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National Museum of the American Indian Reflects Native Culture - 2004-09-19

The new Indian Museum opened September 21 in Washington, D.C. and it's collection includes hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the native cultures of both North and South America.

American Indians have always had a close connection with nature, so when the Native-American designers planned the National Museum of the American Indian, they wanted a structure that looked like it was carved by wind and rain. They also wanted a museum surrounded by natural things that reminded them of their homelands. That natural theme is carried through to the inside, where sunlight is refracted through a prism window and shines down from a dome above. And of course all of the artifacts on display come from nature as well - over 800,000 objects, handmade by Indians who lived and are still living at the southern most tip of South America to those who live as far north as the Arctic Circle.

And says Bruce Bernstein, an assistant director at the museum, each historic artifact bears the essence of its creator. "Every piece that we have is considered a living being," he said.

Living, because, according to Native-Americans your grandmother may have made a basket and her thoughts and feelings went into that basket, so the basket takes on your grandmother's spirit and is the story of your grandmother.

"So when a potter takes that dirt and then creates a piece of pottery, they are in fact creating a child," explained Mr. Bernstein.

The curators of this museum are also showcasing two contemporary Indian artists, George Morrison who creates wood collages and Allan Houser, a sculptor whose theme is mother and child. Although contemporary art in an Indian museum may surprise some, Truman Lowe, the curator of this exhibit, says that native peoples have participated in the evolution of art along with the rest of the world.

"It's a collection that I think, reflects our history, our creativity, and it will inspire the future as well," he said.

At times the history of Indians in the Americas has been tragic and this museum addresses those misfortunes as well. One exhibit displays treaties and agreements signed in good faith by Indians - treaties that Indians expected to be honored and implemented. Another displays peace medals, which bear the profiles of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and another, guns used by Indians and against them.

"The museum is a place of reconciliation. It is a place of hope," said Mr. Bernstein. "It is a place of contemporary. A place, also that needs to incorporate some of the tragic things that have happen to native people in the hemisphere."

This museum may be a turning point in the history of indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere. They now have a place to show the world their 10,000-year history through artifacts, native stories and spiritual rituals. As Mr. Bernstein said, no matter what has happened, native people are here, their cultures are vital, and their lives are contemporary.