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The capital salutes its first nations

America's native peoples finally have a tribute to their culture at a new Smithsonian museum.

September 18, 2004|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Conch shells will blow from the balcony of the Smithsonian's Castle. A procession of 15,000 people, many in native regalia, will march toward the U.S. Capitol amid an extravaganza of drumming, singing and eagle feathers. Four times marchers will pause to honor cultures from each of the cardinal directions -- north, south, east and west.

On Tuesday, Washington welcomes perhaps the most unusual addition to its museum scene since 19th century British scientist James Smithson bequeathed his estate for "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Many museums later, on the last plot of land on the nation's Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian opens its doors to huge cultural expectations.

"In the profoundest possible sense, this institution speaks to all of us about cultural memory, remembrance and future," said museum director W. Richard West Jr., a Stanford-educated lawyer and a Southern Cheyenne.

Noting the "long and often troubled past relationship between peoples," West told the National Press Club last week that the museum is "a powerful metaphor for a seminal convergence of the histories of this hemisphere that has the potential to alter forever ... the cultural consciousness of the Americas."

In other words, reconciliation of two histories -- European and American Indian -- under one roof.

Everything about the museum -- whether the Kasota limestone imported from Minnesota to suggest a building carved over time by wind and water, or the Mitsitam ("let's eat" in the Piscataway and Delaware languages) Cafe that will serve meals based on indigenous foods, such as buffalo meat and roasted corn -- echoes the theme.

The museum opening begins a six-day celebration of dance, music and storytelling that planners are calling the First Americans Festival -- and they take special pride in the irony of being the last on the Mall.

"We are the last to be built on the Mall, but the irony is we were the first on the hemisphere," said Jim Pepper Henry, the museum's assistant director for community services and a member of the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma. "This is a dream for a lot of native peoples. We're not here just to focus on the past and celebrate native culture. This is also, as our director said, about reconciliation."

Ironies abound.

Across the street from the popular Air and Space Museum, the new Indian museum is designed to preserve and honor native cultures that were threatened by an expansionist United States.

And now it sits within sight of the U.S. Capitol, as West put it, "the very head of the national capital's monumental core."

With its curving, flowing architecture, the museum is in striking contrast to the linear marble of nearby Neoclassical government buildings. A 12-minute orientation film, "Who We Are," showcases the diversity of Native American communities -- nearly 3 million people in the United States, according to the U.S. census -- without dwelling on the wars with white settlers that jeopardized the Indian way of life. A "Wall of Gold" exhibits gold objects owned by native people before they were coveted by Europeans, to illustrate the wealth once held. Landscaping on the 4.25-acre site includes plant life that existed before the conflict with the Europeans, including more than 40 large "grandfather rocks" that, explained Duane Blue Spruce, an architect on staff, speak to the longevity of the Indian people. And the museum faces east, to greet the rising sun, an important ritual to people who were pushed west by conquerors.

The museum was approved by Congress in 1989, the same year the Smithsonian took over George Gustav Heye's collection in New York. An investment banker who amassed one of the world's largest collections of Indian artifacts -- including Sitting Bull's war bonnet and a collection of scalps -- Heye left objects that date back more than 10,000 years and form the heart of the new collection. The Smithsonian umbrella covers not only the new museum and the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent museum in Lower Manhattan, but also the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Md.

Almost 90% of the new museum's holdings comes from Heye, who collected from native communities in the first half of the 20th century. Because some of his acquisitions were less than scrupulous, the museum has placed "our highest priority" on repatriation of human remains, such as war-trophy scalps and bones, said Pepper Henry.

A full-time staff of four is charged with researching the collections to see if human remains, sacred and ceremonial objects or other important cultural artifacts should be returned. Pepper Henry said that since the museum staff first began working in 1990, more than 2,000 objects have been returned to 100 native communities throughout the hemisphere.

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