Gala Week to Celebrate New Indian Museum; Native People Contribute to Design, Collection

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Countless American Indians have visited the nation's capital ever since the chiefs and village elders encountered by Lewis and Clark came east in stately dignity 200 years ago to meet in Washington with the "great white father," President Thomas Jefferson.

But the grandeur of those visits would pale in comparison to the six days of gala celebrations planned for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) here next Tuesday.

Consider: Beginning at 8 a.m. and lasting until noon that day, a Native Nations procession will bring together tens of thousands of Indians from the entire Western Hemisphere - from far north to the Andes and southward, many of them garbed in the brilliant colors and handsome designs of traditional dress - for a historic walk from the Smithsonian Castle to the foot of Capitol Hill for the museum's opening ceremonies.

Organizers see this grand parade as providing a vivid symbol of a new era for the Indian peoples of the Americas: a celebration of a significant first for Indian America, a permanent place for Indian culture and history on the Mall, at the very heart of the nation's capital city.

"An institution like ours considers itself as a husbander of our cultural patrimony and an assembler of the wonderful material culture of native peoples," says NMAI Director W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne.

"But it is also an international institution of living cultures. It anticipates a future for native peoples, not just a past."

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The great procession Tuesday will be just the beginning. During five more days of festivities, more than 300 visual artists and performers from more than 50 tribes - storytellers, dancers, musicians and major recording artists such as singer Buffy Sainte-Marie of the Cree - will show their crafts and arts on the Mall. Indian food - buffalo, caribou, beans, squash and corn, as well as a variety of desserts - will be available to satisfy hunger and curiosity about Indian cuisine. An Indian marketplace will offer Indian arts, crafts and CDs.

That this celebration should be so grand in scope should be no surprise: The 250,991-square-foot NMAI is the culmination of 15 years of planning and struggle, beginning from the moment in 1989 when the first President Bush signed into law the bill that authorized its creation.

For Indians throughout North and South America, its opening is a shining moment, a sign that Indians are at last a part of the country's mainstream.

Five stories tall, with an exterior of Kasota limestone quarried in Minnesota (a stone whose light-tan coloring suggests rock outcroppings), the building occupies the last available space on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol.

From the beginning, NMAI's design, both of the exterior and interior, was regarded as a cooperative endeavor, with input by a number of architects and designers. Canadian Douglas Cardinal, a Blackfoot and the highly regarded designer of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, contributed greatly to the museum's conception. Others played significant roles too - including Johnpaul Jones of Cherokee and Choctaw descent; Hopi Ramona Sakiestewa; Lou Weller, a Caddo; and the ethnobotanist Donna House of the Navajo and Oneida.

The museum faces due east toward the rising sun, in keeping with Indian custom. At the four cardinal points, there are direction markers, each about 1 cubic meter in size. The marker for north comes from the Northwest Territories of Canada, the southern stone from Isla Navarino in Chile, the eastern stone from nearby Great Falls, Md., and the western stone from Hawaii. (The people of Hawaii, which is outside the Western Hemisphere, are included because their island group is part of the United States.)

Constructed inside and out with traditional Indian materials and packed with Indian symbols and imagery, the building is a "completely Native place," as its designers intended. …