WASHINGTON - The National Museum of the American Indian is so bound up with indigenous cultures that it's easy to overlook its commitment to art, even if the museum itself never does. Proving the point, NMAI hosted a kind of media reception before a recent Department of Education art exhibit for American Indian and Alaska Native youth. Two hours later, attendees got to walk two blocks in sweltering heat to see the actual student works of art at the DoE, which also featured a fancier repetition of the ceremony already rehearsed at NMAI.
The dual occasions drew students and their families to the museum at least. And at least by the time of the second occasion, the DoE's deputy secretary at the Office of Indian Education, Cathie Carothers, was no longer insisting that the title of the winning entry must repeat the departmental theme of ''Education: A Gift Without Boundaries,'' regardless of the artist's intent. And maybe it doesn't matter so much that the department found a dozen other ways to dwell without mercy on delivering its message - a good message, though one can't help wondering how many gifted entries may have been sacrificed to DoE messaging. But with the winning artworks from 1,400 entrants in 34 states on the walls, it was clear that the up-and-coming generation of Native artists has not submitted altogether to federal guidance. The younger student winners in the Native American Student Art Competition seized upon the theme set by DoE with gusto; the older ones varied it in ways that gave their art a priority.
The difference became clear in the winning entries of three students. Dalton Fazekas, Choctaw from Oklahoma, produced a hand drawing of a model buffalo, with a series of foothills beyond it labeled by subject matter - ''math'' and so on, right on message but still imaginative, with its hint that students draw their own future and lay up strength for it on the canvas of their schooling. Lorraine Peters, a Navajo at Noli Indian School in California, chose pencil and paper for a gripping piece called ''Navajo Nation'' - a lot going on, not all of it familiar to the uninitiated, but held together by the postures and expressions of two elders at the center. The impressive thing is that Peters could achieve such effects without color - just pencil and ink on art paper, her preferred medium.
Michael Curley, Zuni from Pine Hill, N.M., supplied more than enough color for himself and Peters, carrying off the top prize with a mixed-media image of an ambiguous figure, warlike yet beseeching, powerfully rendered for an artist so young. Though Curley told Carothers the work never had a title in his mind, a nicely done DoE poster names it ''A Gift to Receive.'' Curley's spoken remarks implied a connection with spirituality, further than a reviewer can go in the closely protected Zuni culture.
The art exhibit will eventually cross the street from DoE to NMAI, then move on to the Department of Agriculture before leaving Washington for Illinois, New Mexico and Oklahoma. More information can be found on the Internet at www.indianeducation.org/sac.