s jacket proclaims it “The Inaugural Book of the National Museum of the American Indian.”

• • •

A walk through the nearly completed museum in August with NMAI Director of Public Affairs Thomas W. Sweeney, a Potawotami, gave an inkling of what will be revealed on Tuesday.

Despite piles of material and the inevitable dust, the promise is stunning. Outside and inside, the building’s walls undulate and curve gently, offering a feeling very different from that given off by the straight lines and sharp corners of most Washington buildings.

From the beginning, a visitor is aware that he or she is in a very Indian place. The Welcome Wall greets everyone with 200 words from Indian languages, all of them meaning “Welcome.”

In the museum’s galleries and many rooms, building materials include copper, granite, maple and adzed cedar and alder, suggesting interiors that might be found, say, in Wyo-ming, or some other place remote from the elegant and often sterile interiors of Washington.

The four large galleries on the third and fourth floors were off-limits during Mr. Sweeney’s August walk-through, but on opening day Tuesday about 8,000 items will be on display in five different exhibitions.

To decide what items from the enormous collection should be on display when the museum opened, NMAI officials consulted with 24 tribes, 12 of them from the United States and 12 from Canada and Latin America.

The 8,000 items on display make up only a small percentage of the museum’s total holdings of about 800,000 objects, most of them stored in NMAI’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland — a building to which NMAI is generously offering access during open-house hours across the week of festivities.

Mr. Sweeney also gave a visitor a view of the Lelawi (Leh-LAW-wee) Theater, a 120-seat circular room, and the 322-seat Main Theater, spaces that will play an important role in the museum’s participation in continuing and contemporary Indian culture. The Lelawi Theater will offer a 13-minute multimedia presentation to prepare visitors to tour the NMAI.

Mr. Sweeney also walked through the museum’s soon-to-open shops and the Mitsitam (mit-seh-TOM) Cafe, whose name means “Let’s eat” in the language of the Piscataway and Delaware, Indian peoples who lived near Washington.

• • •

But the most astonishing visual encounter comes in the Potomac, a 120-foot-wide room that soars 120 feet high. Mr. West, the museum’s director, calls the Potomac one of his favorite places in the museum — “a breathtakingly beautiful architectural space,” as he puts it.

The Potomac’s main doors are etched with sun symbols from Indian cultures. The summer and winter solstices and vernal and autumnal equinoxes are mapped on the floor with red and black granite.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all, when seen at the right moment, are the eight large prisms at the window in the Potomac’s south wall. Each of these prisms is positioned for the sun for a particular day and season, providing visual evidence of the passage of time and seasonal change. Every day, the light show is different, but it always reaches its height between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The museum’s goal is to give visitors a first-hand look at Indian craftsmanship. In the Potomac space during the opening festivities, as part of a long-term public program on boat building, two Indian boat builders will be featured at work constructing the boats they make, a Hawaiian canoe and an Inuit kayak.

In 2005, the Inuit and Hawaiian craftsmen will be replaced by an Aymara Indian from Bolivia building a boat of totora reeds, a plant of the papyrus family that thrives in the waters of Lake Titicaca on the Peru-Bolivia border.

• • •

As impressive and beautiful as the museum’s indoor collection is, the must-sees are not confined to NMAI’s handsome galleries and interior. Landscapes comprise nearly three-quarters of the 41/4-acre site, underlining, as so much at the building does, the close connection between American Indians and nature.

Ms. House, the ethnobotanist, oversees much of the landscaping. About 29,000 trees (25 species, including papaw and bald cypress), shrubs and various plants, 150 species altogether, make up the landscape, which is subdivided into regions. Landscape tours are offered.

An “upland hardwood forest,” for example, features trees and plants that once grew in the Rock Creek Park area of Washington — such species as red maple and the flowering plant, bloodroot, which blooms in spring. A “wetlands” area has water plants such as the yellow marsh marigold, the vividly red cardinal plant, pond lilies, and wild rice.

A “meadowlands” region has species found in the Potomac River Valley — buttercups and sunflowers, among others. In the “traditional croplands” section, there are squash, corn, beans, tobacco — traditional Indian plants, each of them — and other species used by American Indians for food and medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The traditional croplands section makes use of age-old Indian agricultural and irrigation methods.

Also outdoors amid the landscaping are 40 large, uncarved boulders. Taken from a quarry in Alma, Quebec, and named Grandfather Rocks, they symbolize the age-old relationship between Indians and the environment. The boulders were blessed by members of the Montagnais First Nations before the big stones left Canada and were welcomed in Washington by a second blessing offered by a member of the Monacan Tribe of Virginia.

In keeping with Indian traditions, the museum also has a fire pit for Indian ceremonies and an “offering area.” The fire pit is secluded in the wetlands area to provide a place for contemplation. The offering area is partially hidden by boulders for the privacy and seclusion necessary for spiritual exercise.

Meanwhile, Mr. West has a clear vision of what the museum’s job is. NMAI’s collection will be part of the “cultural continuance of contemporary American native communities,” he says.

American Indian culture isn’t dead; it’s very much alive, and NMAI’s task is “to document, interpret, and represent these vital phenomena.”

Schedule of events for Indian festival

A new museum in Washington is always an event. The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian is more than that: It’s a six-day celebration of the hemisphere’s Indian culture that will attempt to whet festivalgoers’ appetites for the riches that await them in the museum itself.

Here’s a schedule, arranged by date. For more information, see the museum’s Web site at www.americanindian.si.edu or call 202/633-1000.

Monday, Sept. 20

• 4220 Silver Hill Road, Suitland. The center stores most of museum’s 800,000 objects. Visitors to the open house on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of opening week may tour the collections areas, conservation laboratory, library and a photo archives display. Reservations not required. 1-4 p.m. 301/238-6624.

Tuesday, Sept. 21

• Native Nations Procession: Tens of thousands of Indians and their friends from North and South America, many in traditional dress, will walk from the Smithsonian Castle to the Capitol. The procession is to be led by a Hopi Nation Honor Guard in memory of Lori Piestewa, the first American Indian woman to die in combat in Iraq. 8 a.m.-noon.

• Opening ceremonies: On the Mall outside the U.S. Capitol. Talks by NMAI Director W. Richard West, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, and Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican, and Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat. Noon-1 p.m.

• Museum grand opening: Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. Free, but timed entry passes required. Same-day passes available on a first-come, first-served basis at the museum beginning at 9 a.m. every day of opening week, and at 10 a.m. thereafter. Advanced timed-entry passes (limit 10 passes per order) may be reserved for a fee through Tickets.com at 866/400-NMAI (6624) or online at www.tickets.com.

Opening day extended hours: From 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 21, through the whole night and the next day, closing 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22. Timed-entry passes not required from midnight to 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Special hours for the rest of opening week: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sept. 23, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sept. 24, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sept. 25 and 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sept. 26.

Hours thereafter: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. The museum will be closed Dec. 25.

• First Americans Festival: On the Mall between Third and Seventh streets. More than 300 singers, dancers and storytellers, representing 30 to 40 Indian communities in North, South and Central America, will perform traditional and contemporary programs of Indian blues, rock, reggae, jazz and more. All events free and open to the public. No reserved seating. Blankets or portable chairs recommended. 1-5:30 p.m.

• Evening concert: On the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW. Charlie Hill (Oneida), emcee. Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree), Lila Downs (Mixtec), Rita Coolidge (Cherokee) with Mary Youngblood (Aleut/Seminole), and Indigenous (Nakota). 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 22

• Open House at NMAI Cultural Resources Center: Details under Monday listing. 9 a.m.-noon. 301/238-6624.

Wednesday, Sept. 22, through Sunday, Sept. 26

• First Americans Festival: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. each day.

• Thursday, Sept. 23

• Open house at NMAI Cultural Resources Center: Details under Monday listing. 1-4 p.m. 301/238-6624.

Friday, Sept. 24

• Open House at NMAI Cultural Resources Center: Details under Monday listing. 9 a.m.-noon. 301/238-6624.

Saturday, Sept. 25

• Evening concert: On the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW. Star Nayea, the Pappy Johns Band with Murray Porter (Six Nations Reserve), and Keith Secola (Anishinabe). 5:30-8:30 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 26

Sunday Morning Hymn Sing: On the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW. Cherokee National Youth Choir, Victoria Huggins (Lumbee), Gospel Light Echoes (Navajo), Oneida Hymn Singers. 10 a.m.


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