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National Museum of the American Indian

September 21: A great day for a grand opening

WASHINGTON - Early the morning of Sept. 21, three Mall walkers in
Washington were running low on energy. All around, preparations were under
way for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian,
but none of the food kiosks were ready for prime time yet. Finally, two
older folks with steaming white Styrofoam cups in their hands showed up
along the soft-gravel paths of the National Mall.

The urgent question put to them was - where did you get that coffee?

The woman answered, "There's a tent back there. I think you're supposed to
be Indian, but we got some."

And the man: "Go in and put your hand to your mouth" - which he did - "and
whoo-whoo-whoo," which he also did, imitating a strictly Hollywood war
whoop as he might have in his boyhood some 60 years ago.

After hearing that a later generation wouldn't be doing that, the couple
went smiling on their way, headed west toward the Washington Monument.

Back east, the risen sun had burnished the dome of the Capitol building to
a subdued ivory tone redolent of cool marble, the coffee was free and for
everyone, faint pow wow-like sounds had begun to stir on the broad grasses
of the Mall, and Native peoples were beginning to take their rightful place
in American life.

Within hours, tens of thousands of them, representing many tribal nations,
would walk east on the Mall, reversing the trek of their ancestors in
retreat from U.S. expansionism. They came from every direction, bearing
their ancestors with them in prayer and memory and traditional regalia, as
well as in many small personal keepsakes. The Native Nations Procession
turned out to be colorful and friendly, with feathers, furs, bells, drums
and buckskin, flags and banners in abundance. It was also informal enough
that countless participants could step out of line to exchange greetings
with a friend among the four-deep bystanders who lined the route. And it
was grounded in a gravity that never gave way to elation, for too many
ancestors had gone before them into the sacred space of the spirits.

Speeches began at noon. Hawaiian Daniel K. Inouye, the Senate's guiding
hand in the legislation that led to this day, had a place of honor
alongside Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Colorado senator, and NMAI director
W. Richard West Jr., both in traditional buckskin and headdress. Lawrence
Small, secretary of the museum's administrative parent, the Smithsonian
Institution, was on hand and so was Alejandro Toledo Manrique, the Native
president of Peru. President George W. Bush, lobbied hard by Campbell to
put in an appearance but kept away finally by security concerns, sent his
greetings, conveyed in the shadow of the great architectural showcase his
father authorized back in 1989.

The museum doors opened officially at 1 p.m. The welcoming interior was
crowded with people and somewhat short on objects, given the museum's total
cache of more than 800,000 items. Even before the doors opened, of course,
the great American critics gild had begun to feel lost without a narrative
and full explanation at every point. The many small sit-down spaces and
walkways on the four levels are meant primarily to assist in savoring
experience. There's no telling yet how millions of visitors every year will
respond to that, but in any case interpretation can be added in the
fullness of time.

For Sept. 21, and for the six days of the First Nations Festival afterward,
when the museum will keep long hours in hopes of accommodating the opening
crowds, it was more than enough for Native peoples to be here in splendor.