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An Early Peek, With Some Valleys

At Preview Reception, the Responses Are Mixed

By Roxanne Roberts and Laura Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page C01

The curtain parted briefly on the National Museum of the American Indian, and the reviews at yesterday's preview receptions were decidedly mixed.

The mission is noble, most of the Indians there agreed, even if the execution wasn't all things to all people. Then again, you can't expect to please hundreds of tribes from the entire hemisphere.

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"It's really in the frame of this society, not ours," critiqued Lakota Harden, a Lakota from South Dakota. "It's like we can come to your table, but we don't have tables ourselves." The good news? "I always joke around in South Dakota that tourists want to see the dead Indians. But it was healing to see the modern art and live culture here."

More than 8,000 people from North, Central and South America were invited to get the first peek at the museum, and more than 5,000 accepted -- which caused museum officials to split the preview reception into two vast gatherings of 2,500, one in the afternoon, another last night.

Everyone invited had some connection to the museum as a donor, tribal member, builder or consultant. Most of the guests said they were also taking part in today's dedication ceremony and the accompanying week-long festival on the Mall. Yesterday's receptions -- their first real impression of the finished museum -- was like a long-awaited pre-Broadway opening and cast party filled with plenty of food, drink and opinions.

"We were a little nervous before we came because we wanted this to be something we could be proud of," said Alexis Shackleton, a Mohawk from Montreal. "And we are."

Tina Danforth is an Oneida tribal chairwoman from Wisconsin and frequent business traveler to the nation's capital. "This is the first time I've been excited about coming to D.C. -- aside from my first trip when I was 13," she said.

The party was short on style. Aside from Peruvian dancers and musicians outside the entrance, the mood inside was matter-of-fact. No special music or decorations; guests entering the five-story Potomac rotunda were greeted with buffets of traditional native food -- tamales, polenta, corn bread, succotash and sweet spice cake. People perched on every available ledge, cocktail plates in one hand, glasses in the other.

The first thing they saw on the first floor was the pricier of the two museum stores, offering $850 beaded purses, $6,000 glass sculptures and $4,200 carved masks. As first impressions go, this wasn't the best for Dennis Shepard. "I think it's wrong," said the Potawatomi from Wisconsin. "If this is our place, why are they trying to sell it?"

He hadn't made it upstairs to the exhibition spaces, but his initial reaction was skeptical. "I don't know whose history is being written here," he said earnestly. "Is it the U.S. government's? Is it the tribes' themselves?"

Still, he wanted to be here for the museum opening. Today he'll dance as part of the dedication festivities. Yesterday he wore a black leather cap with a golden eagle feather. "I lost my brother this year. I carry it for him, so he gets to see this, too."

So will George Thomas, a Smithsonian employee without a drop of native blood, who nonetheless stood patiently in line clutching three $16 T-shirts. "I'm here for the historic moment," he said. "Wouldn't miss it."

The museum's Big Tent included natives from Hawaii representing the Daughters and Sons of Hawaiian Warriors. "As native Hawaiians who are indigenous, we are here to support other indigenous peoples," said Yvonne Lefcourt.

"We call it, 'Ohana -- Our family,' " added her mother, Olive Souza. The women, some of the very few there wearing traditional dress, were later spotted praying in front of a sacred feathered cape.

The larger Indian family includes hundreds of tribes and cultures from two continents. Guests drifted up to the exhibition halls, where they sampled biographical bits from dozens of tribes. Cliff Qotsaquahu, a Hopi from Arizona, was especially impressed by the common respect for the environment. "For all the diversity among ethnic groups, I think the impressive part is how the Indians have utilized what Mother Earth has given us -- skins, animals, the earth itself." He liked the wood and stone of the building itself and was pleased not to see it clad in metal or plastic.

Impressive, he said, but added, "A showcase like this usually shows the good things. This is the bright side of American Indians." What is missing, he said, is the poverty, the bad roads. "You really can't know unless you live on a reservation."

In the end, simply having their voices heard is the real accomplishment, many volunteered. The bothersome details, they said, are less important than the big picture.

"We finally got here," said Lorene Gopher, a Seminole from Florida who helped curate her tribe's exhibition display. "At least people will learn about us and how we survived the United States Army. And we're still here."

And that was reason enough to celebrate this day.

Staff writer Jacqueline Trescott contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company