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. …