- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

It was an evening with the emphasis on tradition at the National Museum of the American Indian on Thursday, when supporters came together to celebrate the opening of the new exhibit, “Identity by Design: Tradition, Change and Celebration in Native Women’s Dresses,” which opened to the public on Saturday.

“It’s nights like this that I’m reminded of the joys and satisfactions of this particular job,” founding director W. Richard West Jr. told the crowd, which numbered about 400. The festivities began with an opening blessing and remarks by Clayton Old Elk and drumming by the White Oak Singers and the Black Bear Singers, who alternated their northern and southern drumming styles throughout the evening.

After acknowledging supporters who had helped make the exhibit possible, including 3M Corp. and the Seneca Nation of Indians of New York, Mr. West went on to thank some of the native dressmakers who had provided cultural context and information about the historical pieces in the exhibition. Meanwhile, the accompanying catalog marked the first collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and HarperCollins.

“Every one of these dresses tells a story,” says Mr. West.

Together, Mr. West and co-curator Colleen Cutschall presented artisans Joyce and Jessica Growing Thunder Fogarty, Gladys Jefferson, Jhane Myers, Georgianna Old Elk and Jackie Parsons with a special blanket. In response, the women, in ceremonial dress, circled the area in a dance of praise, joined by Mr. West and co-curator Emil Her Many Horses in business suits.

Along with the artisans, the stars of the evening were the dresses themselves. More than 50 are represented in the exhibition, including rare Sioux side-fold dresses from the 1830s — painted dresses that were part of the Ghost Dance movement of the late 1880s, and contemporary creations that reflect images of the Native American Church, which blends Christian and Indian beliefs.

Upstairs in the exhibit area, guests William Hanbury, president and CEO of the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp., and donors Nicholas and Kate Thaw took in the display, arranged in a series of semicircles that moved visitors gently around the space. Historic photographs and other items, like belts and cradleboards, helped provide context and continuity.

The reaction was universally positive.

“It’s just an incredible exhibit,” said visitor Barbara Taylor Blum. “The colors are so vivid, and the beadwork so intricate. They just suck my eyes through the glass and into the dresses.”

— Lisa Rauschart

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