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National museum prepares for gala opening

WASHINGTON - As his staff moved for the first time into their new headquarters on the historic Washington Mall, National Museum of the American Indian director W. Rick West set forth the schedule of events around a day that may well to live up to its surroundings.

Sept. 21, 2004 - an actual opening date, not a projected one, West emphasized to his luncheon audience on Jan. 15 - will mark two decades of contributions from a cast in the thousands, as well as a history stretching beyond 10,000 years. For on that day, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian will open its doors to the public. In the last available space on the Mall, at the threshold of the Capital, a collection of ancient artifacts in a glorious architectural setting will showcase the Native "contributions to all that we call civilization," West said.

In remarks that may themselves bid to be remembered as a part of "this Native place on the National Mall," West continued in a vein of visionary hope:

"Without, hopefully, being accused of undue ethnocentrism, I think a case can be made that Native America, as the originating element of American heritage, should have been among the first to be acknowledged with a museum on the National Mall - and yet we arrived last. But in an illuminating act of great symbolism, we now occupy the first or keystone place in America's monumental core, sitting as we do at the very foot of the National Capital building ? This circling back of American history on itself to a new point of affirmation and resolution is not only completely right - for me it comes as close to pure historical poetry as I could ever imagine."

With poetry in the air, it was perhaps fitting that West found room for the mention of only one individual, the Native architect Douglas Cardinal. Responding to a question from Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey, whose reports have tracked the occasionally bewildering swings of the building's design approval process in considerable detail, West made sure that Cardinal's stamp will always abide on a treasured building.

"Douglas Cardinal is definitive in the design of that building. ? I am forever in the debt of Douglas Cardinal ? for what he was able to contribute in his design of genius."

As anyone who gets around the nation's capital can begin to appreciate, the building will offer a welcome contrast to the Washington standard of monuments in marble and granite. Sheathed in treated limestone to mimic time-shorn cliffs, the structural contours recede and swell again, as much like water as stone can be outside of storybooks. High surfaces seem to find their way as wind. Windows offer a fine reminder of our cliff-dwelling past.

And within ? well, those miracles of interior architecture and design, of 7,000 on-display objects representing the long passion of living cultures ? those must await Sept. 21.

The day will include solemn ceremonies, brief speeches, a procession and traditional blessings. A weeklong First Americans Festival will follow.

Tribes and individuals wishing to participate in the procession must pre-register. They can do so by e-mail, Procession@nmai.si.edu, or by toll free telephone at (877) 830-3224 (a recording will answer until Feb. 2, after which the museum expects to have personnel in place to field calls in person).

More information on the Grand Opening and the museum can be obtained at www.AmericanIndian.si.edu. Information on all Smithsonian museums is available by calling (202) 357-2700.