2004-12-03 / Travel

The Smithsonian Natural Museum of the American Indian opens

By Rachel Haynie

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Nearly four centuries ago the Pilgrims celebrated what we now consider the first Thanksgiving with their invited guests, reportedly 90 or more Native American braves and their chief. This year the first Americans are celebrating the recent opening of a national museum honoring those without whom there would probably not have been a Thanksgiving.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, which recently opened on the national Mall near the Capital in Washington, DC, is dedicated exclusively to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the lives, languages, history, and arts of Native Americans.

The five–story curvilinear building, located between the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the US Botanic Gardens, is made of rough limestone that evokes natural rock formations. It is set in a four–acre landscaped site that includes a wetlands area and 40 boulders known as “grandfather rocks.”

The building’s special features were designed in consultation with many Native Americans over a four–year period. Its entrance faces east toward the rising sun. Other architectural features include a prism window and a 120–foot–high atrium called the Potomac.

“Visitors will leave this museum experience knowing that Indians are not part of history. We are still here and making vital contributions to contemporary American culture and art,” said the museum’s founding director, W. Richard West Jr. (Southern Cheyenne).

“For example, one gallery is devoted solely to modern, groundbreaking Indian artwork. We have a number of landmark pieces commissioned by the Smithsonian throughout the museum. In addition, we have thousands of our priceless objects—from our collection of 800,000—in the three inaugural exhibitions and elsewhere in the museum.”

A welcome wall electronic photo–montage greets visitors in 150 Native languages, conveying the significant presence and diversity of Native peoples throughout the Americas. This message is again reinforced in the Lelawi (leh–LAH–wee) Theater, a 120–seat circular theater located on the fourth floor offering a 13–minute multi–media experience, entitled Who We Are, that prepares museum–goers for their visit.

“The Smithsonian is honored to present this vital new museum, created by Native peoples from this hemisphere, to the American public and visitors from around the world,” Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small says. “Its importance can’t be over estimated.”

Approximately 8,000 objects from the museum’s permanent collection have been incorporated into three major exhibitions. Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World explores annual ceremonies of Native peoples as windows into ancestral Native teachings.

Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories highlights historical events told from a Native point of view. The exhibition presents Native Americans’ struggles to maintain traditions in the face of adversity.

It includes a spectacular “wall of gold,” featuring over 400 gold figurines, dating back to 1490, European swords, coins, and crosses made from melted gold. It also has a central area called “The Storm,” with glass walls that change with shifting color and light to showcase artifacts.

Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities examines the identities of Native peoples in the 21st century and how those identities, both individual and communal, are shaped by deliberate choices made in challenging circumstances.

Public areas include a 20–foot totem pole by carver Nathan Jackson (Tlingit) and a bronze sculpture by Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo), as well as a carving of a Kwakiutl speaker and a Navajo weaving from the museum’s collections.

The Window on the Collections exhibition offers a view into the vast National Museum of the American Indian collections by showcasing 3,500 objects arranged in seven categories. Objects include: animal–themed figurines and objects, beadwork, baskets and jars, dolls, peace medals, projectile points, and qeros (cups for ritual drinking).

The immediate popularity of the new museum has led the administration to issue timed passes, available at www.AmericanIndian.si.edu. Arrangements can also be made by calling 866-NMAI (6624). Admission is free; however, a convenience fee and service charge for making arrangements apply.

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