The historical footprints of Native America lead in a great many directions and aren't always easy to follow. Very few tribes, especially this side of the Mississippi, remain on or anywhere near lands occupied by their ancestors before contact with Europeans. Genetic lines aren't much easier to trace: More than 4 million Americans identify themselves ethnically as Native Americans, but millions more have some native blood, even if only a thimbleful confirmed mainly through dogged, if often obscure, family lore. Socially and culturally, Indians have long struggled to retain their sense of distinct identity as centuries of disease, violence, government indifference and cultural assimilation have scattered families, customs, languages and entire tribes.
This legacy of dispersal makes next week's events all the more monumental. After two decades of planning and building, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian opens on Tuesday, bringing a new and ringing sense of native identity to the heart of Washington.
In the past six years, the museum has commissioned two works by Tony Abeyta, a Navajo artist from New Mexico.
It's not going to be the easiest party to crash: Unless you've already secured your admission passes, getting inside will be tough, though possible (see Page 35), but that's okay -- most of the action will be outside anyway. Filling the Mall between the new museum and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and from the Capitol almost to the Washington Monument will be the six-day First Americans Festival, a joint production of the new museum and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, featuring hundreds of Native American performers, storytellers and artisans populating two pavilions and six stages, including an open-air dance circle (see map on Page 35).
The festival is designed to show off contemporary Indian artists and performers, but it's also meant to act simply and profoundly as a coming together of Native Americans themselves, many thousands of whom are scheduled to kick off the museum's opening week with a Native Nations Procession beginning at 9:30 Tuesday morning. Festival planners have included a "Gathering Place" on the Mall west of Seventh Street, outfitted with bleachers and an open oval of ground, designed as an informal meeting location for the Indians from more than 500 tribes from the United States and throughout the Western Hemisphere expected to make their way to Washington next week.
"It didn't dawn on me what this all meant until I saw the preparations on the Mall, the banners and the tents covering all of that space," says Ceni Myles, a public programs specialist at the museum and co-team leader of the festival along with Howard Bass. "We've got 15,000 people signed up for the procession alone. It's daunting; it's bigger than any of us. It's like watching a big tidal wave off the shore -- you see it there, and you know it's coming, but it's still larger than you imagined it would be."
One of those joining next week's wave is Tony Abeyta of Taos, N.M., at only 38 a genuine prodigy, a widely successful Navajo artist who six years ago was commissioned to create "The Four Directions" as the signature image of the museum's groundbreaking. That image, a square filled by four stylized, masklike faces personifying the cardinal directions, was so well received that Abeyta became the first choice to create another work of art that could serve as the official illustration of the new museum's opening. The result was a mixed-media work on wood panels called "Anthem," an eclectic feast for the eyes that has entered the museum's permanent collection. Images from "Anthem" will be pretty much ubiquitous next week, gracing the festival's T-shirts, posters and other opening-week promotional materials. It's quite a commission for any artist, and one Abeyta took to heart, thinking the piece through several different conceptions before arriving at its final form.
"I did want this to be an 'Anthem,' to function as a flag of Native American sensibilities about nature, about animals and plants, the cosmos, the underworld," Abeyta says. "It has to live as a creation that was inspired by this event at this particular point in time. I wanted the images to act as a catalyst for depicting important native meanings in a contemporary world. It's not unlike the museum in that way -- it doesn't just focus specifically on the past."
Abeyta began the new piece with the idea of setting down a sort of allegorical map, but quickly discarded that as too literal. "I didn't want people 'reading' the work and saying, 'Okay, over here at the upper left is something about the Northwest Indians and here in the middle is the plains,' and so on."
Instead, Abeyta lit on the idea of working from a defining image outward -- that central image being a fan of eagle feathers, what he describes as one of the most universal ceremonial items in Native America, used by many different tribes, historically and today, at blessings and other important rituals. "You're going to see people carrying these fans in the procession," he explains. "It's the one thing [in "Anthem"] that has a direct connection to the opening museum, and all the other things revolve around it."
The focus of the First Americans Festival, similarly, is on what curators call the "living cultures" of Native America. Myles, who is Navajo and Mohegan, says that a museum dedicated to Indians naturally owes something unique to tribal cultures still working through the arts to make themselves seen and heard and understood.
"There are two clear bases here -- the general audience and the native audience -- which is not a situation you see in most other museums," Myles says. "Because of our visibility, we have a chance to use the museum as a vehicle to support and find new talent, to get out into Indian country and promote screenwriters, directors, poets, all kinds of artists. The possibilities are wide open."
Trudie Lamb Richmond, a Schaghticoke storyteller, will pull double duty for the museum's opening. As the director of public programs at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut and a member of the new museum's national education advisory committee, she'll be meeting with friends and fellow committee members, but she'll also be featured on the festival's Raven Stage Tuesday through Thursday twice each day where she'll be telling traditional Algonquian and Iroquois lesson tales. For Richmond, being part of a "living culture" means picking up where her ancestors left off, keeping not only the stories alive but the reasons for their telling.
"In native traditions, storytelling is a way of passing down history and teaching lessons, especially for children," Richmond says. "Traditionally, native storytelling has been used as a form of discipline. When children misbehave, instead of punishing them by scolding them, we'll bring them over and tell them a story."
Richmond likes to say that she doesn't remember "if I'm 73 or 74," but she is sure where the stories she's telling come from, and it's not her own head. A holder of advanced degrees in anthropology and early childhood education, Richmond says that her academic training, though helpful in a roundabout way, hasn't had much direct influence on her craft. Rather, she draws her tales from a copious memory of days and evenings spent at the feet of tribal elders and family members, especially her own grandmother, who herself was first told many of Richmond's favorite stories as a girl in the 1870s, creating a startlingly direct bridge across 130 years of Native American experience.