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September 21, 2004: A Native Universe Opens

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There was a pause - an opening - in the fabric of the natural world this week as the Native nations of the Western Hemisphere took their proper place at the center of America consciousness. The prayers and good wishes of hundreds of Native nations offered sincere thanks that, for once, something positive and good has happened.

The call to consciousness came from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. - that old Piscataway country of marshes and meadows, which is now home and the seat of government to the richest and most powerful country on Earth. Thousands of Indian people came to town to launch the opening of a wonderful museum and cultural project within the venerable Smithsonian Institution - the new National Museum of American Indian.

More than 1,000 Native nations are represented in the Western Hemisphere. Despite 500 years of denial and oppression, a great diversity of cultures, languages, identities and histories persists. Traditional and modern alike, the Native nations emerge from a deeply connected sense of the natural world. There are American Indian peoples in every region and nation-state - from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego - and as Phillip Deere, Creek Medicine man, used to say, "Every one of them, no matter how small, deserves the right to be who they are."

This is the philosophy of the new museum on the National Mall. For more than a decade, the NMAI has carried out the most extensive consultation with Native peoples - from traditional communities to professional circles in the highest of academic centers - ever conducted in history. Hundreds of circles of discussion with thousands of people have been held, in Washington, D.C., and just about everywhere else where the NMAI may have touched a Native culture or institution. Front and center: Respect for all cultures of Native peoples, and; equal treatment under the law.

Created under the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, the NMAI has been a museum for, about and largely by American Indians. From its inception, with its hemispheric vision and its magnificent collection of over 800,000 cultural icons and artifacts from throughout the Americas, the NMAI has maintained a clear commitment to an American Indian cultural self-representation and self-interpretation the likes of which had not been experienced since the times of first contact with the European migrations.

More than a decade in gestation, the new museum's journey parallels the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples at the United Nations, and is the result of similar and perhaps just as intensive activism. It has been no secret that the perceptions and voices of Native peoples have been missing from the world of museums and from the cannon of scientific research about Native cultures and communities. Throughout history, the bulk of research and writing on Native cultures has come from outside and with a clear dictum to observe and analyze "the other," who was thought to have no true knowledge of the world and whose testimony was incorporated as fodder for external ideas and other-cultural theses.

The NMAI process has challenged all that. It was experienced Indian activism that led to the establishment of the new museum, and the activists had an idea or two about content, about approach and about ultimate purposes. People of established reputations as scholars and cultural interpreters, such as Suzan Shown Harjo, W. Richard West Jr., Drs. Dave Warren, Charlotte Heth, Vine Deloria Jr., among many others, had challenged the disrespect and disdain shown by museums and science in general to Native human remains, as well as to Native cultural or religious objects collected privately and publicly over the past century and a half. As the Indian case mounted, many allies in museology, politics, academics and other fields - good people who "get it" - agreed to pressure for a change of approach. When the remains of ancestors of these same activists started
turning up in Smithsonian drawers, the potential public embarrassment led to the passage of both the 1989 NMAI Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA).

As planning and construction activities for the new museum got under way under Director W. Richard West Jr., in partnership with venerable Smithsonian administrator Doug Evelyn, it became apparent that the new approach involved consultation with a deep and wide spectrum of Native opinion-leaders - from both community and academic bases. These consultations have been numerous and are continuous. They have provided knowledge, culture and guidance as the staff of the growing museum tackled the difficult tasks of managing and curating the extensive and valuable collection, of designing and executing relevant contexts for exhibitions and of creating a serious outreach and networking program with Native community bases. Of core importance at the NMAI: A mutual and interactive communications and education process with Indian communities across the hemisphere. A major goal was to guarantee an Indian community-based mission, while generating an inclusive, multi-cultural staff. Thus talented Native and non-Native professionals and resource people were incorporated into the vision as articulated by Native elders, scholars, artists and community leaders.

Noteworthy among the many professional staff who approached the work with sincerity and who exhibited respect for Native peoples both within Indian communities and on staff are Jim Volkert, associate director of the Mall transition team, Donna Scott, assistant director for administration, and Terence Winch, head of publications. They have demonstrated unwavering loyalty to American Indians and helped the Indian leadership set the proper tone for the institution.

Indian country pitched in not only culturally but financially as well. Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Mohegan Nation and the Oneida Nation of New York each contributed $10 million over 10 years. This $30 million boost and other contributions from tribes, corporations, foundations and tens of thousands of individual members have greatly strengthened the confidence and momentum of congressional supporters.

The result of such collaboration is this week completely refreshing news. In fact, it has been revitalizing news over a decade, as the turn of the century came and went, to know that the new museum was engaging serious projects: Re-dedication of a new facility, exhibits and public programs in New York City (The George Gustav Heye Center); new construction of a site for the huge collection, in Suitland, Md., near Washington, D.C.; extensive sessions, planning, breaking ground and extensive campaigns on behalf of this substantial national project. As deadlines approached, quality sustained and more than most staffers have worked around the clock to meet them. The dedication of the staff was palpable to all who worked with the NMAI, and most people have come to respect the grueling pace that the active developers of the NMAI have endured. The journey to the opening day of Sept. 21 has been arduous, but serious and resilient talents contributed in countless ways to carry the work forward to completion. Indian country can only welcome the lesson of good partnership the NMAI team has exemplified. Young people everywhere can now contemplate the lesson of success that is possible when people keep their "eyes on the prize."

The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, Sept. 21, 2004, is a major marker in time, noting a turning of the public mind to the tribal history, inheritance and cultural legacy that all of America must treasure and hold dear. We congratulate the institution in holding fast to its mission, which extends the American Indian world and heightens understanding among cultures. We congratulate the many people who made this wonderful cultural achievement possible - all those who envisioned, directed, guided, managed, coordinated, produced, curated, fundraised, protected, and projected - we hope you will now proudly enjoy the fruits of your hard work, your creation.

The time of the Indian is coming, said elders of the last generation, when the world will understand the wisdom and beauty of our cultures. Truth to power for the National Museum of the American Indian. Prophecy turns to promise fulfilled this week on the National Mall.