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Covering a Lot of Ground in a Little Space

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page C01

The building that is the National Museum of the American Indian is refreshingly shocking for button-down Washington, suggesting some Western butte in its honeyed and chiseled Kasota limestone. But over its five years of construction, we have had time to get used to it. Wait till you see the landscape around it.

In what must be the most ambitious and freighted exterior environment of any Smithsonian museum, the outdoor spaces work hard to capture both abstract and literal interpretations of the Chesapeake region before European settlement. On the museum's east side, viewers may be amazed to find a swampy backwater that appears to seep from the U.S. Capitol. The District of pre-Columbia?

The floor of the outdoor welcoming area plots the planetary alignment of the day President George H.W. Bush signed the museum plans into law. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)

Bringing rude nature to the hallowed ground of the Mall takes guts, of course. But this is not rude nature. No wilderness actually looked like this. It is as calculated a built artifact in its own way as is Tomorrowland. It is nature to which human intelligence and imagination have been applied. It is an Indian's image of Eden.

Yet this re-created sacred wilderness in a rectilinear city provides an incongruity of environment that may in its odd way close the gulf that still exists between Native Americans and the mainstream culture, says the museum's director, W. Richard West Jr.

"What people know about native people is either nothing or something very thin," he says in an interview, "and full of stereotypes and misapprehensions about what native people were, and are."

If the 98 percent of the museum's visitors who are not from the native culture come to see the landscape through the eyes of the Indian, he says, it will foster mutual understanding and respect, a vital step in bringing together "two peoples who have sat in a rather unreconciled place."

Twelve years in design and construction, the landscape consists of four environments -- wetlands, an upland hardwood forest, meadowlands and traditional crops. These are meant to recall vast and different ecosystems, an entire Native American paradise shoehorned into a city block off Independence Avenue. The meadow and, to a lesser degree, the crops look feeble, a product of their recent installation late in the growing season. Indeed, this evocation of a thriving, presumably Algonquian plantation and habitat looks desperately forlorn in its infancy. In future years, it is hoped, these features will be robust, though this south side of the museum near Independence Avenue will be bare in winter.

On the north side, the woodland is crammed with trees, shrubs, perennials and wildflowers, many clearly unhappy and stressed (they were supposed to be planted in April but had to wait until August because of construction delays). But this thicket does, and will, replicate the native flora of the Piedmont and should grow into an ever thicker veil against Jefferson Drive.

For the opening, the wetlands are the most convincing habitat, framing a vignette of something wild but serene. Both the scale of the 30,000-gallon pond and its planted embankments, rising to six feet, seem perfectly natural.

The constructed ecologies and sheer number of plants -- more than 30,000 -- will require an unusually high level of gardening maintenance and may change dramatically with time. "At what point do you keep the violets in their proper place in respect to the bloodroot?" said Marsha Lea, one of the museum's landscape architects with EDAW Inc. of Alexandria. "It's not something the Smithsonian has had to do before."

Amid all this flora, the design team has gone to town on the hardscape, most of which is black granite in relief from the brilliant limestone building. A waterfall spills from the northwest corner of the museum (where most visitors will arrive) and then forms an abstract river winding to the east entrance, whose floor marks the alignment of the planets on the day the law to approve the $219 million museum was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.

There are dozens of large boulders, called grandfather rocks, like everything here carefully chosen by a design team headed by Native Americans. These dark granite stones may be imbued with great spirit, but they are all pretty much the same size and shape from an aesthetic standpoint at least, and rendered duller for it.

Another area offers a quiet enclave for prayerful rituals. Between the river and the building is a sunken amphitheater and next to it an earthen hearth for cooking ceremonies and demonstrations. "You can imagine the permitting -- a fire on the Mall next to a building," said Roger Courtenay, also of EDAW. The firm gave form to a natural world envisioned by the museum's ethnobotanist, Donna House.

House grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and in the years she has spent in preparation for Tuesday's opening of the museum, she canoed tributaries of the Potomac River for a feel for the eastern countryside.

A total of 1,440 native white lilies carpet the water, their discuslike leaves contrasting with the upright shapes of the reeds and grasses. The banks are clothed in blueberries, buttonbush and dozens of other plantings amid the trees. A dead baldcypress lies on its side, signaling the circle of life.

The irony of the wetlands, of course, is that this part of the Mall was a swamp before it was reclaimed. Tiber Creek once flowed close to this area and now flows under it, buried in a great culvert that traverses the museum's southwest corner.

Restoring this nature may seem hilariously artificial or worse, since the Indian reverence for the natural world is based on its permanence. But "land has memory," said House, surveying the wetlands. She hopes for "visitors besides the five-fingered people: dragonflies, damselflies, hawks, ducks."

Early on, horticulturalists and designers rejected plans to present southwestern and other scenes: Not only because it would have been hard to keep the plants alive but also because the setting would have seemed false, a reach fully into the realm of Disney.

West says the chosen landscape is, like the museum, "honest and truthful" even in its artifice, and provides the context to learn and celebrate Indian life.

Even in its unfulfilled state, the croplands section does demonstrate one of the great ingenuities of Indian agriculture -- the Three Sisters interplanting of corn, beans and squash. The cornstalk provides a pole for the vining bean, which, as a legume, feeds its host with nitrogen. The low, broad leaves of the squash form a living mulch for the two others, shading their roots, keeping weeds at bay and preserving the soil's precious moisture.

The museum honors native peoples of the entire hemisphere: Andean cultures gave the world the potato and the tomato, and tobacco is celebrated, too.

These are all useful props for talking about the native culture, past and present, but whether the landscape can be a vehicle for something more than a grade school field trip experience, and the deeper connection to Indian existence that West wants, remains to be seen.

You cannot fully explain the Indian landscape without delving into the essential spiritual life of the Native American. Though there is no one indigenous religion, and the various tribes have different rituals, taboos and origin myths, there is a common belief that the person is but part of a whole living universe of beings that must be acknowledged and respected, from the harvested corn to the wind that shapes the living rocks to the rainbows that bless the precious spring rains.

And yet the same sensibilities may prevent that comprehension. Just as every inch of the landscape might figure in a thousand stories of Indian life, you may have to strain to hear them. For one thing, you will be hard-pressed to find any labels or signs in and around the natural habitat because tagging an object perceived as sentient is considered rude, akin to literally labeling a person. (Though we have come to that as an ID-obsessed society.) Museum spokesman Thomas Sweeney said public tours of the landscape will start next spring. But if you aren't on the tour, you may never know that there are four cardinal point stones, one on each side of the museum, and that the northern one is from the Yellowknife area of Canada and is 4 billion years old, or that the one facing west is a ball of basalt that bubbled up out of a Hawaiian volcano a mere 200 years ago.

House believes that the obviously un-Mall-like environment of the museum will immediately telegraph to visitors that this is a native place. In a country where many people cannot distinguish between a goose and a duck or a wasp and a bee, however, that may be wishful thinking.

And if the museum is successful in conveying an Indian worldview, will that help bring native and nonnative people together?

Holly Shimizu, director of the adjoining U.S. Botanic Garden, recounted a tour she gave of herbal plants. "I go through this garden pinching and cutting and sniffing, and there was a Native American woman and she got upset with me because she felt I was disrespecting the plants." Shimizu, as a lifelong devotee of herbal plants, in turn took umbrage. And yet, she feels the drag of the Western system of "learning things in boxes as if they are not connected" and is intrigued by the idea that plants have spirit and power.

Courtenay, the landscape architect, said he now "thinks about things in the landscape in a lot different way." The Indian ethic "seeps into your understanding of how you put the world together. It's not just about individual plants, it's the habitat you're creating." That spiritual connection "is not completely not present in how Westerners look at plants, but my impression is that Native Americans have a more holistic feeling that's more genuine and deep."

Others have been inspired, too. Nancy Bechtol, who heads the Smithsonian's horticultural services division and who is hiring two full-time horticulturists to maintain what will be a very demanding and changing garden, recalls an early meeting. The call was for some very tall trees in the wetlands that might lure a bald eagle from the Potomac River a few miles south. "I'm thinking to myself, okay, it will be a postage stamp in comparison to a real habitat, but they're serious."

This year, as if in homage to the new Indian museum, foxes have been roaming the Mall. Bechtol saw one saunter across the Enid Haupt garden behind the Smithsonian Castle. Maybe House "is not that far off," said Bechtol. "Maybe the eagle will come. We'll find out."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company