Native American museum opens on Mall

The sounds of drums and chants filled the National Mall Tuesday, as thousands of Native Americans from throughout the U.S. and Canada arrived for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. With many in traditional dress, Native Americans marched from the Smithsonian Castle to the N.M.A.I. with their tribes in the Native Nations procession, the opening event of the six-day First Americans Festival. At 1 p.m., the museum was opened to both Native Americans and others for a long-awaited first glimpse inside the building.

The tribes, which came from as far away as Hawaii and the Yukon Territory, Canada, came to experience the first national museum not only be dedicated to the Native peoples, but also to present exhibits from their point of view. Tribes participated in dances, storytelling and demonstrations to teach audiences and other tribes about Native American heritage.

“I’m not used to seeing anything like this at the Capitol,” said Sherrick Roanhorse of the Navajo Nation. Roanhorse, who traveled from Albuquerque, N.M., planned to march with about 300 other members of his tribe. “All of the people’s costumes are like walking museum pieces, especially because most people in this area have never seen a Native person.”

The event was somewhat of a culture shock, and an opportunity for those present to experience the sights, smells and sounds of multiple cultures gathered in a relatively small place. For example, an average visitor chatting on his cell phone might have been wearing a bear-shaped headdress and an intricately beaded tunic as he stood in line for food at a kiosk that sold caribou, buffalo and squash dishes.

Although the museum avoids the issue of prior injustices against the Native Americans in the exhibits, most visitors had no complaints – with one exception. “The museum is great, but I don’t like the name. It shouldn’t say ‘Indian,'” said Issac Wakwak of the Colville Confederate Tribes of Washington State. “Indians are from India. It should be called ‘The Museum of the Native American Indigenous People.'”

The festival also featured many contemporary Native musicians who sang blues, soul, Rock ‘n Roll and “alter-Native.” Between performances, Native Americans admired the scenery.

A striking new feature of the Mall, the N.M.A.I. was built with limestone, granite, bronze and copper. Its design and form echoes that of many Native American buildings throughout the U.S.

“I like the museum because it fits in with the Native way of thinking and the Native philosophy of life. It reminds me of home,” Roanhorse said.

“The sandstone look was a good idea, because sandstone is wherever Native people are, even in Hawaii,” said John Clark, a Hawaiian native. The museum’s other features include a 120-foot wide dome and a botanic garden featuring habitats of Native lands. In accordance with many Native traditions, the building faces east toward the rising sun.

For the grand opening, curators decided to concentrate exhibitions to three main themes: “Our Universes,” “Our Peoples” and “Our Lives.” “Our Universes” is an exploration of Native spirituality and the ceremonies that are part of a tribe’s religion, while “Our People” highlights certain tribes’ histories as told from their own point of view. “Our Lives” examines Native Americans’ culture today and how it has adapted to a changing world. The museum also features the artwork of surrealist painter George Morrison and sculptor Allan Houser, who are both known for laying the foundation for other contemporary Native American artists.

Other features include changing showcases of artifacts, a theater showing Native American-produced films, two gift stores selling handicrafts and the Mitsitam Caf?, which served Native food from various U.S. regions. The National Museum of the American Indian is located at the corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W. To order timed passes, call 1-866-400-NMAI.

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