An Indian vision, carved in limestone

In new museum, 'living culture' takes precedence over anthropology

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The newly opened National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is what its director likes to call "different." Unlike past museums set up by outsiders, this showplace is directed, curated, and staffed largely by native Americans.

With its rough limestone exterior and curving walls, the NMAI looks nothing like the 17 other museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution. Its origins are also unusual: It was conceived over years of consultation with tribal groups throughout the Western Hemisphere.

"It's a significant departure in how a national museum tells the story of native people," says James Nottage, chief curator of the Eiteljorg Museum of Indian and Western Art in Indianapolis. "It's not an anthropology museum. It's a museum of living cultures."

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In fact, the $219 million museum, home to one of the largest and most diverse collections of Indian art and artifacts in the world, is an institution about, by, and for Indians, and one in which its founders say they will define themselves.

On permanent exhibit at the museum are nearly 8,000 artifacts culled from 24 tribes and representing 10,000 years from the pre-Columbian era through the beginning of the 20th century.

"This museum is the cultural center for all the tribes in the Americas," says Lawrence Small, secretary for the Smithsonian Institution. "This is the place where they can showcase their contributions to the world not only in the past, but also the vitality of their culture."

The collection is regarded as one of the most comprehensive holdings of Indian cultural materials in the world, comprising more than 800,000 objects as well as an archive of 125,000 photographs - much of it assembled over six decades by private collector George Gustav Heye. The heir to an oil fortune, Heye was obsessed with Indian objects, and his collection - everything from Nootka whaleboats to Lenape wampum belts to nearly every kind of headdress - serves as the nucleus of the NMAI.

"We want this to be a living museum," says US Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R) of Colorado, a Northern Cheyenne who was instrumental in starting the museum and whose jewelry is on display. "From the Indian perspective, this museum is a great opportunity to tell the real story of American Indians our way. It's a long-awaited dream."

What becomes clear from walking through the 254,000-square-foot museum, is that this is not solely a facility devoted to dusty artifacts or to historical summary. It is a museum that avoids, as much as possible, confining Indians to the past. The museum's founders go to great lengths to emphasize the positive even avoiding references to the violent encounters between native peoples and the US government.

"The message that the National Museum of the American Indian is giving is that native peoples are still here and that native peoples are contributing to the cultural and artistic life of the Americas," says Plains Cree, museum curator and a member of the Siksika nation.

The major display areas of the museum are divided into three themes. "Our Universes" is about different forms of tribal knowledge, cosmologies, and spirituality. "Our Peoples" deals with events that native Americans see as crucial to their histories, such as the survival of native people in the face of the European onslaught. "Our Lives" shows how Indians maintain their distinct communities in a modern world. Exhibitions in each of the three sections will rotate periodically, in an effort to eventually represent many of the hundreds of tribes.

Funding for the museum came from public and private sources. The US government pitched in $119 million, while three tribes with thriving casino operations together raised $30 million of the $100 million in private funds.

Less than a day after Tuesday's opening, the museum is getting a lot of attention - and not just from the media. Thousands of native Americans - some in buckskin and feathers, others in T-shirts and jeans - joined a ceremonial procession on Tuesday to celebrate the opening of this museum, sandwiched between the botanic garden and the air and space museum. (The NMAI is expected to be the last museum on the National Mall.)

To the sound of jingling bells and pounding drums, the procession of more than 500 groups of native peoples wound from the ornate Smithsonian Castle on the Mall to the new museum. The list of tribal groups attending the procession ranged from the Aamjiwnaang to the Zuni tribes, and included groups from throughout the Western Hemisphere and some Pacific islands.

"This is an important milestone for us," says Gregory Pyle, chief of the Choctaw nation. "This museum will bring out the truth about [how] we really lived. It's so important to dispel the many stereotypes about American Indians."

The museum's place in history and its honored position so close to the Capitol was not lost on many of the 20,000 Indians who journeyed to Washington for the museum's opening day.

"This tribute and this museum honor us in a way that is so important," says Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee nation. "First peoples here, last place on the Mall. We're finally being recognized."

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