Everyone came to see Indians, and everyone got to see some. Everyone got to thank Mother Earth for the good sky. Everyone got to stand in line for a fry-bread taco, or white corn soup, or this: "A buffalo burger for six dollars?" scoffed an elderly gentleman wearing a heavy ceremonial necklace made of chunks of silver and pieces of fine turquoise that were roughly the same size as the buffalo patty in question. "No way."
That was as much controversy as could be found. Rare is the large-scale event on the Mall that isn't trying to noisily prevent something (a war, gun-related violence, the reversal of Roe v. Wade). And so the opening festival for the National Museum of the American Indian had to it a meandering, pleasing friendliness, almost like the last 500 years or so had just been some odd misunderstanding.
The news, at least on the Mall, is that we're all mostly good now, and yet a dynamic remains intact: May the rest of us take your picture? Yes, the Indians said, you may, and so they straightened up and smiled for camera after camera, "chiefing" in every direction, everywhere you looked. (Because why look so fabulous and say no to a camera?)
"You're from South Dakota?" asked a woman taking a picture of a group of teenage girls all clad in their finest ceremonial wear. "Do you know Tom Brokaw?" Blank stares. Smiles. "Tom Brokaw, the NBC News anchor? He's from South Dakota. Well, anyway, thank you," she said, and then waved. The teenagers smiled and walked away.
The tribes assembled yesterday morning for a two-hour, west-to-east procession from the Smithsonian Castle at 10th Street NW to the Indian Museum at Third and Independence. (The direction symbolized, according to organizers, a return eastward and to the Capitol, after so much banishment and relocation westward from the Atlantic birth of the federal entity.)
The Indians represented such an array of people, lives and stunning wardrobe (25,000 of them registered for the procession, according to museum officials), that it was curious to find the whole thing giving off a feeling of intimacy, a smallness among all that quantity. Opening day for the Indian Museum was at times almost like a fair or a parade, or a family reunion -- something quite local even as it was freighted with Smithsonian-style significance.
Native Americans came to the First Americans Festival to see themselves, to be with one another, and a non-Indian couldn't be blamed for delighting in the banal details that make today's Indians seem less mythological and quite real:
Wizened grandmas scootered around on late-model motorized wheelchairs. Traditional music came out of the sound system with occasional modern backbeat mixed in behind it. Indian families pushed high-end strollers, drank Diet Pepsi, wore fanny packs under shawls. Indians in full ceremonial garb waited for the morning procession to start, and everyone seemed to be using flip phones. "Joe, this is Curtis, I'm on the Mall and it's Tuesday morning," said a man in a bright, beaded, violet-and-silver ceremonial outfit and headdress. "If you get this, then call us back so we can find you."
The modern, living Indian of 2004 is the best thing yet seen in connection with the Indian Museum. Imagine trying to convince the world that you exist. Some are more bolo tie and some are more "aloha." Some came from Peru, some came from Harvard. Some came wearing Casual Friday khakis and plastic ID badges, carrying the banner of the Environmental Protection Agency, and so they didn't look classically Indian. (They looked more like the spectators, a disproportionate number of whom seemed to be bureaucrats skipping work. Lots of guys wearing Panama hats.)
The bigger tribes were in full regalia, their most sacred garb, dancing and drumming as they went, wearing the bells and colors and beads and feathers the mind's eye is trained to identify as "Indian." There were beauty queens with turquoise tiaras and satin sashes -- Miss Native America was one -- and there were also young women opting for a decidedly more rock-and-roll edge, wearing "Homeland Security" T-shirts depicting a 19th-century photograph of Indian warriors with the slogan "Fighting terrorism since 1492." There were tribes in the procession represented by fewer than a dozen members, who, if they really planned ahead, wore matching shirts.
The sound and smell and feel of it spread out over the Mall. Back in the cafe tent, everyone wanted to taste it. A teenager with blue nail polish stood in line, wearing what looked like a traditional Indian skirt, only with a hoodie sweatshirt over a T-shirt that said "Mystery" in a heavy-metal kind of typeface. She wore ankle socks with Nike Air sandals. She rolled her eyes at her mother and got on her phone. That's the Indian we came to see today.
The man in charge of the fry-bread operation, Jim Gibson, a Cherokee Seminole from Shelby, Mich., said he'd never sold this much fry bread so fast, to so many people. He and his wife, Stella, have done 23 powwows, he said, all over the country. But this was something different, and like everyone else out here, he said he couldn't quite put it to words.
That's okay, because it was the music that trumped the words.
There is something so elemental in Native American singing. (Some people mistakenly refer to it as "chanting," and kids on playgrounds in the Davy Crockett TV era used to mimic it.) It's something at once joyful and haunting, and you cannot help but be stirred by it. After speeches by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and NMAI Director W. Richard West Jr. (who both wore similar feathered Cheyenne war bonnets and robes), the Jemez Pueblo group Black Eagle performed the honor song, closing the ceremony, as the officials paraded into the curvy entrance of the museum.
From the early morning and into the afternoon, there were songs: It's why people have always sought out the Indian way, even as history worked to snuff it out. Why does the song, the drumming, stir up such melancholy and intense feelings in non-natives? It hits you in a particular place, and holds you for minutes. It's not like the blues. It's something completely other. You could buy a CD of it (Black Eagle won a Grammy this year) and yet it wouldn't be quite the same. It happened right during lunch on the Hill, and many of the worker bees passing by stopped, cocked their heads, listened to the rhythm, and tried to locate that part of themselves that has always secretly longed for the tribal.