First Americans

The curved building looms, looking like a huge adobe cliff dwelling set on Washington's National Mall. At first glance, the sand-colored limestone walls seem out of place amid the white marble monuments and museums that make up so much of the capital's cityscape.

The building is the Smithsonian's remarkable new National Museum of the American Indian. With its scheduled opening Tuesday, native Americans finally take their rightful place in the nation's capital.

What's perhaps most striking is that the museum's design, direction, and staffing is almost entirely by native Americans, who artfully use the enormous space to tell their stories, past and present.

The $219 million cost was shared in a model example of how a public-private partnership should work. The tribes themselves paid for about a third of that amount; the government put in $119 million, and the rest came from other private donations.

What's also striking is the focus on current Indian culture as well as the past: A dazzling collection of Aztec gold, for instance, sits not far from a pair of beaded high-top basketball shoes done by a modern Indian artist.

The museum's director, Richard West, a Cheyenne, says he hopes the museum will help heal "the long and often troubled past relationship" between American Indians and nonindigenous people.

Indeed, this fascinating place should do much to help all Americans learn more about the extraordinary first peoples on both American continents. And it should also serve to help native Americans honor their identity, sovereignty, and unique way of life.

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