The dancing is what Lucille Bell remembers most.

Two years ago, Bell -- a member of the Haida Indian tribe -- left her home on an island off the coast of British Columbia and journeyed east to visit museums with large collections of her tribe's materials. She and the other members of the Haida Repatriation Committee went first to New York, where the bones of 48 Haidas at the American Museum of Natural History were returned to them. They took the opportunity to examine the other Haida materials in the collection as well. But when they asked for permission to dance ceremonially with some of their people's treasures, the museum's reaction was disappointing.

"It was 'No way,' " Bell recalls.

Then they bused down to Washington to view the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

At the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, where NMAI's collection is maintained, staffers didn't appear nervous as Bell and her companions looked over some of the more than 1,600 Haida objects stored there. When the question of dancing came up, they were directed to the light-filled "welcome space" at the CRC entrance, with its lustrous mahogany floor and its cherry wood columns marking the four cardinal directions: east, west, north and south.

The Haida performed there for maybe an hour with masks, rattles and regalia from the collection. Museum people watched approvingly and, when invited, joined in.

Why not?

They'd said from the beginning that NMAI would be a different kind of museum.

Wasn't dancing with the Haida exactly what being different meant?

What most people know about the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian's newest large-scale venture, is that it is putting up a building on the National Mall.

The dramatic, curvilinear structure nearing completion next to the National Air and Space Museum will be NMAI's main exhibition venue. Its Sept. 21 opening, with the six-day festival that is to follow, is shaping up as a very big deal. It is expected to draw celebrants from all over the hemisphere, for whom the opening represents a triumphant moment in the history of the diverse peoples misnamed by Christopher Columbus in 1492. The new museum, Smithsonian officials say, will offer a prominent space in which Indian stories can be told -- from their point of view, for once. And its emphasis on contemporary native peoples and cultures is intended to make an essential point often overlooked by the descendants of the European colonists who overran and nearly extinguished them:

We're still here.

But to understand the true nature of "the museum different," the somewhat precious self-description NMAI adopted around the time of its launch in 1989, it helps to look first at the little-known facility that so enthralled Lucille Bell and the Haida. Museum Director W. Richard West has called the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, inside the Beltway just southeast of the District, "the soul of the museum." West's NMAI colleagues regularly cite it as irrefutable evidence that the institution they're building truly is different from all those old-style museums.

They don't always say so directly, but high on the list of the museums they're dissing is the Smithsonian's own National Museum of Natural History, which has its own, much older building on the Mall. Natural History boasts a similarly vast collection of Indian materials, much of which it, too, stores in Suitland, in a building a few stone's throws from the CRC. More on that culture war later, though. First, we need to see how the soul of the new museum came to be.

The CRC opened in 1999, but its story begins with one of the biggest decisions Rick West made after he was appointed in 1990.

Which was to slow down.

Shortly after the Smithsonian had acquired the 800,000-piece collection of the New York-based Heye Foundation in 1989, before West had even been hired, the facilities planners had begun their work. Elaine Heumann Gurian, the Smithsonian's deputy assistant secretary for museums at the time -- she's now an independent consultant -- had been asked to focus on the new museum, so she had an inside view of the planning process.

"The way in which you would do things in the Smithsonian," Gurian says, "was that you would get all the heads of this and that and the other thing around the table and you would craft the endgame with what I would consider to be insufficient knowledge bordering on no knowledge." Budgeting had to be done years ahead, so the urgency was real -- but it wasn't helpful. "The head of construction would say, 'Well, we need an auditorium. We know auditoriums. They are this size and hold this many people and they cost mmmhh,' and somebody would write down 'auditorium.' "

Gurian, who is not Native American herself but who knew a bit about Indians from a previous museum job, would say, "I beg your pardon -- have you ever been to a powwow? No? Well, it doesn't happen in an auditorium." Justin Estoque, a senior project manager at NMAI who was then on the facilities planning side of the table, recalls many such clashes before West and the Smithsonian agreed to push the construction schedule back two years.

The reason was straightforward enough. Nobody seems to remember where the phrase "the museum different" came from, but what it was meant to signal was this: NMAI would not treat native peoples -- as museums had so often done in the past -- like extinct species whose cultures had been frozen in time. It would take the radical step of asking Indians what a "National Museum of the American Indian" should be.

To begin this process, the Smithsonian hired Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, a distinguished Philadelphia architecture firm, to do "program planning" for the new museum. That meant developing a rich base of information on which an architect to be chosen later would draw in designing museum buildings. (Venturi, Scott Brown was declared ineligible for the second phase to ensure its focus on the first.)

Venturi, Scott Brown put together an extensive series of "consultations," both on the Smithsonian's home turf and throughout the country. The D.C. consultations gathered Native Americans with particular expertise: researchers, educators, contemporary artists. The regional consultations, held in such places as Santa Fe and Anchorage, were designed to allow the authentic voices of Indian Country to be heard.

Heard they were.

"We thought it was about the architecture," Elaine Gurian says. "So we go off to find out about the architecture, and the first thing the Indian people say to us is: 'We don't want a museum and we don't care about you. We're never going to Washington. We don't care whether we explain ourselves to the other guys or not. We're not going there. So thank you for sharing.' "

Recalling this, Gurian lets out a long laugh. She's exaggerating for effect, but she's not making this up.

"And then," she says, "they started to talk about what they did want."

'A New Kind of Institution'

It's hard to exaggerate the importance of those early consultations in shaping the museum's sense of itself and its mission. The summary document that Venturi, Scott Brown produced, titled "The Way of the People," calls NMAI "conceptually and ideologically a new kind of institution," because the museum has, from the very beginning, "self-consciously sought out focused input" from its native constituency.

Staff members constantly reinforce the idea that their commitment to consulting Indians represents a dramatic break with the past. "All these other museums, the Field [in Chicago], the museums in New York and L.A., they have large Indian collections -- they never do this," says George Horse Capture, deputy director for cultural resources. "This is the first time."

As one of several native facilitators recruited by the museum to help with the consultations, Horse Capture -- a member of the A'aninin or Gros Ventre tribe of Montana -- was charged with convincing skeptical audiences that NMAI really was different, that it really did want their advice. This was no easy assignment. "Indians have been road-showed to death," as West puts it, "and they know one when they see one."

But when the people in those meetings did start talking, Horse Capture says, "they just poured their hearts out."

Some asked for help with chronic social problems: employment, housing, a political base, "things that we couldn't possibly do with just the museum." Others raised concerns that, while not involving traditional museum functions, seemed more in tune with NMAI's potential capabilities.

"Number one was language," says James Nason, a University of Washington anthropology professor and museum curator, who also attended many of the consultations. "Everyone said: We are fighting a desperate battle. We need as much help as we can get to make sure our native languages don't die out." This was hardly an easy problem for a D.C.-based museum to solve, but it was something that could at least be grappled with.

Other requests involved everything from help in correcting ethnic stereotypes -- not all Indians wear feathered war bonnets and live in tepees, NMAI representatives were frequently reminded -- to exporting museum expertise and resources to fledgling cultural institutions in areas where Indians actually lived. As a result of the consultations, NMAI realized that it would have to build a significant outreach program.

As important as the planners thought this outreach would be in shaping "the museum different," however, it wasn't something an architect needed to design. The collection storage facility was.

And they were learning just how different it would need to be.

It should feel like a home, they were told, not a storage warehouse, and should be connected to the natural world. It should somehow blend the way native people care for sacred objects -- which are often viewed as living beings that need to breathe and be fed and be blessed -- with modern conservation methods. Most important, it should offer ready access to the collection. Some precious things would be returned to their original tribal owners as mandated by a new repatriation law; most would not. Yet Native America wanted to feel that its spiritual ownership of them had been restored.

To tour the Cultural Resources Center -- which the public will be able to do, preferably by appointment, once the crunch of opening the Mall museum has passed -- is to see how hard the museum has tried to meet those goals.

Here is that homelike "welcome space," with its spiraling, nautilus-like roof and its windows opening onto the woods out back (and never mind the ferociously ugly communications tower next door). Here is the unobtrusive security post and the handy coatroom where a visitor can stash a suitcase. Here is the special ceremonial room, with its zoned smoke alarm that can be turned off when the stone fire pit is in use. It is employed to burn herbs in "smudging" ceremonies common among native cultures. Here is the elevator that allows elderly people to reach the room without having to negotiate stairs. Items from the collection are often brought there when visitors ask to spend time with them.

And here, lovingly arrayed in rows of gleaming white storage units that stand maybe 16 feet high and extend three-quarters of the length of a football field, is much of the collection itself.

"This is a drawer of Tlingit material," says Bruce Bernstein, NMAI's assistant director for cultural resources, who is leading this particular tour. He points out halibut hooks, seal clubs, powder horns, a maul with a frog carved into it. "The idea is visual accessibility," he says. The storage units are not stuffed to the bursting point, as they were in the old Heye storage facility (which had 20,000 square feet as opposed to the CRC's 145,000). Objects are housed by tribe when possible, rather than by utilitarian category, to make it easier for tribal delegations to see them. Staffers are trained to stand back and not intrude.

"Native people for many, many years have never been welcome in museum collections," Bernstein says. "We are dead set to change that."

The CRC was supposed to be even more welcoming than it is: At one time, there were plans to include residential facilities for hotel-shy visitors, a cafeteria, a day-care center, and studios where artists could settle in to work. Budget realities intervened. In fact, those extra-high compact storage units were chosen because the CRC's architects had to drastically shrink the center's square footage.

Still, the high-ceilinged room that houses the bulk of the collection is open and airy. It feels more like a hotel atrium than traditional museum storage.

As Bernstein's tour continues, he shows off beaded Osage shirts, Navajo textiles and the largest object in the collection, a weathered 46-foot Haida totem pole that stands upright, with other poles, in a portion of the building specially designed for them. In the conservation lab, just feet from a glittering array of pre-Columbian gold from Peru, lies a ratty-looking 19th-century food ration ticket from a reservation in South Dakota -- a relic, Bernstein says, from the days when the Lakota "were starving because their life ways and the buffalo had been destroyed."

Now he points to a black shipping container filled with objects from the Tohono O'odham tribe of Arizona that are headed for one of the exhibitions that will open on the Mall in September. NMAI worked with 24 different tribes, he explains, and -- in a process reminiscent of those early consultations -- asked them to choose the stories they wanted to tell, along with the objects from the collection that would best represent them.

Bernstein spends close to two hours showing a visitor around the CRC, and in that time he never mentions the National Museum of Natural History or its storage facility next door. Yet the subtext of his presentation is clear:

Natural History and institutions like it are cultural dinosaurs. And their way of doing things is -- or at least should be -- dying out.

'Looking Both Ways'

People at Natural History don't see things that way. From their perspective, the Indian Museum isn't as different as it says it is -- and the differences that do exist aren't all to the good. What's more, some say, NMAI's image as the Smithsonian museum that deals with Indians has had a damaging effect on their own work.

Cultural anthropologist JoAllyn Archambault is the director of Natural History's American Indian Program and an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. Leaning against a bookshelf in her cluttered old office, in the museum's Beaux-Arts building on the Mall, is a wall label from a small exhibition she once put together on the Seminoles of Florida. Part of what Archambault did, as the label explains, was ask Seminole people "what objects in the collections of the National Museum of Natural History" they would pick if they wanted to teach non-Seminoles about their tribe.

That was in the summer of 1989, a few months before "the museum different" was launched and began building its identity as a place that wanted Indians to tell their own stories.

To be sure, there were distinctions between Archambault's approach and NMAI's. In addition to asking the Seminoles for their selections, she asked William Sturtevant, a longtime Natural History scholar who had worked with the Seminoles for decades, to do the same. She did that because she was annoyed by a "theoretical craze" in anthropology contending that it was impossible for outsiders to speak accurately about another culture. The Seminole exhibit was an experiment, she says -- she wanted to see how much overlap there would be in the choices. More than half turned out to be the same.

Differences or no, however, Archambault's work -- and that of other anthropologists at Natural History and elsewhere -- tends to undercut NMAI's carefully cultivated aura of uniqueness. To do a good exhibition on native societies, she says, "you have to involve members of those societies in the work and in the story line. They have to be real partners. It's not new. People have been doing that for at least 20 years."

Her boss, William Fitzhugh, chairman of Natural History's anthropology department, agrees. Museum anthropologists "have been talking to native people for a long time," he says. A recent example is an exhibition called "Looking Both Ways," mounted last year by his museum's Arctic Studies Center: It was developed, Fitzhugh says, "in close collaboration with native communities and native curators" and it examines their material culture as part of the ongoing life of those communities, not merely as the record of a dead past.

Why, then, has NMAI focused so relentlessly on the differences, rather than the similarities, between the two museums?

Part of the answer lies in the long history of troubled relationships between anthropologists and native peoples, and the mistrust and stereotyping that resulted.

David Hurst Thomas, a veteran curator in the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has spent the past decade and a half trying to bridge this divide. As "a token white academic," Thomas says, he was asked to be a founding board member of NMAI. At an early board meeting he was told "that I needed to go take Indian 101." Some years later he acknowledged to himself that this was true. The result was a book called "Skull Wars," which lays out the history of the anthro-Indian culture clash.

Thomas doesn't spare his profession, or at least its more hidebound members. "We were all raised with the notion that we really owned Indian history," he says. "We were the ones who understood that, and these people on the reservation ought to be listening to us, because they'd learn a lot." The early days of anthropology produced plenty of horror stories, including the one he tells about his own museum: how in 1897 it imported for study six Greenland Eskimos, four of whom promptly died, with their bones being added to the collection.

His bottom line is that the scientific world is changing, with younger anthropologists especially coming to understand "that you're going to do a lot better science if you work with native people, rather than just throw it in their faces." Still, he understands the concern the Smithsonian's embrace of "the museum different" provoked, both philosophically and financially, at the older museum. Having NMAI as your bosses' number one priority "is great, if you're involved in that museum," Thomas says. "It's not as great if you're in the National Museum of Natural History . . . watching this go on."

Watching this go on is exactly what Natural History's Archambault was doing.

She had applied to be director of NMAI, though she says she never expected to get the job. She lauds the new museum's basic intentions. "It wants to be something that's an article of pride for Indian people," she says. "I think that's very good." But to her, the real difference between it and Natural History is what she sees as NMAI's lack of interest in traditional scholarship. "The stuff they do that's called scholarship is really interviewing Indian people who come and visit the collections," Archambault says. She also thinks NMAI's attempt to generalize about a single "Way of the People" helps foster a "simplified, overly spiritualized version of Indian people and Indian cultures."

She has a more specific grievance as well.

Around the time NMAI arrived on the scene, Natural History managers gave Archambault a major task: redoing that museum's embarrassingly antiquated North American Indian halls, portions of which dated from the 19th century. (The last of these is now being closed down.) She plunged into the work, laying out a new exhibition that focused on seven tribes, with each section to be curated or co-curated by native scholars -- among them, Tlingit anthropologist and NMAI trustee Rosita Worl. She spent $100,000 on models, presented her plans to numerous Smithsonian superiors and looked forward to going after the money to proceed.

No dice.

Former Smithsonian secretary Robert McC. Adams says he would have gotten a lot of "very penetrating questions" from Congress if he'd asked for Indian funds for something other than the Indian Museum at that point. Natural History wasn't even allowed to raise money privately, for fear this would interfere with NMAI fundraising. Adams also says that although combining the two collections was discussed, it was never taken seriously. The clash between the two museums' approaches was too severe; a merger "would have produced not just sparks but a series of major confrontations."

Meanwhile, in Suitland, the new museum was quite literally distancing itself from the old.

The Smithsonian's plan, before West slowed down the construction schedule, had been to replicate Natural History's then-state-of-the-art storage facility on a plot of land nearby. Or perhaps, as was suggested at one point, the NMAI collection could simply be housed in a supplemental "pod" built onto the existing building.

No? Well, how about building a bridge between the two facilities, at least?

The bridge idea stayed in the plans for a while, but then West urged that the Cultural Resources Center be moved several hundred feet farther away. The main reason, he says, was to allow as much connection as possible to the natural world. But there was an obvious symbolic reason as well:

If the CRC was to be the soul of "the museum different," it would need to disassociate itself from those anthropologists next door.

'A Cubist Approach'

How hard will it be for the Smithsonian to bridge this problematic divide? Will it narrow after NMAI opens, or widen, or simply remain unresolved? A tour of Natural History's collection area at the Museum Support Center, the facility NMAI chose not to emulate, yields some impressions -- but your assessment of them depends on your point of view.

You can choose to emphasize its differences from the Cultural Resources Center: its more off-putting security (you definitely need an appointment to get in the door), its lack of windows, its horizontal totem pole storage and the way it occasionally juxtaposes Indian material with stuffed bison and Kashmir stags. The two Indian collections are similar in size, but there's no doubt that Natural History's feels more like museum storage, less like a spiritual home.

Or you can focus on the similarities: its carefully shelved, visually accessible Tlingit baskets and Shuar blowguns, and the close attention the collections managers pay to the wishes of different cultures about how their objects should be treated (Hopi kachinas, for example -- carved figures representing invisible spirits -- reside in cabinets equipped with vent holes so they can breathe). And you can take note of the small room where, for the past several years, native visitors have been able to hold smudging ceremonies.

It's not as nice as the one next door. But it's there.

What about the alleged uniqueness of NMAI's ask-the-Indians approach to exhibitions? Director West explains, when asked, that it's not as if no one has ever done what NMAI is doing -- just that no major museum has attempted to make it central to its operations before.

West is a born diplomat. He doesn't describe NMAI as "the museum different" as much as he used to, he says -- and in any case, differences are good. He says he favors what board member Thomas has called "a cubist approach" to the study of Native Americans, because no single perspective on their lives and cultures can capture the whole truth. NMAI will emphasize the perspective of Indians themselves, because that has been badly neglected in the past. But that doesn't mean it won't value the views of anthropologists, professional historians and so on.

Fitzhugh, the anthropology chairman at Natural History, has some diplomatic impulses himself. He mentions that his department and the new museum have worked cooperatively -- with modest financial support from NMAI -- on a number of projects.

"There's a difference in attitude, a difference in approach," he says, meaning that his museum focuses more on scientific research, while NMAI's interest is in presenting history and culture "from the Indian point of view." But both missions are important, and "both institutions are essentially moving in the same direction" when it comes to collaborating with native people.

Yet Fitzhugh also believes that the growing resource gap between the two could impede future cooperation. "We haven't been able to hold our staff and maintain our budget over the last 10 years," he says. Lack of support "is crippling us, and the money is all in the Indian Museum."

Be that as it may, NMAI makes a strong case that in Suitland at least, its money has been well spent.

The Cultural Resources Center is the soul of the museum. It does feel, especially to its native constituency, like a spiritual home for the collection. And it will remain so long after September's celebration on the Mall is past.

Part of the reason is the attitude of the staff. "They are so amazing," says Nika Collison, one of the Haida who came east with Lucille Bell. "Our elders were just blown away -- and all of us -- by their true understanding of where we were coming from."

And part of it, thanks in no small measure to the consultations that served as its intellectual foundation, is the quality of the building itself.

West still remembers the day he took "our first little model of the CRC, of which I was so proud" up to Capitol Hill to show it to the late Sid Yates (D-Ill.), longtime chairman of the House subcommittee that oversaw the Smithsonian budget. "Sid looked at it and he said, 'That's a beautiful museum.' And I said, 'Well, Sid, this is actually the Cultural Resources Center, this is where the collections are going to be held.' "

The director laughs. It's the satisfied laugh of a man who's seen something different done well.

At the Smithsonian's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, a bronze of Nez Perce Chief Joseph gazes on a facility designed to be a spiritual home for its artifacts.Robert Marvin Garcia Hunt places a garment in storage at the center, a support facility for the National Museum of the American Indian, due to open Sept. 21.Godfrey Williams, a member of the Haida tribe, performs a raven dance at the Museum of the American Indian's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland when tribal members viewed objects stored at the facility in September 2002.Bobby Gonzalez, right, discusses ceremonial items from the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma with visitors at the Resources Center. Below, museum technician Richard Hnat checks in artifacts from New Mexico.Rows of gleaming white containers at the Suitland facility are used to store artifacts in the NMAI collection.