A generation-long effort to construct a museum that represents the lives and history of Native Americans will culminate with the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in September.
Set to open Sept. 21, the museum will feature exhibits specifically designed to represent Native Americans.
Plans to build the museum began in 1989 under the leadership of museum director Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne.
Suzette Brewer, public affairs specialist for the museum, said delayed congressional approval and problems associated coordinating contributions by the many Native American tribes led to the extended timetable.
“All the great institutions of the world had to go through some type of growing pains,” Brewer said. “A museum of this magnitude takes some time.”
Despite delays, Brewer said the museum, located at 4th Street and Independence Avenue, received overwhelming support from all communities.
“Everyone from every sector, public and private, came together for this extraordinary beacon of hope,” she said.
The museum will feature three core exhibitions designed to give visitors a glimpse into Native American culture and history.
“Our Universe,” the first core exhibit, puts tribal philosophy on display, while the second, “Our Peoples,” focuses on tribal history and the individual perspectives of 24 different tribes from North and South America.
Personal representation of Native American history in a museum is a first, Brewer said.
“People never had their own voice in interpretation,” Brewer said.
“Our lives,” the third core exhibit of the museum, focuses on Native American identity. This exhibit, which portrays Native Americans as a contemporary culture, revolves around live exhibitions such as boat building, storytelling and the screening of Native American films.
“It’s significant to Indian people because it’s a living museum and because for so long people didn’t understand that Indian people are very much apart of the United States … and they’re enduring,” said Thomas Sweeney, the museum’s public affairs director.
Brewer said that although a positive message about Native American people is the main objective of the museum, darker moments in Native American history will also be on display.
“We’re not going to shy away from the hard stories,” she said.
European introduction of disease, guns and other destructive devices, which contributed to death in Native American communities, will be addressed throughout exhibits in the museum.
Currently, such issues are not addressed by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, which contains one wing of Native American exhibitions.
“Ours is going to be unparalleled anywhere in the world,” Brewer said. “There’s not going to be anything like it.”
Selected exhibition staff will begin occupancy of the museum Thursday, with all other exhibition members beginning work this summer.
Brewer attributes the importance of the museum to Native American participation in the project.
“Right down to the nuts and bolts, it’s done with native people in mind,” she said.
Sweeney said he thinks the museum’s impact will be broad.
“It’s significant to this country and this hemisphere,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Tickets for the museum will be available free of charge unless ordered over the phone, a process that will entail a $2 service charge.
Native American cuisine will also be available at the museum in the traditional native cafe, which will feature food from several tribes.
“It adds a whole new cultural dimension to Washington, D.C.,” Sweeney said.
“I do believe it’s going to be a soaring spectacular monument,” Brewer said, “not only to living cultures but to the millions that came before and for future generations as well.”