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New American Indian Museum an Ongoing Tribute to Native Cultures
Washington attraction, opening September 21, emphasizes diversity

21 September 2004

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- 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 family.

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 House.

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 NMAI.

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 York City.

Museum site: http://americanindian.si.edu


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