By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer
-- The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the
American Indian (NMAI) opening September 21 in the U.S.
capital is an "ongoing tribute to native cultures"
that emphasizes the diversity of people indigenous to the
Western Hemisphere, says W. Richard West, the museum's director.
Speaking to reporters at a September 15
preview of the museum's exhibits, West said the NMAI, which
is expected to draw four million visitors a year, is "new
in concept, design and execution."
American Indians were consulted throughout
the development of the museum, including the building, landscaping,
exhibits and public programs, according to the NMAI.
The entire 4.25-acre (1.72-hectare) site
presents nature and humans "interwoven as one,"
says an American Indian man in one of the several films
showing throughout the museum. "This is not an ancient
fantasy. This is the way it is," says a speaker in
another NMAI film. NMAI is the newest museum in the Smithsonian
The Minnesota Kasota limestone-covered building
resembling a cliff worn by wind and rain is surrounded by
a native eco-environment of water, corn [maize] stalks,
grasses, trees, shrubs, boulders, and a fire pit and offering
area that can be used for ceremonies and demonstrations.
The museum's opening ceremony will feature
Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Northern Cheyenne from
Colorado, and Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii. In the
late 1980s Campbell and Inouye introduced the bills in the
Senate and House of Representatives that led to the creation
of the museum. At the time, Campbell was a member of the
They will be joined at the opening by Peruvian
President Alejandro Toledo Manrique, Smithsonian Institution
Secretary Lawrence Small, and West.
Immediately preceding the museum's opening
to the public will be a procession of native peoples, many
wearing ceremonial clothing, along Washington's National
Mall. Also on the Mall September 21-26 will be a First Americans
Festival, featuring American Indian music, dancing, storytelling,
demonstrations, crafts and food.
Native peoples have often had a controversial
relationship with museums and the way collections were acquired
in the past, according to the Smithsonian magazine. "We
love them because they have our stuff, but we also hate
them because they have our stuff," says West in an
interview with the magazine. West is a member of the Cheyenne
and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma.
The survival of native peoples in the Americas
is "one of the most extraordinary experiences of human
history," says a speaker in one of the films. The museum
presents true pictures and stories of native peoples of
the Western Hemisphere, which may contrast with stereotypes
of American Indians as "savages and barbarians, rarely
as human beings," he says.
"We define a moment of reconciliation
and recognition in American history, a time for Indian people
to assume, finally, a prominent place of honor on our nation's
front lawn," West writes in an NMAI brochure. Located
at the east end of the Mall near the U.S. Capitol, the NMAI
faces east, in the direction of the rising sun.
The museum is the only one of its kind in
the world to showcase the culture and history of thousands
of tribal and indigenous groups and is the most comprehensive
museum for, by and about American Indians, according to
The Smithsonian, established in 1846 by
money bequeathed by a British scientist, is the world's
largest museum and research complex. It includes 14 museums
and the National Zoo in Washington and two museums in New
Museum site: http://americanindian.si.edu