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National Museum of the American Indian Opens in Washington - 2004-09-21


Washington has a new museum, dedicated to American Indians from throughout the hemisphere. A ceremony marking the museum's opening drew thousands of Native Americans from the United States and beyond.

Under cloudless blue skies on a crisp morning, Pete Crowheart walked to the new museum on the Mall that extends between the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. Mr. Crowheart, a Comanche Indian whose tribe once lived in vast regions of what today is northern Texas, wears an eagle-feather headdress handed down from his forefathers, a ceremonial breastplate made of animal bone and an assortment of bells that jingle with his every stride.

He said he is proud to take part in the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. "It is a good day for us," he said. "It feels really good - after 200 years, our Indian people are still here. After these rough years, I hope we treat each other like brothers and sisters. That is the most important thing."

Organizers are also proud. "It has been 15 years of preparation for this day," said Thomas Sweeney, the new museum's public affairs director. "We are adding an important story to the history and also the public perception of native peoples. And I want to stress that it is adding a voice, and that is the native voice. And this museum is dedicated to approximately 1,000 native communities throughout the Western hemisphere, and it is told in their own voice telling about their histories, their identities and their view of the world."

The museum is divided into four main exhibits: one that celebrates contemporary life and Indian identities, one that pays tribute to modern native art, one that details traditional Indian knowledge and wisdom, and one that chronicles native American history.

Thomas Sweeney said the museum acknowledges the pain and suffering of American Indians at the hands of European settlers, traders and conquistadors in centuries past, but focuses more on celebrating the survival of native people and their culture.

Comanche Indian Pete Crowheart says preserving that culture is critical. "Most of our dances and our language, legends, stories - those are probably the most important things that keep us alive today," he said.

Tuesday's ceremony kicked off a six-day festival on the Capitol Mall featuring hundreds of native American musicians, dancers and storytellers.

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