Are you a little wary of museums? Oddly enough, so are the people behind the National Museum of the American Indian, which opens today in Washington.
They worry that the minute people hear "Indian museum" they'll think of dusty old arrowheads in a glass case and a race of people largely wiped out. So before you go see some of the 8,000 objects the new museum has on display, they'd like you to know a few things. For instance:
* The United States currently has 2.75 million Indians (roughly the same as the population of Kansas).
* There are 20 Indian languages still so alive that small children -- not just elders -- speak them.
* Indians have been suing the government in court lately and winning back small chunks of the land taken from their ancestors.
The new museum on the Mall looks to the future as well as the past. On the outside it seems both super-modern and as old as an Arizona mesa. Inside, too, combines new and old. Visitors will learn about the ancient ideas that connect today's native people to their 10,000-year-old history, and how they are adapting those ideas in the modern world.
KidsPost doesn't have room to explain all the interesting exhibits and artifacts you can see at the new museum, but here are two that caught Fern Shen's eye.
Yup'ik Mask of Amekak, a Spirit That Lives in the Ground
The Yup'ik are part of the Inuit (Eskimo) culture and live in Alaska along the Pacific. Amekak is a mischievous being that swims within the Earth and can come out without being seen. He will jump through a person he dislikes, leaving no mark but killing that person. The Yup'ik honor Amekak with the mask, dancing with it and asking this powerful spirit to be kind to them.
The Yup'ik use masks such as this one, from 1905, in ceremonies that re-create their relationship with the spirit world. They believe that telling about the past creates a link with the present and keeps the world in balance.
The Yup'ik believe that Earth was thin at one time and that its elements -- people, plants, animals, landscape -- had a closer relationship, for example, speaking with one another or marrying.
Amekak is one of thousands of masks used in Yup'ik ceremonies.
Strawberry and Chocolate,
A Basket by Gail Tremblay
A teacher at Evergreen State College in Washington state, Gail Tremblay traces her roots to the Onondaga of Upstate New York, and the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Maine.
As a child, she helped her aunts make baskets from thin strips of ash and sweet grass. One of the stitches they used was the strawberry stitch, in which the strips are looped out, forming strawberry-shaped bumps. The basket shown here, which Tremblay made from camera film four years ago, has those same bumps.
"I remember helping my aunties and great-aunties make baskets with the porcupine stitch or the strawberry stitch," she recalled. "I would help them gather the sweet grass and braid it. I would watch them work. I just loved the smell of the sweet grass."
Basketmaking bonded native people as a community. Museum official Gerald McMaster, a Plains Cree Indian, said baskets are themselves spirits that "not only carry objects, they carry meaning."
Tremblay said baskets loaded with strawberries were a big part of spring ceremonies "to thank the Great Spirit. . . . These were big feasts, with dancing. I associate baskets with things in the natural world that fed and cared for you."
Why use film? Tremblay, a poet and filmmaker, said Hollywood has long mistreated native people, either by ignoring them or by casting them only as savages. "I like the idea of taking this medium that had misrepresented us and using it in this way," she said. Some of her baskets are made from old cowboy-and-Indian movies.