- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Thousands of American Indians, many decked out in traditional buckskin and feathered headdress, arrived in the District yesterday under a big late-summer sky for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

“This is a monument to a people who were here …before the Greek poet Homer wrote ‘The Iliad’ … and before Christ walked the hills near the Sea of Galilee,” Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Colorado Republican and member of the Cheyenne tribe, said at the dedication ceremony.

The ceremony capped a procession across the Mall by thousands of Indians from across the Western Hemisphere. Wearing brilliantly colored ceremonial costumes, some danced in time with tom-tom drums and the rattling of gourds as they marched from the Smithsonian Castle to the foot of the Capitol.

About 20,000 people attended yesterday’s ceremonies. Still, police and officials reported no major injuries, accidents or traffic delays, despite street closings.

The opening festivities, which run through Sunday on the Mall, will include more than 300 visual artists and performers from more than 50 tribes. Among the performers will be storytellers, dancers, musicians and recording artists such as singer Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Yesterday afternoon, Indian folk singer Joanne Shenandoah’s band played a hypnotic rhythm on guitars and drums as more than 100 people in the crowd joined hands and danced slowly in a circle.

“It’s great. People [are] really coming together,” said Dave Lawler, a 43-year-old resident of the Rosslyn area of Arlington, who stopped to watch the dance while riding his bicycle on the Mall.

For many Indians, a museum dedicated to their people, in the shadow of the Capitol, was a long-overdue gesture of acceptance and appreciation.

“We have felt the cruel edge of colonialism,” said W. Richard West Jr., the museum director and a Southern Cheyenne. “We have survived. …This is a symbol of hope that hearts and minds of all Americans would open and accept the first people of America.”

Lori Pourier, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, brought her 5-year-old daughter from Rapid City, S.D. For her, the event signaled a moment of inclusion for Indians.

“It means a lot for the country to recognize the voice of its first Americans and hear their voice,” said Mrs. Pourier, who was dressed traditionally, including moccasins and a concho belt.

An estimated 4.3 million people in the United States claim Indian and Alaska-native ancestry — accounting for about 1.5 percent of the total population, according to a 2002 U.S. census report.

The five-story museum building, with its tan limestone exterior and gentle curves, sharply contrasts with most Washington buildings. It occupies the last available space on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. The building was 15 years in the making and faces east toward the rising sun, in keeping with Indian custom.

The entrance to the museum opens into a grand atrium beneath a domed roof, with open stairways and trellised walkways that form a semicircle around the vast structure. Display cases on the walls feature Indian artifacts, such as Inupiat mukluks made of sealskin and caribou hide.

However, the dominant feature of the first two floors is souvenir shops. Items for sale ranged from books, such as “Native Universe: Voices of Indian Americans” for $40, to pottery, including a large Acoma seed pot by Dorothy Torivio for $16,500.

Smaller seed pots cost anywhere from $695 to $4,000.

The Roanoke Museum Store on the second floor offered jewelry costing $6 to $10,000. A long turquoise-and-silver necklace cost $450. Also for sale were coffee mugs for $8, museum baseball caps for $14 and “Chief Joseph” ceremonial robes for $165.

Paula Elm, a 43-year-old mixed-blood Indian who traveled from the Onondaga Reservation in New York for the museum opening, was not bothered by the commercial elements or the high-end merchandise.

“I think we’ve offered enough trinkets throughout our lifetimes,” said Ms. Elm, who was wearing traditional Comanche dress and carrying a fan of eagle feathers passed down by her grandmother. “It’s time we are recognized as real artists.”

The museum is free, but visitors must get timed passes at the museum or by visiting its Web site, www.nmai.si.edu.

The museum exhibits refrain from depictions of Indian life before the 1900s. There are no displays of teepees or other staples of Wild West shows.

Instead, display cases show examples of Indian clothes and costumes, moccasins, vests and headdresses. Interactive computer terminals offer descriptions and explanations of the pieces.

Museum officials consulted with 24 tribes about which items to display on opening day. The 8,000 items on display make up only a small percentage of the museum’s total holdings of about 800,000 objects.

The permanent exhibit, “Our Lives,” provides a glimpse into the varied lifestyles of modern Indians and attempts to show how their ancient traditions survive despite contemporary trappings.

An inscription on the wall at the exhibit’s entrance reads: “Anywhere in the Americas, you could be walking with a 21st-century Native American.

Large video screens lining entrances show a parade of modern-day Indians walking.

Many of those attending yesterday’s celebration were not Indians.

Tricia Umhau and her four children came from Potomac for the opening-day ceremonies. She and her children — Thomas, 11; Hannah, 8; Sarah, 5; and Lydia, 4 — watched the festivities, planned a tour of the museum and sat in the grass while eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

Though her family is not Indian, she considers its members native Americans “because we were born here.”

Gwen Griffin, 47, of Mississippi, strolled along the Mall in a velvet dress adorned with elk teeth and wore white moccasin boots. Her ancestors came from the Dakotas, where the colder climate requires warmer dress.

Yesterday, she ate an ice cream bar to keep cool.

“All this time there has never been a monument to the first Americans,” she said. “To have this here is beyond our expectations — and it is permanent.”

• Stephen Goode and Judith Person contributed to this article.

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