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The capital salutes its first nations

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    http://www.calendarlive.com/cl-et-neuman18sep18,0,6853189.story LA Times The capital salutes its first nations America s native peoples finally have a tribute
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 20, 2004

      LA Times

      The capital salutes its first nations

      America's native peoples finally have a tribute
      to their culture at a new Smithsonian museum.

      By Johanna Neuman
      Times Staff Writer

      Sep 18 2004

      WASHINGTON — Conch shells will blow from the
      balcony of the Smithsonian's Castle. A procession
      of 15,000 people, many in native regalia, will
      march toward the U.S. Capitol amid an
      extravaganza of drumming, singing and eagle
      feathers. Four times marchers will pause to honor
      cultures from each of the cardinal directions —
      north, south, east and west.

      On Tuesday, Washington welcomes perhaps the most
      unusual addition to its museum scene since 19th
      century British scientist James Smithson
      bequeathed his estate for "an establishment for
      the increase and diffusion of knowledge among
      men." Many museums later, on the last plot of
      land on the nation's Mall, the National Museum of
      the American Indian opens its doors to huge
      cultural expectations.

      "In the profoundest possible sense, this
      institution speaks to all of us about cultural
      memory, remembrance and future," said museum
      director W. Richard West Jr., a Stanford-educated
      lawyer and a Southern Cheyenne.

      Noting the "long and often troubled past
      relationship between peoples," West told the
      National Press Club last week that the museum is
      "a powerful metaphor for a seminal convergence of
      the histories of this hemisphere that has the
      potential to alter forever … the cultural
      consciousness of the Americas."

      In other words, reconciliation of two histories —
      European and American Indian — under one roof.

      Everything about the museum — whether the Kasota
      limestone imported from Minnesota to suggest a
      building carved over time by wind and water, or
      the Mitsitam ("let's eat" in the Piscataway and
      Delaware languages) Cafe that will serve meals
      based on indigenous foods, such as buffalo meat
      and roasted corn — echoes the theme.

      The museum opening begins a six-day celebration
      of dance, music and storytelling that planners
      are calling the First Americans Festival — and
      they take special pride in the irony of being the
      last on the Mall.

      "We are the last to be built on the Mall, but the
      irony is we were the first on the hemisphere,"
      said Jim Pepper Henry, the museum's assistant
      director for community services and a member of
      the Kaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Muscogee Creek
      Nation of Oklahoma. "This is a dream for a lot of
      native peoples. We're not here just to focus on
      the past and celebrate native culture. This is
      also, as our director said, about

      Ironies abound.

      Across the street from the popular Air and Space
      Museum, the new Indian museum is designed to
      preserve and honor native cultures that were
      threatened by an expansionist United States.

      And now it sits within sight of the U.S. Capitol,
      as West put it, "the very head of the national
      capital's monumental core."

      With its curving, flowing architecture, the
      museum is in striking contrast to the linear
      marble of nearby Neoclassical government
      buildings. A 12-minute orientation film, "Who We
      Are," showcases the diversity of Native American
      communities — nearly 3 million people in the
      United States, according to the U.S. census —
      without dwelling on the wars with white settlers
      that jeopardized the Indian way of life. A "Wall
      of Gold" exhibits gold objects owned by native
      people before they were coveted by Europeans, to
      illustrate the wealth once held. Landscaping on
      the 4.25-acre site includes plant life that
      existed before the conflict with the Europeans,
      including more than 40 large "grandfather rocks"
      that, explained Duane Blue Spruce, an architect
      on staff, speak to the longevity of the Indian
      people. And the museum faces east, to greet the
      rising sun, an important ritual to people who
      were pushed west by conquerors.

      The museum was approved by Congress in 1989, the
      same year the Smithsonian took over George Gustav
      Heye's collection in New York. An investment
      banker who amassed one of the world's largest
      collections of Indian artifacts — including
      Sitting Bull's war bonnet and a collection of
      scalps — Heye left objects that date back more
      than 10,000 years and form the heart of the new
      collection. The Smithsonian umbrella covers not
      only the new museum and the George Gustav Heye
      Center, a permanent museum in Lower Manhattan,
      but also the Cultural Resources Center, a
      research and collections facility in Suitland,

      Almost 90% of the new museum's holdings comes
      from Heye, who collected from native communities
      in the first half of the 20th century. Because
      some of his acquisitions were less than
      scrupulous, the museum has placed "our highest
      priority" on repatriation of human remains, such
      as war-trophy scalps and bones, said Pepper

      A full-time staff of four is charged with
      researching the collections to see if human
      remains, sacred and ceremonial objects or other
      important cultural artifacts should be returned.
      Pepper Henry said that since the museum staff
      first began working in 1990, more than 2,000
      objects have been returned to 100 native
      communities throughout the hemisphere.

      From the beginning, museum planners sought to
      avoid the conventional approach to interpreting
      native cultures by what West called "third-party
      viewpoints," often academics with few personal
      ties to their subjects. So they reached out to 24
      tribal communities in the United States, Canada
      and Latin America. In two dozen consultations in
      the early 1990s, they crafted a template that
      would define the museum's themes. Planners wanted
      a validation of history but also a recognition of

      "Visitors will leave this museum experience
      knowing that Indians are not part of history,"
      West said in announcing the six-day festival on
      the Mall. "We are still here and making vital
      contributions to contemporary American culture
      and art."

      Thus, exhibitions include ancient artifacts, such
      as a 2,000-year-old ceramic jaguar clutching a
      man between its paws, as well as works from 20th
      century Indian artists George Morrison and Allan
      Houser. A skylight reflects sunlight onto a
      central gathering place — this one a
      120-foot-high atrium. A welcome wall greets
      visitors in 200 native languages — this one on a
      high-tech photomontage. At the Lelawi Theater
      (the name means "in the middle"), digital film
      screens are made to resemble Indian blankets.
      Even the two craft shops — the Chesapeake ("shell
      of greater value") and the Roanoke ("shell of
      lesser value") — showcase both traditional
      artwork and modern merchandise.

      The museum is not without its detractors. The
      original architect, Canadian Douglas Cardinal,
      who has roots in the Blackfeet and Ojibwa
      communities, was fired by the Smithsonian for
      missing "contractual performance requirements"
      and is threatening to boycott the opening
      ceremony, calling the building "a forgery." Some
      scholars worry privately that a museum devoted to
      serving tribes may be too politically correct to
      be historically edifying.

      But museum planners are proud of their choices —
      "We are guided by a set of ideas," said curator
      Gerald McMaster, a Cree artist.

      "The selection of objects begin to illustrate the
      ideas, rather than the other way around." — and
      predict 4 million visitors a year to a museum
      that cost $199 million to build.

      Besides, the food is already drawing raves.

      "It was awesome, the most unique menu on the
      Mall," said Pepper Henry, after lunch at the
      cafe's debut Sept. 10. Asked if he worried that
      vegetarians might find buffalo meat a concern, he
      said, "American Indians have been eating buffalo
      for hundreds of years. It's healthy, low-fat,
      high in protein and very tasty. Why should we
      stop now?"

      Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
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