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Within These Walls, Science Yields to Stories

Surrounding all of this will be the exhibits co-curated by individual tribes. The Kiowa, for example, tell of the founding of the Rainy Mountain School in Oklahoma in 1897, where Indian students were told not to speak their native language. "Like prison convicts, we were identified by numbers rather than names," one text states.

A film serving as the fourth-floor introduction to the "Our Universes" exhibit and the rest of the museum is entirely in the voices of native peoples all over the hemisphere.

The museum atrium is an open and evocative space rising to a skylight, with prisms casting the colors of the rainbow like stained-glass windows. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

_____American Indian Museum_____
Full Coverage: Indian Museum
Visitor Information
Interactive Map and Panoramas
Photo Gallery
Opening Day Events

The film is nonlinear; viewers are not told, in most cases, which tribe is speaking or where the events are taking place. Natives are shown on horses and on snowmobiles, in the jungle and in the Arctic. A common thread is spirituality, connectedness to nature, and the threats by outside forces to destroy traditional culture.

Native history is not treated comprehensively and systematically in the traditional way of a school textbook. The approach might be seen by some visitors as anecdotal, though Bernstein, for one, recoiled when a reporter used the term. Certainly there are many narrative streams converging in the museum. Something like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the so-called Trail of Tears, might be alluded to but not highlighted, in part because the museum collaborated not with the Cherokees forced to migrate to Oklahoma but with the Eastern Band of Cherokees that remained in North Carolina.

Museum curators say they will never skip any of the painful stories of native experience and will directly address, in "Our Peoples," the millions who perished after 1492. But they won't let the tragedies and horrors overwhelm the more important message of survival. Rick West is emphatic on this point:

"Here's what I want everyone to understand. As much and as important as that period of history is" -- the centuries of war, disease and exile -- "it is at best only about 5 percent of the period we have been in this hemisphere. We do not want to make the National Museum of the American Indian into an Indian Holocaust Museum."

He continues:

"You have to go beyond the story of the tragedy and the travesty of the past 500 years. What we are talking about in the end is cultural survivance. We are still here."

Not locked in the past. Not extinct. And still making big plans.

"We will insist on a cultural future in this hemisphere."

Even as museum officials were preparing for their grand opening, workers across the Mall at the Natural History Museum were packing up Indian artifacts and outdated dioramas in a closed exhibit on native cultures of the Americas. The material was heading to storage. The old diorama, made decades ago, showing Indians with bows and arrows, herding buffalo off a cliff, will be seen no more.

Someday, perhaps, "you could do an exhibit on that exhibit," Gerald McMaster says with a laugh.

And perhaps someday someone could do an exhibit on the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian -- how this new place was different, audacious and not only native but also fully American, an artifact of a nation trying to understand itself, circa 2004.

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