"They're not my stories, and I don't change them," Richmond says. "But the meanings of the stories are adaptable. Children today can relate to these lessons." Her favorite stories include one from her mentor Ray Fadden, a Mohawk elder and storyteller now in his nineties who decades ago told Richmond the tale of Needles, a baby porcupine he'd found and adopted as a child, and another from her grandmother about Bear and Beaver and what good friends they were until Bear "nagged and nagged and nagged" Beaver to do something he didn't think he should be doing.
"Don't do something just because someone you like tells you to do it -- that's a very contemporary lesson," Richmond says. "And squirreled away in the stories is a part of native history and culture. It's not a process distinctive to native cultures, but native cultures are especially interested in continuing that oral tradition, the passing of these lessons from each generation to the next. Writing things down on paper is great, but there's a certain kind of life in a told story; it stays alive in a different way."
In the past six years, the museum has commissioned two works by Tony Abeyta, a Navajo artist from New Mexico.
Myles and other museum officials have developed a multiphase plan for the use of the museum as a magnet for contemporary Indian arts beyond the first week of business. The first and most obvious phase is the prominent inclusion of works by recent and contemporary artists in the third-floor space the curators call the "changing gallery." The second phase, in operation for the rest of 2004, is what Myles calls the "getting used to the building" phase, when ambitions have been kept in check and the focus is placed on successfully launching the museum's various free public programs series, a regular calendar of visiting Native American lecturers, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, actors, storytellers and writers. The final phase, "when we leave the building," Myles says, is where the dreaming really begins.
"We don't want to view the festival as a one-time thing, a gathering that brings all of these people from so many places here, just to go home at the end of the week and never return," Myles says. To that end, there are plans to use the visibility of the new museum as a sort of enormous beacon for Native Americans and those interested in Native America, generating interest and large numbers of visitors for projects such as major international academic conferences, artistic and cultural festivals, high-profile awards galas and even a truly national powwow aimed at filling MCI Center perhaps next year, perhaps in 2006.
This longer-term vision includes outreach, the museum using its resources to comb the country for the next great Indian artist, the next Tony Abeyta, say, but in the meantime there's a celebration to be had right here in Washington. And Abeyta, for one, is looking to enjoy himself for a few days without spending too much time thinking about himself as the official artist of the opening.
"I never went into this for a second thinking that this is about me," Abeyta says. It's clear he's telling the truth; he seems a little surprised, though pleased, to learn that a selection of images from "Anthem" will grace all of the festival's banners on the Mall in addition to its T-shirts and posters. "Really? That's neat. I like to think of myself as an extension of the museum. I prefer that people look at the images and not really know who I am -- the images will function and live and breathe on their own. People don't know me from Joe Eagle Feather -- to be able to walk around and maintain that anonymity is nice."
"I'll tell you what I do appreciate, though," Abeyta adds. "I do get all these great access passes."
Scott W. Berg is a frequent contributor to Weekend.