For five centuries, others have tried to define these people labeled Indians, to categorize them, to put them in some kind of taxonomy, the way scientists describe beetles or birds or bison.

Conquistadors had their say, and tobacco planters, and Pilgrims, and Founding Fathers, and missionaries, and Army generals, and finally all the ethnologists and anthropologists who in the 19th century emerged from universities and East Coast museums, taking the measure of these native people -- and perhaps bringing home some masks, pottery and human bones. In the name of science they robbed graves.

Two centuries ago Thomas Jefferson debated the French naturalist Comte de Buffon on whether Indians were mentally and biologically degenerate (Buffon's position) or simply in need of civilizing (Jefferson's). Missionaries were determined to make good Christians of them. Many of the colonizers of the hemisphere wanted the natives exterminated outright. The first Americans were called savages, wild men, hounds of Hell.

Now, risen from the Mall, is a new museum about, by and for Indians, one in which they will define themselves. The National Museum of the American Indian that will open on Tuesday is nothing short of revolutionary, for the subject matter is fully animate, alive and in charge.

"It is a native place," says museum official Jim Pepper Henry, a member of the Kaw and Muscogee nations of Oklahoma.

Although it would be too simplistic to say that over the years the Indian community has been at war with traditional anthropologists (some of whom are, after all, natives themselves), the museum represents an affirmation of the native claim that they should not be seen as exhibit items, as objects to be analyzed, as curiosities in a cabinet of wonders. If there was a war, it's over, and the Indians won.

"We're not an anthropology museum. We're a museum of living cultures," says Pepper Henry, leading a visitor through the empty corridors earlier this month. "This is a venue for native peoples to tell their own story. You're not going to get the anthropological perspective."

The director, the spokesman, many curators and a majority of the members of the governing board are natives, and substantial portions of the three major permanent exhibits are co-curated by Indian tribes. Museum officials spent years traveling to what they call Indian Country, to consult with native people about how to make them full collaborators in the presentation of their stories.

The result is something triumphant for the people who trace their lineage to the first Americans. Many people, when they visit the National Museum of the American Indian, will enter a world they know little or nothing about. This is not a typical government museum full of artifacts. It's not a scientific, secular enterprise that speaks in an anonymous institutional voice. It has many voices, and they are native voices. It feels more like a cathedral than a museum.

Walk inside, and you enter Indian Country.

Collecting and Giving Back

Anthropology is the study of human origins and culture, and ranges from linguistics to archaeology. Anthropologists roam from the present to the distant past, from the Information Age to the Stone Age. They gobble up data, connect cultural dots, listen to exotic tongues and attempt to push their observations through some kind of scientific filter. The Smithsonian Institution, one of the premier anthropological organizations in the world, has catalogued millions of native artifacts, from spears to skulls.

But the National Museum of the American Indian has no anthropology department and likely never will. Gerald McMaster, a deputy assistant director for the museum and a Plains Cree, says, "Anthropology as a science is not practiced here."

Science, McMaster suggests, tries to impose an objective truth upon things that might not always lend themselves to such a framework. Science is not going to be the final arbiter at the museum. Says McMaster, "We look to the communities" -- the natives themselves -- "as authorities about who they are."

W. Richard West Jr., the museum's director (Southern Cheyenne), says: "We have, in a systematic, consistent, rigorous and scholarly way, attempted to put native peoples themselves, in their first-person voices, at the table of conversation about native peoples and native communities, past and present. That is a distinction as compared to what straight anthropologists might be doing."

Such words are delivered without harshness or bitterness, but there is a long history behind them, one that natives find painful. "Anthropology" and "archaeology" are very close to pejorative terms in Indian Country. When doing research on native groups, says George Horse Capture, one of the museum's curators, it's necessary to look at traditional anthropology books, but "you have to put on your Indian glasses to filter out the anthropological bias."

It was anthropologists who, early in the 20th century, lured six Greenland natives to New York City to be studied in a museum, only to watch four of them within a year die of tuberculosis. It was an anthropologist of that era who said, "I cannot attach to oral traditions any historical value whatsoever." The pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas once wrote, "It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it." Pervading the entire anthropological enterprise, writes David Hurst Thomas in his book "Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity," was a profound disinterest in present-day native culture except insofar as it might lead the researcher toward the prehistoric and "authentic" Indian culture.

Thus the new museum avoids, as much as possible, confining Indians to the past. There are no dioramas here showing prehistoric Indians, as there have been at the Natural History Museum on the Mall.

"Native people wanted those who came to the National Museum of the American Indian to appreciate that we were not some mere ethnographic remnant pushed to the edge of the stage of history," says West.

The we're-still-here message is the filter through which historical events are related. When the Seminole tribe discusses the betrayal of Osceola -- lured to a peace negotiation and then thrown in prison to die -- it is not in an institutional, omniscient voice, but rather in a piece of text attributed to a Seminole of today. The tragedy exists now, in the lives of people still around, not in some separate compartment of "back then."

What happened in the past nonetheless remains an issue for any museum with a large collection of Indian artifacts. The Indian Museum has embraced repatriation, the practice of returning bones and sacred objects to tribes. No other issue so sharply divided scientists and natives over the past two decades. For some anthropologists, the practice of taking artifacts from a museum collection and reburying them is akin to book-burning. But natives have argued that the warehousing of these items is sacrilegious.

The most sensational dispute in recent years has been over the 9,000-year-old bones of the so-called Kennewick Man, discovered along the Columbia River in Washington state in 1996. Anthropologists argued that his features were unusual (there was initially some loose speculation about him looking Caucasian and like the actor Patrick Stewart), and that he could offer new evidence about human migrations to the hemisphere. Five Pacific Northwest tribes sued to have his bones returned for reburial. The anthropologists have so far won the legal battle.

Meanwhile the Natural History Museum had a run of bad publicity over the news that it had possession of the brain of Ishi, a California native who emerged from the backcountry in 1911 and became nationally famous as the "last wild Indian." Ishi lived the few remaining years of his life in a museum in San Francisco. Natural History Museum spokesman Randall Kremer says the museum never hid the fact that it had Ishi's brain in a jar. But by the time it was repatriated to a California tribe, the Natural History Museum had been derided as insensitive to native concerns.

Governing the broader debate is a law passed by Congress in 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It requires museums, on a case-by-case basis, to repatriate bones, funerary objects and sacred artifacts if a plausible claim to them is made by tribal descendants or culturally affiliated groups.

The Natural History Museum bore the brunt of the repatriation movement. The museum's chairman of anthropology, William Fitzhugh, says the two sides have since reconciled many of their differences, and the museum fully embraces repatriation. Its officials say no other museum can match its record of having repatriated 90,000 catalogued items. The Indian Museum, with fewer human remains in its collection, has repatriated about 2,500 items, says Pepper Henry. But he points out that his museum -- which had repatriation requirements written into its founding legislation in 1989 -- has reached out to tribes beyond the borders of the United States, even though they are not covered by NAGPRA. Repatriation, as he describes it, isn't a legislative necessity but a deeply felt cultural obligation.

"We have the human remains of someone's ancestor. The museum really doesn't have the right to those remains," he says.

Native Diversity

Even with the Indians defining themselves, they have different views about who is an Indian and what is authentically native. Gabrielle Tayac, another of the museum curators, says this is probably the most hotly debated issue among Indians today. In parts of this hemisphere, an "Indian" is not someone who has Indian blood but someone who lives in the traditional way, Tayac says. Cut your hair, wear Western clothes and live in a big city, and you would no longer be considered Indian. "Can you be an indigenous person and have a university education? Some people would say no," Tayac says.

She identifies herself as Piscataway, the tribe whose traditional territory encompasses much of the metropolitan Washington area. Her father's father was a Piscataway chief. She's also Jewish, on her mother's side.

"I think there is an indigenous way of thinking," she says. She quickly notes that there's not a single native belief system, but there are ways of looking at the world that are common to native peoples throughout the hemisphere. "Things are looked at very cyclically, not in a linear way," she says. There's also "this idea that things are alive, that there's life in everything, that you are a part of it and you fit into it." And of course there is the common experience with colonialism and its disastrous consequences.

Some natives suspect that outsiders will never fully grasp what native life is like. "I feel as a tribal member of the Kaw, I'm a little uncomfortable with someone who [didn't grow up as a Kaw] to come in and say they're an expert on our tribe," says Pepper Henry.

George Horse Capture, a member of the A'aninin (or Gros Ventre) tribe of Montana, says that cross-cultural investigations, such as those practiced by anthropologists, can lead to "murky water." Indians, he said, often told white anthropologists what they thought the anthropologists wanted to hear. He has asked himself if he could ever understand what it was like to be Jewish or black. He could marry such a person and live in that culture, he says, "but there's no way I could ever be what they are. Because they've had pain. And if you don't have pain, it's not etched into your soul."

One thing visitors won't encounter in the museum is a scientific explanation of how the Americas were populated. Until fairly recently, scientists were confident that Asian hunters migrated across the Bering Strait on a land bridge during the Ice Age. New evidence, however, has cast doubt on that simple scenario. Some scholars believe people came by boat and land in multiple migrations. None of this, however, is discussed in the Indian Museum. It conflicts with the cosmologies of many native peoples, who believe they have occupied their lands since the beginning of time. Curator Bruce Bernstein, who's non-native, says the problem with the Bering Strait theory is "the insistence that that's the origin of native peoples."

The decision to ignore the scientific debate and stick to a more religious perspective is a departure for a government-supported museum. The standard anthropological approach to the history of the Americas is now entirely absent from the Mall. The Natural History Museum, having closed its antiquated exhibits on Native Americans, will need at least three to five years to open new ones, according to Fitzhugh, the museum's head of anthropology. Funding has dried up in recent years, he says, as money has flowed to the Indian Museum a few blocks away.

Even so, the Indian Museum has managed to avoid controversy so far, not a minor feat in the age of Culture Wars and furious accusations of political correctness.

More problematic for the museum may be its own very high standards for authenticity and present-tense narration. Everything at the museum, says Bernstein, must be "returnable" to the native people. "Returnability" is one of several museum buzzwords (along with "survivance") that takes a few minutes for an outsider to grasp. But the gist is that this place isn't designed for the entertainment of tourists -- despite the museum's hope that it will attract 4 million to 6 million visitors a year. It's meant to be "useful" to natives, Bernstein says.

This is no Indian road show, no reconstitution of Buffalo Bill's version of the Wild West. Showbiz touches are absent. It has taken 15 years to get this museum off the ground, and the exhibits appear to be rather tidy in scale, carefully curated and, in some places, visually striking, but not spectacular. Most of the exhibits are on the third and fourth floors of the building. The relatively small exhibit spaces may have difficulty accommodating throngs of visitors.

By focusing on living cultures, the museum may find it tricky to talk about cultures of the distant past. There is no exhibit in the museum, for example, about the great mound-building cultures of North America, or about Cahokia, a city in the Mississippi Valley near present-day St. Louis, that probably had more than 20,000 inhabitants a thousand years ago -- more than London. Museum spokesman Thomas Sweeney said he's fascinated by Cahokia but wasn't sure how it would fit into the museum's present-tense, first-person approach. But West, the museum director, said that an exhibit on Cahokia would be possible if officials had discussions with current Indian tribes in the Mississippi Valley.

"One would be surprised at how much comes down even through oral history," West said.

A New Approach

Most museums, if given a grand atrium, would feel compelled to put something dramatic and permanent in the center, like the show-stopping bull elephant over at the Natural History Museum. At the Indian Museum, the atrium is allowed to remain open and evocative, rising 120 feet to a skylight, with prisms casting the colors of the rainbow on the white, curving walls. Living people will occupy the ceremonial floor space, not something stuffed or chiseled or cast in bronze.

Previews of the museum earlier this month have offered a limited sense of what the experience of the visitor will be like. On opening day more than 15,000 native people are expected to be in attendance. The museum intends to have, on a regular basis, Indians demonstrating native crafts, such as boat-building.

At the entrance to "Our Peoples," the exhibit that attempts to detail the history of Indians, the visitor will see hundreds of pieces of figurative pottery. But instead of being compartmentalized and discretely labeled, these pieces flow in great curves through the glass cases, the many faces on the pottery suggesting a thriving, populous hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans in 1492. A radial burst of gold demonstrates the wealth of the Incas and other Mesoamerican civilizations. Suddenly there appears a set of Spanish swords, slicing through the visual narrative. The fateful encounter has begun.

"This is impressionistic," says Bernstein. "This is not terribly didactic. Our intention is to situate people in the midst of native thought. This museum is about the inside-outward view."

Curators have arranged cases that represent three primary forces in the assault on Indians after 1492: guns, church and state. The church case, for example, will show Bibles printed in dozens of different native languages.

Surrounding all of this will be the exhibits co-curated by individual tribes. The Kiowa, for example, tell of the founding of the Rainy Mountain School in Oklahoma in 1897, where Indian students were told not to speak their native language. "Like prison convicts, we were identified by numbers rather than names," one text states.

A film serving as the fourth-floor introduction to the "Our Universes" exhibit and the rest of the museum is entirely in the voices of native peoples all over the hemisphere.

The film is nonlinear; viewers are not told, in most cases, which tribe is speaking or where the events are taking place. Natives are shown on horses and on snowmobiles, in the jungle and in the Arctic. A common thread is spirituality, connectedness to nature, and the threats by outside forces to destroy traditional culture.

Native history is not treated comprehensively and systematically in the traditional way of a school textbook. The approach might be seen by some visitors as anecdotal, though Bernstein, for one, recoiled when a reporter used the term. Certainly there are many narrative streams converging in the museum. Something like the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led to the so-called Trail of Tears, might be alluded to but not highlighted, in part because the museum collaborated not with the Cherokees forced to migrate to Oklahoma but with the Eastern Band of Cherokees that remained in North Carolina.

Museum curators say they will never skip any of the painful stories of native experience and will directly address, in "Our Peoples," the millions who perished after 1492. But they won't let the tragedies and horrors overwhelm the more important message of survival. Rick West is emphatic on this point:

"Here's what I want everyone to understand. As much and as important as that period of history is" -- the centuries of war, disease and exile -- "it is at best only about 5 percent of the period we have been in this hemisphere. We do not want to make the National Museum of the American Indian into an Indian Holocaust Museum."

He continues:

"You have to go beyond the story of the tragedy and the travesty of the past 500 years. What we are talking about in the end is cultural survivance. We are still here."

Not locked in the past. Not extinct. And still making big plans.

"We will insist on a cultural future in this hemisphere."

Even as museum officials were preparing for their grand opening, workers across the Mall at the Natural History Museum were packing up Indian artifacts and outdated dioramas in a closed exhibit on native cultures of the Americas. The material was heading to storage. The old diorama, made decades ago, showing Indians with bows and arrows, herding buffalo off a cliff, will be seen no more.

Someday, perhaps, "you could do an exhibit on that exhibit," Gerald McMaster says with a laugh.

And perhaps someday someone could do an exhibit on the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian -- how this new place was different, audacious and not only native but also fully American, an artifact of a nation trying to understand itself, circa 2004.

The museum atrium is an open and evocative space rising to a skylight, with prisms casting the colors of the rainbow like stained-glass windows.Pottery figures suggest a thriving hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans in 1492. Below left, an Oneida "Tree of Peace" decorates one of the museum's "pause areas," which provide a different perspective on displays, right.Native Americans as objects to be analyzed, or curiosities in a cabinet of wonders: One of the Natural History Museum's now-closed dioramas.