CODY, WYO. -- You tell all white men "America First." We believe in that. We are the only ones, truly, that are 100 percent {American}. We therefore ask you while you are teaching school children about America First, teach them truth about the First Americans.

The Grand Council Fire of American Indians, to the mayor of Chicago, 1927 The bright blue sky over this small Western town in America's northern plains stretches from Montana in the north to Yellowstone in the west. For centuries this land has been home to many Native American tribes -- the Crow, the Blackfeet, the Shoshone, the Cree, the Arapaho, the Cheyenne, the Assiniboines. And for centuries summer has been the time of the powwow, when Indians come down from the mountains and cross the plains to celebrate in song and dance.

There have been other times to gather together too -- often difficult times when tribal leaders convened to negotiate treaties or otherwise confer with the White Man.

This time the Indians assembled in Cody have been drawn by an added attraction: One of the "white men" is an Indian.

W. Richard West Jr., a 47-year-old Albuquerque lawyer and member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, has come to Cody as the recently appointed director of the yet-to-be-built National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Accompanied by Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams and other Smithsonian officials (the institution is parent to the new museum), West is here to attend the powwow, and to meet and seek guidance from the likes of Curly Bear Wagner, a Blackfoot leader from Browning, Mont.; Joseph Medicine Crow, the historian of the Crow tribe; and William Tall Bull, a cultural leader of the Northern Cheyenne.

As individuals and as representatives of their tribes, these elders have come to listen and to express concern about the way the new museum would treat their most sacred objects.

And they have come to see this representative of the white man's world who soon would dance in the powwow in his traditional Cheyenne outfit, accompanied by the head of the Smithsonian, who danced in his khakis and a Stetson. The white man has been the chief obstacle in the way of Indian civilization. The benevolent measures attempted by the government for their advancement has been almost uniformly thwarted by the agencies employed to carry them out. -- Seneca Chief Donehogawa, also known as Ely Samuel Parker, who was appointed commissioner of Indian affairs in 1868

From the start, Secretary Adams has referred to this as "the museum different," a museum whose thrust and agenda would be in the hands of Indians, a museum that would try to be more sensitive to the Native American population than had earlier governmental efforts.

As West puts it, "Indians must become stockholders in the institution."

The only way to accomplish that was to reach out to the Indian community. Long before West was appointed, the government formed task groups to make recommendations for the museum. Jacki Rand, 34, a Choctaw Indian and Smithsonian official also on the Cody trip, is in charge of the community outreach group. "It's important that the Smithsonian feel obliged to go to Indian country for events important to the Indians," she explains, "for consultation, for ceremonies, for information gathering."

"The trust of the Indian community must be won," says Adams.

The visit to Cody, which took place June 22-24, was particularly symbolic because it was the first time that Adams and West appeared together in Indian country. "It was the first opportunity to pass on the leadership," says Adams.

They were invited by Peter Hassrick, director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which sponsored the powwow, and George Horse Capture, the powwow's organizer who is also the curator of the center's Plains Indian Museum.

"Usually Indian programs are headed by white people," says Horse Capture, who was raised as a Catholic and as an adult embraced his Indian heritage. "Now we see a guy with Indian features who cherishes his blood who showed up in a working outfit you could see wasn't fake. He was proud of it. He established his credibility -- and his intellect. That's very rare."

An easily identifiable, but little understood, musical tradition is that of the American Indian. Although this music is centuries old, it is still being performed today with all of its natural vigor and it has maintained its ancient structure. -- George Horse Capture, writing in "Powwow," the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1989

The social highlight of the Cody trip was the powwow -- a sort of combination dance contest, family picnic and rock concert that happens somewhere in Indian country just about every weekend in summer.

Held in a sun-drenched field next to the museum complex, the two-day Cody powwow attracted tourists and musical ensembles called "drums"; elders and teenagers; older women in sunglasses and young women wearing banners with titles like "Miss Plains Indian 1990." As the aromas of sunscreen, fruity soda pop and fried bread floated over the dusty grounds, dancers -- clad in as little as possible (to combat the 90 degree-plus temperatures) underneath their traditional costumes of embroidered buckskins, bone breastplates, feather bustles and beaded moccasins -- took their places.

Drum groups, led by the Crazy Horse Singers from Manderson, S.D., assembled. Dancers lined up -- men with men, women with women. Boys and girls flirted. Children swooped in circles to try out the sounds of their "jingle dresses." Dignity, rather than ecstasy, was the desired facial expression.

"Today, powwows replace a lot of the camaraderie and feeling that Indians had prior to the coming of the white man," says Herman Viola, another member of the Smithsonian entourage, who was director of the main Indian collection of archival materials at the Smithsonian for 15 years and has been adopted by the Blackfeet and the Southern Cheyenne tribes. "They're a place to name babies and renew old friendships, a place where Indians away from fellow tribal members can get together, let their hair down and take pride in being Indian."

"All your friends are there," says Horse Capture, echoing the sentiment. "You get this tremendous feeling of belonging that you get nowhere else."

At the start of the powwow, Horse Capture presented West with a war bonnet while West's wife, Mary Beth, and children, Amy, 15, and Ben, 12, looked on. "We felt he was going into battle," says Horse Capture, "so he had to be properly dressed." And later on, as custom prescribed -- and comfortable in the dances of his childhood -- West led the Smithsonian contingent in a dance in his honor around the powwow circle.

Although some of the dancers and drums came mainly for the festivities and danced and sang long into the night, others were clearly attracted by the presence of the Washington celebrities. And the big shots from the big city didn't let them down.

Proclaimed Adams to the assembled throng, "What we propose to build in Washington is your museum, a banner permanently in place where no one can ignore it."

To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tables of stone by the iron finger of your God. ... Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors ... and it is written in the hearts of our people. -- Seattle, Dwamish chief, to Isaac Stevens, governor of Washington Territory, 1854

"Will Indian elders have a chance to look at what is sacred in your museum?" asked Curly Bear Wagner of Rick West at a question-and-answer forum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on the afternoon of the first day of the powwow.

"Yes, unquestionably," answered West.

One of the main issues that had held up the Smithsonian's taking over the George Gustav Heye Foundation's collection of 1 million Indian objects was the question of what to do with the human remains and funerary objects in the collection. Given the sacred nature of such things, many Native Americans felt there was no way that non-Indians could have amassed human remains or religious objects in any appropriate manner.

Some Indians were even ambivalent about -- if not hostile to -- the idea of further consigning items of a religious nature to the care of a national museum.

Technically, the issue was put to rest last September when Adams reached an agreement with Indian leaders to conduct a detailed inventory of the remains and associated funerary objects in the Smithsonian collections and upon request return to the descendants any that could be identified as those of an individual culturally affiliated with a particular tribe.

But emotionally, the issue is far from settled.

Listen to Bill Tall Bull speaking to West at the same session. "When I describe some of the concerns of my people, like the management of a medicine wheel, to us it is a religious issue," he said. "You have items that belong to our church. They don't belong in a museum. How will you handle this?"

Seeing how George Horse Capture handles the problem at the Plains Indian Museum was part of the reason for the trip. There most of the collection is displayed in a well-lit state-of-the-art series of galleries, but the sacred objects are kept in a locked, secluded space that very few people are allowed to see. Horse Capture has his rules: only scholars, curators and some Indians. To date no one has qualified as a scholar, and a few priests have been turned away.

"It's not a casual arrangement -- hither and yon," Horse Capture explained. "We keep these materials with their peers -- not only out of respect to the objects, but to the Indian people. And every time I see museum people, I take them in there to see how it could be done."

Back in Washington, West reflected on what he saw at the museum and heard at the forum. "These questions confirmed to me a number of truly sensitive, difficult issues that we will have to deal with. These tribes feel a natural relationship to ceremonial and sacred objects. What access should they have? Do they get some of them back? I'm not sure I know what the answers to these questions are, but I know they have to be dealt with."

West is not speaking as a bureaucrat.

He is speaking as a Cheyenne who, when he heard he might be going into the Plains museum's protected room for sacred objects, prepared himself by taking some sweet grass and a Cheyenne medicine bundle with him.

"You do not approach these objects lightly," he explains.

Says Jacki Rand of her visit to the same room, "I wish I hadn't gone in. It felt disrespectful. Part of it is an element of the unknown -- these things were used by people who were old and wise and had great knowledge. And part of it is a tremendously deep sadness around those things, because they were obtained either by theft or because Indians had to sell them. There is no way they could have been obtained honorably."

The word which my father has sent me to make peace, I have accepted. All my young men have buried their hatchets. I think you will forget the bad things which has taken place for times past. Likewise I will forget what you have done to me, in order to think of nothing but good. -- Pontiac, responding to a message from the commandant at Fort de Chartres, July 1763

Rick West has a strong vision of the museum he must bring to life: "What we want to do is give the American public a picture of Indian life past and present that is more accurate and more complete than any museum has done before. And for the museum to reach out and to engage the Indian community as no museum has ever done before."

Says Adams: "I think that what we're witnessing is the emergence of a national American Indian identity, added to the existing tribal identities. Can having a strong focus in the capital -- a national museum run by Indians -- help? I don't know, but I think that it might."

The National Museum of the American Indian is committed to trying.

For West, and the staff he will soon be bringing on board, the first steps are clear: They must start planning for the initial stage of the museum, an 82,500-square-foot facility at the Custom House in Lower Manhattan. (The National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall is not scheduled for completion until 1998, but the Custom House facility is scheduled to open in 1992, and a storage, research and restoration building in Suitland is set for 1995.)

West and his staff also must grapple with the highly charged issues raised by their conversations with Indian leaders all over the country.

"It is easy, given the crush of all of this, to get buried in details and lose sight of the vision," says West. "I'm trying to guard against that."

There are already six more trips to confer with Indian communities on West's schedule. And at least for now there are high hopes for what the new museum could mean to them.

"In a sense, it will mean that we're recognized," Horse Capture says wistfully. "Usually we're found in natural history museums and the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- with animals and plants and trees and fish. This will be the first time we are recognized as official human beings. It is long, long overdue."

But there is still a distance to go.

Says Rand, "The process of building a new relationship between the Smithsonian and the Indians will be a long one. But it will be a new, bilateral relationship, one based on mutual respect for each other's knowledge.

"That's not something we have at the outset," she continues. "But it's a goal, and it will change the way the Smithsonian thinks about the Indian community. ... It won't be a white people's museum about Indians. If this process is honorable, it will have opened a window for significant Native American participation in planning of the museum."

It seems clear that, however precarious the path, both West and Adams realize that at this stage it is up to them to lead the way. "There is the sense that the Smithsonian is different from other mainline government agencies," says Adams. "But just how different are we? That remains to be answered through our own actions."

"The jury is still out," West agrees. "Based on past experience, Indians have reason to be skeptical. It's up to us now. But it can be done." Indian historical quotes are taken from speeches in "I Have Spoken," compiled by Virginia Irving Armstrong, Swallow Press Inc., 1971.