Indian Museum Boom : Tribes Use New Riches To Recast History

Largest Indian museum opens today - courtesy of world's wealthiest casino.

Indian tribes across the country are viewing the opening here today of the largest-ever native- American museum as a symbol of their own cultural rebirth.

Rising amid the hills of rural Connecticut, the $193 million museum is an undulating arc of glass, steel, and stone that stands at once as a monument to Indian pride and casino prosperity.

The five-story structure was born of the slot machines and roulette wheels of nearby Foxwoods Resort and Casino - the wealthiest gambling hall in the world, with more than $1 billion in annual revenues.

The newest - and by far the biggest - addition to the native-American landscape honors the history of a tribe that at one point looked in danger of disappearing. In the 1970s, only two elderly women lived on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation. The tribe hopes its high-tech, innovative museum - part Disney, part "Dances With Wolves" - ensures that it will not be forgotten again.

"This institution will help educate people that we have been here, that we have held on to our land." says Theresa Hayward Bell, the museum's director.

Native Americans from Alaska to Florida are using newfound revenue to rewrite their own pages of history. There are more than 150 Indian museums, and dozens more are on the drawing board. The question has always been: Who will pay for them?

The past 10 years have seen an unprecedented infusion of cash into the coffers of some Indian nations. Since the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which essentially gave a federal stamp of approval to Indian-owned casinos, nouveau riche tribes have been able to afford to build monuments to their culture, showing the outside world they are more than crass moneymakers.

"You're having more and more tribal nations wishing to have museums and cultural centers, and the reason they're doing it is museums serve such an important function in the community," says Michael Hammond, executive director of the Warm Springs Museum in Oregon. Many museums have language-instruction centers for members and serve as meeting spaces. Some include exhibits of spiritually significant items for Indian eyes only.

"Every tribe is doing its own museum," said Billy Cyprus, director of the Ah-Tha-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum in Hollywood, Fla., which opened last summer with about $3 million from the tribe's Bingo halls, citrus groves, cattle and hotel concerns. "They're getting rid of all the stereotypes - that the Indian is either a noble savage or an alcoholic."

In June, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation finished a $3.5 million renovation of its 22-year-old museum in Cherokee, N.C., complete with "holographic" images of Cherokee storytellers. Last January, N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa who won a Pulitzer Prize for literature, started an organization called the Buffalo Trust to set up cultural centers on sacred land across the US.

IN the rush to rewrite history, tribes have also prodded the Smithsonian Institution to move the National Museum of the American Indian from New York to a new $110 million home on the National Mall in Washington. But when it opens in 2002 it will still pale in comparison to the Mashantucket Pequots' museum, even after a $10 million donation from the Pequots themselves.

"In my travels across the country I hear the same thing: native peoples want to be heard," says Ben Winton, an editor at Native Peoples magazine. "Gaming profits are definitely an empowering tool, but the dreams were there long before the casinos."

Some tribes have found using casino money to fund cultural projects can sour relations with government agencies and private foundations says Nina Anderson, a Cherokee spokeswoman. The National Endowment for the Humanities took a dim view of funding her museum when it learned a casino donated $3,000. But museum directors say some facilities refused money from casinos and tax-free tobacco sales, only to close within months because they lacked operating funds.

Fifteen years ago, Ms. Bell lived in a trailer with jerry-rigged electric lighting and dreams of reclaiming her culture. Now she is director of the Pequot Museum and Research Center. "Most people think that museums are about artifacts," she says. "There's more to being native and understanding native people than having an artifact. It's what's in your heart, the way you were raised. It's what you're about."

The museum will whisk more than 10,000 visitors a week into the exhibits via escalator. Visitors descend two stories in a refrigerated plastic glacier, following the Pequots' 11,000-year journey from the Ice Age to the present. The centerpiece is a two-acre walk-through re-creation of a Pequot village, circa 1550, complete with computer-generated sounds of geese and the smell of burning wood. The museum also contains a Colonial-era farm, a restaurant that cooks mostly native-American cuisine, a research center with 150,000 noncirculating volumes, and a children's library.

Native American artists, actors, and historians have come from all over the US and Canada to re-create artifacts and aid in archaeological research. The tribe's language is dead and few artifacts remain, so the museum has taken a more high-tech approach.

Jim Volkert, assistant director for exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian, says the Pequots' facility reflects a new trend in museum installation: creating experiences in life size and real time, making the visitor a player and not just an observer.

"What we want to show is that cultures are alive and vibrant today," says Pat Petrivelli, cultural programs director at the new, $14.8 million Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.

Whatever the Pequot Museum does for understanding native Americans, it will doubtless improve the public image of a controversial gambling enterprise that in six years has turned tribal members into millionaires. Area residents have complaints ranging from casino traffic to resentment that the tribe is trying to annex more land.

But Foxwoods patrons, most of whom are on a perpetual losing streak, say they find solace in knowing the paycheck they just blew on blackjack is going, at least in part, to a good cause.

"I think it's giving the Indians a better reputation," says Jill Adams, an insurance administrator from Lincoln, Neb. "It seems like they're doing a lot of good things with the money instead of just keeping it for themselves."

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