The National Museum of the American Indian opened three years ago to much celebration and ceremony. The building was blessed and initiated as a sacred place. Sacred places, however, are in need of periodic ceremonial renewal and should be honored with respect and given meaning through teachings to the peoples. The NMAI is a place where many indigenous cultures and histories from North and South American indigenous nations can be shown to many audiences. One shared theme throughout the diversity of indigenous nations is the sacredness of life and teachings of how to live and understand the world.
The NMAI will help many indigenous nations recover and renew their cultures, histories and teachings. But the NMAI is not an institution only for indigenous peoples; it will present exhibits to millions of non-Native visitors every year. Most visitors will attend the NMAI perhaps only once and for a brief period. What can and should it teach visitors, Native and non-Native, in such a short time?
If there is anything that we should teach people in such a short time, it is the message of the sacred interpretation of the world and life. If the NMAI is a sacred place, it must be a living sacred place that continues to teach and uphold a sacred way of living and understanding. Teaching a sacred way of life is often done by example, through ceremony, and by teachings from community members, elders and spiritual leaders. A sacred place must be honored and due respect given on a daily or cyclical seasonal basis. If we are to teach something meaningful to non-Native visitors, we need to do that by words of wisdom and through teachings that give advice and insight into the ways of the world. Many indigenous philosophies suggest that individuals should take responsibility for their own lives, their family and community, and for giving thanks through ceremonies for the blessings of life.
The NMAI should be a sacred place for all peoples - not only for indigenous peoples, but also for all visitors. The visitors need to see the sacred vision of indigenous peoples through the activities and teachings within the NMAI.
How can this be done in a meaningful way? There should be a regular cycle of ceremonies held at the NMAI. Tribal communities can be invited to give blessings at the NMAI on a regular basis. Ceremonies, blessings or welcoming songs should be performed at the NMAI and made available to visitors. Perhaps only ceremonies that indigenous communities are willing to share with a general public can be allowed. Ceremonies of welcome to visitors are found in most indigenous cultures. When a visitor arrives at a sacred place, the visitor is on a sacred pilgrimage. Participating in a blessing ceremony is an unusual experience for most non-Natives and will be a memorable, and hopefully cherished, memory. The meaning of the blessings should be explained to the participants.
When non-Native visitors visit the NMAI, we must treat them as guests who come to a sacred place to learn something about the wisdom and teachings of our indigenous cultures. We must honor the guests, and share something of our sacred understanding of life. Visitors need to have an extraordinary experience, one that teaches them some of the philosophical beliefs and understandings of Native life that will help them understand the exhibits in a deeper experiential way and help them acquire new perspectives that will affect and enrich their lives.
Perhaps every day there can be gatherings in the atrium for ceremonies and teachings that serve the same purpose as they do among indigenous peoples. Teachings instruct people about how to behave properly, recount stories, outline the expectations of community, and provide visions of place and people in the world. The NMAI is a sacred place that needs cyclical ceremonial renewal and is where teachings should be passed on to all who seek knowledge and understanding.