The historical footprints of Native America lead in a great many directions and aren't always easy to follow. Very few tribes, especially this side of the Mississippi, remain on or anywhere near lands occupied by their ancestors before contact with Europeans. Genetic lines aren't much easier to trace: More than 4 million Americans identify themselves ethnically as Native Americans, but millions more have some native blood, even if only a thimbleful confirmed mainly through dogged, if often obscure, family lore. Socially and culturally, Indians have long struggled to retain their sense of distinct identity as centuries of disease, violence, government indifference and cultural assimilation have scattered families, customs, languages and entire tribes.
This legacy of dispersal makes next week's events all the more monumental. After two decades of planning and building, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian opens on Tuesday, bringing a new and ringing sense of native identity to the heart of Washington.
It's not going to be the easiest party to crash: Unless you've already secured your admission passes, getting inside will be tough, though possible (see Page 35), but that's okay -- most of the action will be outside anyway. Filling the Mall between the new museum and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art and from the Capitol almost to the Washington Monument will be the six-day First Americans Festival, a joint production of the new museum and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, featuring hundreds of Native American performers, storytellers and artisans populating two pavilions and six stages, including an open-air dance circle (see map on Page 35).
The festival is designed to show off contemporary Indian artists and performers, but it's also meant to act simply and profoundly as a coming together of Native Americans themselves, many thousands of whom are scheduled to kick off the museum's opening week with a Native Nations Procession beginning at 9:30 Tuesday morning. Festival planners have included a "Gathering Place" on the Mall west of Seventh Street, outfitted with bleachers and an open oval of ground, designed as an informal meeting location for the Indians from more than 500 tribes from the United States and throughout the Western Hemisphere expected to make their way to Washington next week.
"It didn't dawn on me what this all meant until I saw the preparations on the Mall, the banners and the tents covering all of that space," says Ceni Myles, a public programs specialist at the museum and co-team leader of the festival along with Howard Bass. "We've got 15,000 people signed up for the procession alone. It's daunting; it's bigger than any of us. It's like watching a big tidal wave off the shore -- you see it there, and you know it's coming, but it's still larger than you imagined it would be."
One of those joining next week's wave is Tony Abeyta of Taos, N.M., at only 38 a genuine prodigy, a widely successful Navajo artist who six years ago was commissioned to create "The Four Directions" as the signature image of the museum's groundbreaking. That image, a square filled by four stylized, masklike faces personifying the cardinal directions, was so well received that Abeyta became the first choice to create another work of art that could serve as the official illustration of the new museum's opening. The result was a mixed-media work on wood panels called "Anthem," an eclectic feast for the eyes that has entered the museum's permanent collection. Images from "Anthem" will be pretty much ubiquitous next week, gracing the festival's T-shirts, posters and other opening-week promotional materials. It's quite a commission for any artist, and one Abeyta took to heart, thinking the piece through several different conceptions before arriving at its final form.
"I did want this to be an 'Anthem,' to function as a flag of Native American sensibilities about nature, about animals and plants, the cosmos, the underworld," Abeyta says. "It has to live as a creation that was inspired by this event at this particular point in time. I wanted the images to act as a catalyst for depicting important native meanings in a contemporary world. It's not unlike the museum in that way -- it doesn't just focus specifically on the past."
Abeyta began the new piece with the idea of setting down a sort of allegorical map, but quickly discarded that as too literal. "I didn't want people 'reading' the work and saying, 'Okay, over here at the upper left is something about the Northwest Indians and here in the middle is the plains,' and so on."
Instead, Abeyta lit on the idea of working from a defining image outward -- that central image being a fan of eagle feathers, what he describes as one of the most universal ceremonial items in Native America, used by many different tribes, historically and today, at blessings and other important rituals. "You're going to see people carrying these fans in the procession," he explains. "It's the one thing [in "Anthem"] that has a direct connection to the opening museum, and all the other things revolve around it."
The focus of the First Americans Festival, similarly, is on what curators call the "living cultures" of Native America. Myles, who is Navajo and Mohegan, says that a museum dedicated to Indians naturally owes something unique to tribal cultures still working through the arts to make themselves seen and heard and understood.
"There are two clear bases here -- the general audience and the native audience -- which is not a situation you see in most other museums," Myles says. "Because of our visibility, we have a chance to use the museum as a vehicle to support and find new talent, to get out into Indian country and promote screenwriters, directors, poets, all kinds of artists. The possibilities are wide open."
Trudie Lamb Richmond, a Schaghticoke storyteller, will pull double duty for the museum's opening. As the director of public programs at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Connecticut and a member of the new museum's national education advisory committee, she'll be meeting with friends and fellow committee members, but she'll also be featured on the festival's Raven Stage Tuesday through Thursday twice each day where she'll be telling traditional Algonquian and Iroquois lesson tales. For Richmond, being part of a "living culture" means picking up where her ancestors left off, keeping not only the stories alive but the reasons for their telling.
"In native traditions, storytelling is a way of passing down history and teaching lessons, especially for children," Richmond says. "Traditionally, native storytelling has been used as a form of discipline. When children misbehave, instead of punishing them by scolding them, we'll bring them over and tell them a story."
Richmond likes to say that she doesn't remember "if I'm 73 or 74," but she is sure where the stories she's telling come from, and it's not her own head. A holder of advanced degrees in anthropology and early childhood education, Richmond says that her academic training, though helpful in a roundabout way, hasn't had much direct influence on her craft. Rather, she draws her tales from a copious memory of days and evenings spent at the feet of tribal elders and family members, especially her own grandmother, who herself was first told many of Richmond's favorite stories as a girl in the 1870s, creating a startlingly direct bridge across 130 years of Native American experience.
"They're not my stories, and I don't change them," Richmond says. "But the meanings of the stories are adaptable. Children today can relate to these lessons." Her favorite stories include one from her mentor Ray Fadden, a Mohawk elder and storyteller now in his nineties who decades ago told Richmond the tale of Needles, a baby porcupine he'd found and adopted as a child, and another from her grandmother about Bear and Beaver and what good friends they were until Bear "nagged and nagged and nagged" Beaver to do something he didn't think he should be doing.
"Don't do something just because someone you like tells you to do it -- that's a very contemporary lesson," Richmond says. "And squirreled away in the stories is a part of native history and culture. It's not a process distinctive to native cultures, but native cultures are especially interested in continuing that oral tradition, the passing of these lessons from each generation to the next. Writing things down on paper is great, but there's a certain kind of life in a told story; it stays alive in a different way."
Myles and other museum officials have developed a multiphase plan for the use of the museum as a magnet for contemporary Indian arts beyond the first week of business. The first and most obvious phase is the prominent inclusion of works by recent and contemporary artists in the third-floor space the curators call the "changing gallery." The second phase, in operation for the rest of 2004, is what Myles calls the "getting used to the building" phase, when ambitions have been kept in check and the focus is placed on successfully launching the museum's various free public programs series, a regular calendar of visiting Native American lecturers, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, actors, storytellers and writers. The final phase, "when we leave the building," Myles says, is where the dreaming really begins.
"We don't want to view the festival as a one-time thing, a gathering that brings all of these people from so many places here, just to go home at the end of the week and never return," Myles says. To that end, there are plans to use the visibility of the new museum as a sort of enormous beacon for Native Americans and those interested in Native America, generating interest and large numbers of visitors for projects such as major international academic conferences, artistic and cultural festivals, high-profile awards galas and even a truly national powwow aimed at filling MCI Center perhaps next year, perhaps in 2006.
This longer-term vision includes outreach, the museum using its resources to comb the country for the next great Indian artist, the next Tony Abeyta, say, but in the meantime there's a celebration to be had right here in Washington. And Abeyta, for one, is looking to enjoy himself for a few days without spending too much time thinking about himself as the official artist of the opening.
"I never went into this for a second thinking that this is about me," Abeyta says. It's clear he's telling the truth; he seems a little surprised, though pleased, to learn that a selection of images from "Anthem" will grace all of the festival's banners on the Mall in addition to its T-shirts and posters. "Really? That's neat. I like to think of myself as an extension of the museum. I prefer that people look at the images and not really know who I am -- the images will function and live and breathe on their own. People don't know me from Joe Eagle Feather -- to be able to walk around and maintain that anonymity is nice."
"I'll tell you what I do appreciate, though," Abeyta adds. "I do get all these great access passes."
Scott W. Berg is a frequent contributor to Weekend.
"Anthem," which marks the museum's opening, are eagle feathers. He says he wants the work
to "function as a flag of
Native American sensibilities." The National Museum of the American Indian opens Tuesday.In the past six years, the museum has commissioned two works by Tony Abeyta, a Navajo artist from New Mexico.