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New Museum in Washington Highlights Native American Culture - 2004-09-21

American Indians have a term they use to refer to places where they live and their presence is strongly felt - Indian Country. This week, Indian Country comes to the National Mall with the opening of the new, National Museum of the American Indian. Its director is Rick West, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, who has guided the museum from its inception 15 years ago through its construction and completion.

"I take immense pride, along with the tens of millions of other native peoples, in this 18th jewel in the illustrious crown of the Smithsonian Institution," he says. "I believe that we have succeeded in creating physically a breathtakingly beautiful native place in the political center of the nation that also has a powerful heart and mind."

The museum opened its doors to the public Tuesday following a dedication ceremony.

Even on the outside, the National Museum of the American Indian is distinctly different from the other museums lining the National Mall. Its curving, limestone fa├žade resembles the walls of a desert canyon in the American southwest that have been worn by wind and water:

On the museum's grounds, water cascades over rock walls and courses through a landscape of more than 150 species of native plants ranging from water lilies to stalks of corn.

The natural world continues inside the building, with plants, rocks and a 37-story high circular performance area and gathering place flooded from above in natural light.

"On the floor you have patterning with the four directions," says Ramona Sakiestwa, a member of the design team. "The maple flooring is actually laid out in those directions. Over us is the oculus, which connects us to the sky, and in the middle, we have again four stone quadrants, which reconnect us to the earth."

Ms. Sakiestwa adds that what makes the National Museum of the American Indian different is the way it was conceived.

"It was really developed out of a collaborative sense of all of us coming out of Indian communities ourselves," she explains. "Knowing that connection with the land and the landscape was very important. It also imbues the emotional part and content of our cultures as well."

The museum is a collaboration, not only among the native designers, architects, landscapers and curators who worked directly on it, but also native people across the western hemisphere. Assistant director Bruce Bernstein says they have been involved from the very beginning.

"Native people have always been excited about the idea of a national museum of the American Indian and were instrumental in the legislation itself in creating the museum," he notes. "And the Smithsonian was able to find a native person to serve as its founding director. That was Rick West. And what Rick did almost immediately was travel across the hemisphere and met with 25 or 30 different communities and talked to them about their aspirations for the museum, what they would like to see it do, how they would like to see it operate, who it should it include. And those ideas were all written up as a document called The Way of the People."

The Way of the People has served as a blueprint for the museum's design and will continue to guide its operation, according to Mr. Bernstein.

Native voices are presented throughout the museum.

Audio from display: "I find my clothing that I am going to wear for that traditional dance. Then I have a meal in the morning before I dance. Then I just get ready and do the dance. I like dancing because it is our religion and part of our culture.

Both directly in audio and video displays like this one, where a boy from Santa Clara Pueblo talks about the importance of dance, and indirectly through the selection of objects chosen for the three inaugural exhibits ? "Our People," "Our Lives," and "Our Universes." Eight different communities are highlighted in each of the exhibits. Emil Her Many Horses, an Oglala Sioux, was the lead curator for the exhibit "Our Universes," which explores the way traditional knowledge is preserved through ceremony:

"We looked at communities that had some type of annual ceremony and that it had some time of built structure. And it really was up to them to define what they wanted to put into the gallery," he says. "For example, the Santa Clara Pueblo selected a spring ceremony marking the return of the geese. They wanted to present what the community does as a whole, so what you see in their gallery marks the four stages of life and how a Santa Clara person is developed to be a good person in the community."

The core of the museum's collection, some 800,000 historic objects, was acquired by one man in the early 20th century, George Gustav Heye. Highlights of the collection, including: beadwork from the Plains Indians, pottery from the pueblo tribes, baskets from the Northern woodlands, carvings from the northwest, and gold figures from South America are displayed in glass cases in hallways. But throughout the exhibition galleries, there is a strong emphasis on contemporary American Indian culture.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the exhibition "Our Lives," where you can hear the Yakama Nation radio station KNYR broadcasting language lessons. There is also a snow bus that runs on tank tracks used by the Saint Laurent community in Canada when they go ice fishing, a display devoted to casino gaming on Indian reservations, and a re-creation of the entranceway to the Urban Indian Community of Chicago.

"You may wonder. This is not a native community. This is Chicago," he says. "Over fifty percent of aboriginal peoples throughout the Americas live in urban environments."

Gerald McMaster, a Plains Cree Indian is chief curator of the National Museum of the American Indian.

"Most often our sense of identity about native peoples has been framed in an old discourse of the past," he adds. "That Indians are all the same. That Indians have a particular way about them. But this exhibition goes out of its way to debunk that."

And that is the primary mission of the National Museum of the American Indian, to present the richness and diversity of native peoples in the western hemisphere, yesterday and today.

Visitors to Washington this week will be able to see, hear, and taste plenty of examples of contemporary native culture, as the Smithsonian celebrates the opening of the new museum with a six-day "First Americans Festival."