Grand Opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

A contemporary museum built to recognize and celebrate the diversity, collectivity and fortitude of Indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere

By Shauna Lewis

“It is a monument to a people who were here on this land before the birth of a boy King in Egypt called Tutankhamen, and before the Greek poet, Homer wrote the Iliad, and before Caesar watched the chariot races in the Circus Maximus, and before Christ walked the hills near the Sea of Galilee.”
-U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Cultural pride and solidarity were in abundance on September 21, as Indigenous people from all regions of the western hemisphere united under the same sky on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Arriving in groups as large as forty, approximately 50 Nations and communities from as far north as Alaska to the southernmost regions of Ecuador and Chili, came together to celebrate the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).

The first structure to be erected on the National Mall in nearly 20 years, and the eighteenth Smithsonian museum; the NMAI not only occupies the last allocated parcel of land within the National Mall, but its location also makes it the museum in closest proximity to the United States Capital Building.

Kicking off the day’s events, as many as 25,000 Indigenous people marched in a two-hour procession from the first erected Smithsonian museum, the Smithsonian Castle, to the festival stage located a few hundred feet away from the U.S. Capital Building. With colorful dress, lively accord, and a strong sense of pride, the Indigenous Nations of this continent made their way up the length of the National Mall.

As drums beat in rhythmic percussion and song resonated throughout the crowd: Grandmothers, grandfathers, adults, youth and children marched for their Nations, their ancestors, and the future of Indigenous people everywhere. They marched in celebration, they marched in pride and they marched in attainment for what has been noted as long overdue.

Canada participates
Along with southern, eastern and central representation, various First Nations participants from across Canada also participated in opening day festivities. Traveling a great distance to join their brothers and sisters in celebration was the Coast Salish, Métis, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Cree and others.

It was a beautiful sight as the National Mall overflowed in a cultural cornucopia of both tribal diversity and Indigenous collectivity. A sense of achievement flowed through the procession and into nearby onlookers, as the issue of inclusion and integration had finally been addressed and nationally recognized through the creation of this newest Smithsonian building.

With the National mall a buzz and the feeling of reverence contagious; the Native and non- Native individuals in attendance of the opening celebration were not only witness to, but also active participants in, the historic occasion. Pride on the faces of those who marched, coupled with the spectator’s warm reception, proved beyond a doubt that Indigenous people everywhere had finally found a place where we could merge in solidarity, and be recognized globally for our contributions to humanity.

When the procession concluded, approximately 50,000 people took their seats in front of the festival’s main stage. In the sunshine of the fall equinox and with a multitude of dragonflies overhead, the ceremony commenced with Richard West, Master of Ceremonies and Director of the National Museum of American Indian, addressing the vast audience.

“Today Native America takes its rightful place on the National Mall in the very shadow of the Nation’s capital itself,” declared West. After dedicating the building to all Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere, West then illuminated to the museum’s structural symbolism through stating that the building is “a powerful physical, cultural and spiritual marker for the ages.”

Joining West on the festival podium were various ambassadors, and the current and past chairs of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian. One such dignitary was the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Larry Small. The first speaker of the day, Small addressed the crowd with an exuberant welcome and thanked those first Americans of the western hemisphere for their participation in the poignant and historic procession.

In relaying the importance of the day, Small declared that the museum is much more than a testimony of the past; it is an “ongoing living testimony to the vitality of Native cultures, a vitality that is vibrantly on display here today.”

“We hope this day will mark the beginning in our Nation’s undertaking of First Nations living history- a history that they will write,” declared Small.

In assertion that the newly erected museum is much more than its beautiful architecture, Small recognized that the structure and its contents represent an “ongoing living testimony to the vitality of Native cultures, a vitality that is vibrantly on display here today.” While such an undertaking may have taken “decades and generations to be realized,” Small acknowledged the permanence of such a cultural informative building through the statement, “you’re here and the National Museum of the American Indian will always be here for you and for all Americans and for visitors around the world.”

Words of gratitude were also expressed, as Small recognized and thanked those dignitaries at the federal and local level who, we key in the museum’s creation. A big thank-you also went out to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who contributed so much to the project “from the schoolchildren who saved their pennies for this undertaking, to Native communities who gave millions.”

A note from the White House
Greetings and acknowledgments of the special day were also sent from those who could not attend the celebration. Although the current President of the United States of America, George W. Bush could not be in attendance, Tom Cole, Senator of Okalahoma, addressed the crowd with a statement from the White House.

“America’s tribal communities continue to honor the legacy of their ancestors and their contributions have helped shape the American culture and character,” stated Bush. The President also made mention of the informative aspect of such an important structure as he stated, “this museum will help educate people of all backgrounds about Native peoples, and honor their history, artistry, languages and traditions.”

In stating that the museum’s collection of Indigenous materials is of the “finest and most comprehensive in the world,” Bush stressed that individuals must look beyond the National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibits and architecture and see the structure for what it truly is: “a powerful reminder of the spirit, pride and vitality of our Native peoples.”

Following the U.S. Presidential address, special recognition was given to his Excellency, Peruvian President Dr Alejandro Toledo. Accompanied by his wife, her Excellency Dr. Eliane Karp de Toledo, and members of the Peruvian diplomatic core, Dr.Toledo honored the crowd with his presence.

With pride and articulation, Dr.Toledo addressed the masses: “The museum will not only be a center to conduct exhibitions and all the cultural activities carried out by the Native people out of continent,” his Excellency exclaimed, but, “Because of its unique kind of construction…and its location of the National Mall, this museum is also a profound symbol of re-conservation longtime awaited by those who landed on the shore of this continent and their ancestors who already have lived here.”

“Ladies and gentleman,” addressed Dr. Toledo, “through all the years, I have been stressing that Indigenization is crucial to the understanding of the Americas and that it is intrinsically related to democracy, to human rights and thus to the sustainable development of people.”

The current condition of America’s social, political and economic issues was addressed by the President of Peru: “We are at a stage in history where it is impossible to achieve stability, security and consolidation of democracy if we do not strongly combat the structural problem of poverty endured by millions of people, and especially by the many, many Indigenous people of our continent.

“Indigenous people have their own capital, genuine, born from the roots of our past and the wisdom of our people.” It is within such cultural diversity, accumulated knowledge, and uniqueness of character, that Dr. Toledo stressed is not only the “greatest aspect of our people,” but they are the elements of which must be acknowledged when examining self identity and the “complex phenomenon of globalization.”

“There has come a time to put a human face to globalization and recognize the need for a mutual respect for our cultural diversity,” Dr. Toledo concluded.

The past is not forgotten
The final and perhaps most emotional speech of the afternoon was delivered by Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne). Adorned in a traditional feathered headdress, Senator Nighthorse Campbell approached the main stage podium and delivered what would be the most emotional commentary of the afternoon.

In honoring Indigenous people’s determination and will to survive centuries of systemic racism, cultural assimilation and near-obliteration, Nighthorse Campbell began his poignant address to a silenced crowd.

“Be it not Tuberculosis or chicken pox or AIDS or even the common cold – how much we can learn from them,” admired Nighthorse Campbell. “It [the National Museum of the American Indian] is a monument to the millions of Native people who died of sickness, slavery, starvation and war, until they were reduced from a conservative estimate of 50 million people in North and central America in 1500, to just over two hundred thousand souls in what is now the continental United States in 1900.”

Senator Nighthorse Campbell’s words resonated throughout the National Mall and into the heavens as he continued his speech – a speech that spoke of the historic tyranny implemented upon Indigenous people in the dawn of colonization. Through illuminating the harsh reality of cultural apartite, Nighthorse Campbell made it known that: “Only 400 years after the old world collided with their world, the Native people of this land became America’s first endangered species.”

Honoring our Indigenous ancestors who have endured a long and arduous fight for their culture to be accepted and basic human freedoms acknowledged, Senator Nighthorse Campbell’s speech alluded to the historic abuse inflicted on First Nations people. Speaking of the heinous treatment of Native Indians by colonial settlers and Eurocentric governance, Nighthorse Campbell blatantly and with irony, made mention that America, a country founded on religious freedoms, once forbade Indigenous peoples to honor their spiritual customs and beliefs.

In regard to the inequality established at the dawn of colonization, Senator Nighthorse Campbell noted the way in which the Indigenous people of America have carried out military duties in every war since the Revolutionary war – and yet “did not have the right to vote because they were not considered citizens on their land.”

Lastly Nighthorse Campbell turned his attention to those Indigenous people who had been taken from their families in the name of racism. In dedication of all the survivors whose souls and families had become broken and dysfunctional due to the harshly enforcement assimilation; the Senator announced that the museum is a monument to those ancestors who as children, were placed in boarding schools, ‘schools’, stated Nighthorse Campbell, “that sometimes had the adage: kill an Indian to save a child.”

Senator Nighthorse Campbell’s powerful words gave mention to the perseverance of Indigenous people: “Those (ancestors) who endured, though shorn of their hair and stripped of their dignity, were never shorn of their spiritualism or stripped of their pride.”

While acknowledging that the museum is a testament to the many gifts Indigenous peoples have contributed to humanity, Nighthorse Campbell asserted that, “Native Americans are much more than just the sum of their gifts. They are more than squash and pumpkins and tomatoes and corn and beans and peanuts and potatoes, and all the medicines derived from plants that began as Indian lore and are now used to save lives around the world.”

Through further mention of the egalitarian customs of Native people, Nighthorse Campbell declared that, “It was a unique system of self governance never before tried in the monarchy of Europe and Asia-and it is called democracy.” The Senator concluded his speech by mentioning that such self-governance has been, and continues to be, adopted by the non- Indigenous leaders of the ‘new world’; a democratic governance. He coined from President Abraham Lincoln as being “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

The party
Following the opening ceremony, the First American’s Festival began with a bang. Blessed with a beautiful sunny day, festival participants were witness to an array of performances from such artists as: Buffy St Marie, War Party, Rita Coolidge; as well as the comedy of Charlie Hill, and other entertainers.

With food tents set up throughout the National Mall, people were able to sample tasty treats native to various Indigenous groups throughout the United States. The National Mall was nothing less than a spectacle of color and movement, as both indigenous and non-Indigenous people mixed, mingled, and shared in the excitement of the day. While making my way through the crowd of fancy dancers, Chilcoten blankets and red ochre faces, I came across many individuals eager to express what the National Museum of the American Indian represents for themselves and their people.

A beautiful man adorned in traditional dress and standing with his daughter, was more than happy to share in the excitement. Speaking of a sacred circle or ‘hoop’ that was once broken within Indigenous culture, the man from the Tiano Tribal Nation of the Caribbean, expressed, “Today, that sacred hoop is complete.”

The Tiano Native also acknowledged how the museum opening influenced the coming-together of so many Indigenous Nations, who had never before been provided an opportunity to unite. It is a time to, “meet and greet,” he stated, for all nations to come together- Native and non-Native alike, for “we are all wonderful people.”

Such happiness in the collectivity of Indigenous people was echoed by Indigenous participants, Silvia Gonzales, and “Little Thunder,” a First American from the Central U.S. Having traveled from her home in Ecuador, Gonzales exclaimed that “the museum represents the most beautiful culture that we have.”

“It represents that Indigenous people are still alive, and that we can have many customs and many values and that we can share with all of you, all people, Indigenous from other tribes and other countries and also with non-Indigenous people,” exclaimed the beautiful young woman.

‘Little Thunder’ dressed in feathers and holding a stately eagle-head staff, also mentioned the importance of Indigenous collectivity: “All the different Tribes come here and I feel unity, and not just Native Tribes but all people.”

“We are all God’s children,” he continued, “and sometimes we need to recognize that, and Natives are being recognized today”. In regard to the future recognition of the Native people on the National Mall, Little Thunder also mentioned that he hopes a future Pow Wow is on the agenda.

Such exuberance was not isolated to the Indigenous populous, as an Elderly non-Native couple was on hand to share in the historic occasion. This museum opening commemorates “hope for all people,” stated the citizens of Maryland. The museum recognizes “the survival of these wonderful people.”

In recognizing the importance of cultural acknowledgment and equality in the 21st century, the gentleman felt compelled to do his part in the ‘righting’ of a historic ‘wrong.’ Confessing that the property in which he had inherited from his ancestors was once part of an Indian village, the humble man simply stated, “I’m giving it back,” in reference to his family homestead.

While those who participated in the First American Festival were bombarded by a plethora of sights and sounds, those who made their way across the mall to National Museum of the American Indian were presented with a glorious spectacle of craftsmanship and cultural veneration. While the initial architectural plans were the brainchild of Canadian Architect and project designer Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot) of Ottawa, creation of museum’s entirety was a collective feat. Design consultants Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) and Donna House (Navajo/Oneida), along with creative input from various First Nation individuals and communities, designed a structure that acknowledges and honors the role nature serves in the lives of Indigenous people.

The Museum
Designed to blend into the National Mall, the Museum of the American Indian is anything but subtle. The structure’s organic design stands out brilliantly against the backdrop of the pre-existing neoclassical mall structures. Standing 120 feet in height and spanning 351,263 total square feet in dimension, the newest edition to the Smithsonian ‘family’ is a symbol of Indigenous values and earthly ties.

Executed of golden-toned Kasota dolomitic limestone, the building’s connection to nature is evident within its shape. In its curvilinear dimensions, overlapping stone bands strategically set between layered glass windows, and top-heavy design; the museum exterior is reminiscent of a wind-blown sand dune or a canyon rock formation- smoothed and rounded over time.

With the museum’s construction carried out by both Clark Construction Company of Bethesda, Md., and Table Mountain Rancheria Enterprises Inc (a construction company that is a subsidiary of federally-recognized Table Mountain Rancheria American Indian Tribe of Friant, Calif.); a multi-million dollar structure was born. Along with the grand sum of $199 million dollars going into the construction of the museum, an additional $20 million was generated for opening events, exhibitions and various public programs. In keeping with the focus on nature, materials used in the museum’s creation include: American-mist granite, glass, copper, bronze, maple, imperial plaster, adzed alder and 700-year-old, wind-fallen West Coast cedar.

While the architecture itself denotes characteristics of the natural environment, the gardens surrounding the museum also exemplify the diverse flora and vegetation sacred to Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere.

Positioned on a 4.25- acre of land, the museum grounds are a botanist’s paradise, as various examples of foliage from all corners of the continent encircle the structure. The wetlands are a definitive sight around the circumference of the structure as; river birches, sycamores, hollies, native magnolia, wild rice and water lilies share their home with an abundance of fowl and marine life.

At other regions of the landscape, guest will be drawn in to such sights as a man-made waterfall and the randomly positioned ‘Grandfather Rocks’; massive boulders excavated and transported from Quebec, Canada.

Grand Opening of NMAI…cont’d

On the inside
If the external attributes of the National Museum of the American Indian isn’t spectacular enough; the internal structure and contents are equally breathtaking. Looking much larger from the outside, the NMAI utilizes space as best it can. With over 3,500 historic artifacts from the museum’s permanent Window on Collections exhibit, and three floors of contemporary exhibitions and galleries; The National Museum of the American Indian houses an abundance of sacred objects of the past and present.

Venerating the historic and contemporary lives and cultures of Indigenous peoples, three permanent exhibits located on various floors act as gateways to the understanding of First Nations culture. With input derived from First Nation’s communities in regard the way in which objects are displayed; the exhibits are the truest account of Indigenous culture.

With each exhibit in the gallery showcasing the diversity of Indigenous culture across the western hemisphere; visitors to the museum will become better informed as to how Nations of the South, North, West and Central U.S lived, and continue to live.

While the exhibit entitled Our Universes relays the steadfast importance of the diverse spiritual belief systems among various First Nations cultures; the floor entitled ‘Our People’ offer viewers a glimpse into the sustenance patterns and traditions that continue to be practiced by the many Indigenous communities of this continent.

The third floor of the museum showcases a powerful exhibit, relaying the various political struggles of Indigenous people. Fittingly named “Our Lives” the exhibit is a living testimony to Indigenous identity in the 21st century.

Complete with rooms dedicated to Nations from all corners of the western hemisphere; such installations like the one entitled, ‘Body and Soul’, typify the various identity struggles common to First Nations people. Through including historic documentation, the exhibit offers viewers a glimpse into how we as Indigenous people, have been compartmentalized and thus our self-identities defined by non-Native and governmental standards.

Some of the ways in which ethnic classification and identification has been illuminated are noted through installations focusing on the identification of Indian status through government issued status cards, aesthetic determinism, and blood quantum.

If there were a ‘must see’ within the National Museum of the American Indian – the Potomac Rotunda is it. Named after the river of water that divides the State of Maryland from that of DC; it is the central meeting place of the building.

Upon main entrance into the museum, viewers are literally forced to take notice of the massive rotunda. Established to host various live performances, the 120-foot high by 120-foot in diameter is a key compoment of the museum’s charm. With a domed ceiling and an oculus enabling natural light to filter through, the notion of nature is honored yet again. Due to the sun and moon being objects of worship in Indigenous culture; the sunlight that shines through the dome’s oculus and into the Potomac, will (depending on the season and time of day), hit the eight liquid filled prisms on the rotunda’s southern wall and produce a colorful display.

With the Museum’s entrance facing east to the rising sun, and the Potomac occupying the easternmost locale of the museum, the rotunda is a place of spiritual recognition and cultural revitalization.

Along with a myriad of installations and galleries, the National Museum of the American Indian offers two gift shops packed with Indigenous treasures. If you find yourself feeling hungry, there is also an eating establishment on the main floor. With an array of choices, from: Northwest Coast seafood to Southern refried beans and burritos; the museum food court offers delectable treats to entice even the most finicky of palates.

Being the only structure of its kind to showcase such a thorough account of the cultural history and contemporary values of Indigenous people of the western hemisphere, the museum is unique. Dedicated to the lives (both historic and contemporary) of Indigenous people; the Museum exemplifies a gateway into the personal understanding and National acceptance of First Nations People and their communities. With its contemporary focus, the museum is not a ‘museum’ in the sense that it its theme is on the past- it is however a sort of interpretative center- established to educate and inform.

If the museum could speak, it would say: “We as an Indigenous collective are not dead, nor are we dying – we are however a strong and steadfast reminder of the diversity, fortitude and collectivity of a people who occupied this land before federal governance, before provincial law and before Industrialization as it is now represented.”

Although the museum cannot literally speak for itself, it does communicate for the Indigenous people of the western hemisphere- and what it conveys within its majestic structure and valuable contents, speaks volumes on behalf of the first people of this Earth.