Native Treasures

September 21, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: It was a scene of drums and dancing, music and singing everywhere, an extraordinary gathering of tribes on the National Mall in Washington this morning, the day of the fall equinox; weathered faces and smiling children, a panoply of costumes and colors among the thousands who joined in a native nations procession, all in celebration of the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, an institution that gives a new architectural look to the nation’s capital, and makes a new statement to American society as a whole.

RICHARD WEST: The real import of this museum is that it is a symbol and a metaphor almost for a convergence of histories that is actually taking place now as a much larger matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard West, a southern Cheyenne chief who grew up in Oklahoma, is director of the museum.

RICHARD WEST: What we want to do at the National Museum of the American Indian is try to address the complexity of native experience and life, its many layers, and in that way begin to address some of the stereotypes.

Lots think we’re simply an ethnographic remnant of something that was here before but isn’t here very much now. For the 35 million indigenous people throughout the hemisphere, of course we think we’re here right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Outside, dramatic curves and overhanging layers; inside, a large, open rotunda spirals up to the sky. A work by Susan Point of the Coast Salish tribe of British Columbia welcomes visitors. Nearby stands a new 20-foot totem pole by carver Nathan Jackson of the Tlingit tribe in Alaska.

Some 8,000 of the museum’s total collection of 800,000 objects are on display, with constant links between the distant past and the present: A dog figure made in Mexico around 500 A.D. next to another by a Cherokee artist in 1972; Cheyenne moccasins made in Oklahoma in 1870, beaded Kiowa sneakers from New Mexico just this year; the modernist sculptures of New Mexico artist Allan Houser, an apache who died in 1994, and elegant 15th-century gold masks. Many of these were melted down to make European coins and swords. Curator Paul Chatt Smith:

PAUL CHATT SMITH: Why are you looking at European coins in an Indian museum?

We’re showing how Inca gold turned into Spanish coins, and coins from a number of other countries as well. It really was the first moment of globalization, the contact in 1492.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remarkably, most of the objects here come from the collection of one man, George Gustave Heye, an eccentric New York banker and oil heir who saw his first Indian on a visit to Arizona in 1897.

Heye was an enthusiast at a time when a rich man could buy native valuables on the cheap and by the boxcar.

RICHARD WEST: He was working in exactly that era, but he loved the stuff.

It was never quite clear how much he really thought about the people who made this stuff, and that’s kind of an interesting dichotomy that occurred among lots of collectors of that era.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, the “stuff” is considered a living part of the native tradition, and museum officials say thousands of pieces from the collection have been repatriated to tribes.

And the emphasis at the museum is precisely on the people who made the objects in the past, and on those who continue today, even if some now live in cities, and many face decidedly nontraditional issues, such as the pros and cons of casinos.

RICHARD WEST: Our effort, in a methodical, disciplined, rigorous, and scholarly way, is to inject and infuse all of our representation and interpretation of native peoples and cultures with a first-person voice of the native peoples themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, they tell their story.

RICHARD WEST: They tell their story, and most stories in the past have been told in the third person. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

We’ve learned a great deal from that. But the party missing at the table of conversation about native cultures and peoples, present and past, has been the voice of the native person himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: The museum’s exterior, too, has been carefully crafted to speak to native culture. The landscape features a wetlands area, and important native crops, like corn and squash. Donna House, a Navajo, is a landscape architect and botanist.

DONNA HOUSE: The outside is an extension of the exhibit. It is an exhibit. It is who we are.

From the native perspective, one shouldn’t see the line between the building and the earth. That line shouldn’t be there.

JEFFREY BROWN: The basic design for the museum was by architect Douglas Cardinal, a Canadian Blackfoot, before he left the project amid a legal dispute in 1998. The outer shell is made of Kasota limestone from Minnesota. The color and dramatic curves are meant to suggest a natural landscape. Architect Duane Blue Spruce:

DUANE BLUE SPRUCE: The form of the building is really organic and curvilinear because we wanted this building to appear as if it’s an abstraction of a natural rock formation that’s been carved by wind and water over time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even the boulders behind Blue Spruce have a story. The gift of a tribe in Quebec, they’re called “grandfather rocks.”

DUANE BLUE SPRUCE: Native people see rocks and other natural elements, trees and so on, as living beings. And so these are in fact seen as elders of the landscape who are greeting people to the site.

JEFFREY BROWN: As is traditional in native buildings, the new museum opens to the east, towards the rising sun. In this case, that means facing the U.S. Capitol. In fact, the museum is likely to be one of the last major buildings on the now-crowded National Mall, and the site, says director Richard West, is part of the museum’s statement about the true history of this country.

RICHARD WEST: As a good southern Cheyenne, I think I could argue that we probably should have been, as native people, among the first people represented on the National Mall in a Smithsonian Museum, because we’re kind of that originating element of American history, or the history of this hemisphere. Instead, we’re the last.

But in a very ironic twist of fate, we occupy the first place on the National Mall. We sit right at the head of it, right in the shadows of the national Capitol building. There’s great poetry in that for me, great poetry in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today the pride of place and history was apparent among the thousands on the mall. Museum officials say they expect some five million visitors in the coming year.

JIM LEHRER: You can join an online forum about the new museum. Director Richard West and museum curators will take questions on our Web site at