Amid the commotion surrounding the opening of the Discovery Center, Imax theater and cafeteria at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, a riveting temporary exhibit about a singular culture has received almost no publicity and few visitors.

The Ainu (pronounced EYE-noo) are the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. Their ancestors thrived thousands of years before the ancestors of the modern Japanese migrated from Korea. Until recently, the Ainu were hunter/gatherers and fishermen, fishing for whales and salmon, hunting bear and deer, and gathering wild plants. They had no written language, and their spoken language is unlike any other in the world.

The Japanese and Europeans refer to these indigenous people as "the hairy Ainu" because, unlike the Japanese, Ainu men have beards as well as hair on their arms, legs and chest, and the men and women have thick, wavy hair on their heads. Like aboriginal people everywhere, the Ainu have for centuries been discriminated against by newer populations. It was only in 1997 that the Japanese government amended a century-old law requiring Japan's Ainu to assimilate, and formally recognized them as the country's original inhabitants.

The exhibition covers nearly 10 millennia, from the ancestors of the Ainu, called the Jomon people, through the height of Ainu culture in the 13th through 17th centuries, through the oppression of the Ainu by the Japanese in the past 200 years, to a new artistic and political flowering among a generation no longer ashamed to call itself Ainu. About 25,000 people claiming some Ainu ancestry live in Japan today, although the actual number of people with some Ainu background is believed to be 10 times that.

Among the exhibition's more fascinating objects are a child's cape and boots made of embroidered salmon skin, beautiful robes woven from the bark of elm trees, and a tall wooden flower sculpture representing modern Ainu art.

Helping to place the exhibit's objects in context are images of Ainu life drawn by Japanese artists a few centuries ago. And near the entrance are photographs of Ainu men and women taken at the beginning of this century. What appears to be a mustache on the women is an elaborate lip tattoo meant to beautify the woman and to protect her from evil spirits.

Sacred sticks and tattoos could not protect the Ainu from discrimination and poverty. But with this exhibition, Ainu culture may at last receive the recognition and respect it deserves.

The exhibit, which is free, continues through Jan. 2. Free docent-led tours are available Monday through Friday at 1:45 p.m. A lushly illustrated catalogue is for sale in the museum shop. For information, call 202-357-2700.

--Marsha Rehns, Potomac

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