Native Lights Shine at NMAI 20th-Anniversary Gala in the 'Glittering World' of New York City

Dozens of Indian country's best and brightest gathered in New York City to celebrate the 20th anniversary of NMAI.
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The glitterati were out in full force on November 10 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in New York City.

It was a fitting tribute to the institution, created in 1994 to keep alive the heritage and culture of the peoples who were living on these lands when Europeans arrived. It accurately reflected the Glittering World art exhibit of the Yazzie family’s jewelry that has just opened and is on display into next year. Finally, it was a testament to how truly alive and thriving Native cultures still are. And that was no accident.

“The exhibitions that we have here now—the Glittering World and the photography of Horace Poolaw—make a very important point, which is that Native people are and have always been full participants in the world that surrounds them,” said NMAI Director Kevin Gover, Pawnee, to Indian Country Today Media Network at a cocktail hour preceding the gala held at the museum’s New York City branch. “And so even though in the early twentieth century the objective of policy was the disappearance of Indians, what we see is them finding a way to both participate in the world around them and insist on their identity as Native people.”

The Glittering World showcases the exquisite craftsmanship wrought by the Yazzies. The title grew out of the Navajo belief that their people passed through three worlds before arriving at this one, which they named the Glittering World. The turquoise, coral and other precious stones with which the Navajo adorn themselves mirror the sacred mountains, according to the exhibition’s commentary.

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Several dozen of the best and brightest from throughout Indian country mingled in the rotunda, then headed downstairs to the auditorium for a dinner and awards ceremony. Attendees included Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly; actor Chaske Spencer, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, the evening’s emcee; and two of the four award winners.

Among the guests of honor were jewelry makers Lee and Raymond Yazzie. Also celebrated were the award winners: for sports, Jacoby Ellsbury, Navajo, professional baseball player; art and design, Patricia Michaels, Taos Pueblo, fashion and textile designer; for public service, Keith Harper, Cherokee, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council; and for business, Randall L. Willis, Lakota, Managing Director, Technology, for Accenture.

Shelly drew parallels between the sunrise-directed Navajo morning prayers, the Glittering World and New York City itself.

“I see it here, in the eastern part, like New York,” he told ICTMN. “Everywhere you look there’s nothing but bright lights, everywhere. So I guess it’s only fitting to say that we are in the Glittering World.”

For Michaels of Project Runway fame, the award was both an honor and a vindication of sorts. 

“Right now it feels that I’m in a dream state,” she told ICTMN. “It hasn’t hit me yet because I know that for many years not being accepted into many Native American art shows because my stuff wasn’t ‘Native’ enough—to get this design award after a very long and hard struggle, there are no words. The emotion, I’m breathing it in and really savoring the moment. Every cell in my body is singing at optimal level. It’s huge. It’s beyond. I wish I had the words.”

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Photo: Theresa Braine

After mingling among cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, guests at the National Museum of the American Indian's 20th-anniversary gala adjourned to dinner and an awards ceremony.