Since it opened to the public seven months ago, the National Museum of the American Indian here in Washington has sought to go beyond merely showcasing American Indian art and history. As director Rick West puts it, he would like museumgoers "to experience what it means to be an American Indian." Visitors now have a new way to experience that: a 43-minute dramatic film that looks at the lives of four contemporary American Indians.
A Thousand Roads begins with stunning images of sunrise over landscapes ranging from rolling plains in the central part of the United States to red mesas in the South West and white glaciers in Alaska. But the first character introduced in the film, a Mohawk named Amanda Cook, lives in none of those places. She's a resident of New York City, who works as a stockbroker on the upper floor of a glass and steel skyscraper.
Amanda Cook is fictional, like all four characters in A Thousand Roads. But her story is typical of many American Indians who work in cities, away from their ancestral lands.
Actress Alex Rice, a Mohawk who grew up in New York City, says portraying the harried stockbroker reminded her of her mother. "My mother worked on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center," she says. "This was in the 80s, for my uncle's company, which was called Rice Mohawk Construction. And I remember her getting off the subway, coming up the block, carrying her briefcase, and looking like she had just had the worst day of her life."
The other characters in the new signature film of the National Museum of the American Indian were chosen to represent the geographic breadth of Indian country: a young Inupiat girl, who moves to Barrow, Alaska, to live with her extended family when her mother - a member of the Army Reserve - is sent off to war; a Quechuan healer in Peru's Valley of the Incas, who tries to save a gravely ill child; and a Navajo teen who is tempted by the gang lifestyle.
A Thousand Roads was criticized by The Washington Post for not providing enough historic context, but museum Director Rick West, who served as the film's executive producer, says he wanted to showcase the humanity of contemporary American Indians.
"So often there is this veneer of uni-dimensionality [simplicity] that is applied to native peoples and their experiences," he says. "If you are really going to humanize a presentation of native peoples, you have to give them the same multi-dimensionality that you would accord other people. That is something historic interpretations generally have not done, but that is one of the points of this film."
As screenwriter, Joy Harjo, a poet and member of the Creek Nation, was charged with finding stories that fulfilled that mission.
"These are all experiences that are common. How do you become a man, a young Navajo man, in these times? Is it guns? That story is all over Red Lake (site of last month's school shooting), all over Indian country," Ms. Harjo notes. "It is one of the primary root stories."
Likewise, she says, mothers across the United States are being separated from their children as they are sent to war in Iraq. "The stories are universal," Ms. Harjo says, "but they are absolutely particular to the place."
Now the stories have a permanent place in the National Museum of the American Indian's state-of-the-art theater. As the museum's signature film, A Thousand Roads is shown six times a day, seven days a week.