An electronic sign at the entrance can greet visitors in 150 native versions of "Welcome." The restaurant's cooks are preparing everything from the "Campfire Buffalo Burger" to "Pueblo Tortilla Soup." Beaded moccasins, feathered headdresses and woven blankets are among 8,000 artifacts on display.

After 15 years of planning and five years of construction, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian opens tomorrow with a celebration expected to draw as many as 20,000 Native Americans to the nation's capital for what organizers are calling the largest tribal gathering in history.

From Hawaiians to Crees to Apaches, representatives of more than 400 tribes and native communities from across the Western Hemisphere are to march in an opening procession along the Mall, a ceremony infused with historic and symbolic significance for a population that has long sought national recognition.

"Finally, finally, after all these years," Kathy Wesley Kitcheyan, chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache tribe, said from her office in southeastern Arizona. "Our people throughout the nation -- not just the Apaches -- Indian people everywhere, have made all kinds of contributions, and now we're finally being recognized."

It's not just the size of the event that tribes consider important. It's the location, on the Mall, where the $219 million museum -- a curving, honey-colored limestone mass designed to resemble a southwestern rock formation -- was built on the last available parcel.

"We feel like we have a thumbprint now in Washington, D.C.," said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a District-based organization that represents nearly 600 state and federally recognized tribes. "All other kinds of groups have representation on the Mall. We haven't had anything."

Beginning just before the start of the fall equinox, a seasonal transition normally celebrated by Native Americans, the opening day festivities are expected to draw 60,000 visitors to the Mall, the site of a noontime ceremony to dedicate the museum, as well as an evening concert that will include performances by vocalists Rita Coolidge, a Cherokee, and Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was born on the Cree reservation in Saskatchewan.

For six days, the part of the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW will be home to the "First Americans Festival," which will feature crafts demonstrations, food booths and outdoor performances by 300 singers, dancers and storytellers representing 50 native communities.

The celebration is not confined to the Mall. A commemorative service was held yesterday at National Cathedral. Today through Friday, a congressional caucus devoted to Native Americans is to host four briefings on issues ranging from gaming to the need for federal funding in Indian communities.

And the Liberty and Freedom totem poles, carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James, a councilman for the Lummi Nation, and other master carvers, have been put up temporarily outside the Pentagon in honor of the 184 people who died there during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Police urge people working or visiting in the Mall area tomorrow to take Metro because the festivities will close several thoroughfares, including Fourth Street between Independence and Pennsylvania avenues, and Seventh Street between Independence and Constitution avenues. In addition, Madison and Jefferson drives NW, between Third and 14th streets, will be closed from 6 a.m. to mid-afternoon, along with the 12th Street ramps between Constitution Avenue and Madison Drive.

After the dedication ceremony, the museum, across Fourth Street from the National Air and Space Museum, will open to the public at 1 p.m., with admission granted to those who have "timed-entry passes." A limited number of the passes will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at the museum at 9 a.m. tomorrow.

To accommodate what organizers are expecting to be large crowds, the museum is scheduled to remain open all night, with no tickets required for admission between midnight and 7 a.m. Wednesday.

"Thousands of native people are traveling by bus, car and plane from all corners of our nation, so we want to do everything we can to be hospitable and extend the hours so more people can see the museum," said Thomas Sweeney, a museum spokesman.

"The demand will in all likelihood exceed the capacity," he said. "We're doing our best within the physical limitations."

The museum is opening 15 years after Congress passed a bill sponsored by Ben Nighthorse Campbell, then a U.S. representative and now a Colorado senator, and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. It is the first new museum on the Mall since the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian art opened in 1987.

Representing thousands of years of Native American history, the museum's three exhibits are a blending of past and present, as assembled by curators who consulted with the tribes.

In some measure, the museum is intended to illustrate the historical atrocities that Indians have suffered. A display case filled with dozens of firearms, from muskets to automatic weapons, represents the violence Indians have endured over the past four centuries. But there is no exhibit for well-known episodes such as "the Trail of Tears," in which the federal government during the 1830s ordered the removal of thousands of Cherokees from the Southeast and their relocation to reservations in Oklahoma.

At the same time, the exhibits highlight more contemporary aspects of Indian life, including spiritual rituals, pottery and jewelry and the way tribes live today. The "Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories" exhibit illustrates the pasts of eight tribes, including the Seminole of Florida and the Nahua of Mexico, which selected objects and artifacts to display.

One display is devoted to the North American Indigenous Games, an Olympic-style competition held every three years featuring archery, lacrosse, canoeing and badminton.

Sweeney, the museum's spokesman, said the tribes sought to "present periods of history that are most important to them. The larger society may know of a few events, but they're not the focus for everyone."

Events such as the Trail of Tears, he said, might be included in future exhibits.

The blending of past and present, Campbell said, is designed to convey the message that "we're still here."

"We have learned how to function in the 20th century while keeping alive traditions and songs and dances," he said. "There are doctors and teachers and astronomers and professional golfers."

"This will be a monument, a living monument," he said. "We don't want it to be only display cases filled with artifacts. We want it to be a living, interactive museum, where people can learn about Indians."

Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, plans to march at the head of the procession tomorrow, wearing a headdress and a buckskin "war shirt." He may keep the outfit on when he shows up at the Senate to introduce legislation later in the day -- that is, if his colleagues allow him to enter the chamber without the normally required suit and tie.

"If they say they okay it, I'll do it," he said.

Kitcheyan, of the San Carlos tribe, plans to fly in from Arizona to participate in the procession.

In some measure, she said, she has mixed feelings about the notion of a museum being the repository for tribal artifacts, because her ancestors "didn't do it that way."

"Old things were never showcased," she said. "In our teachings, those things are supposed to be passed on to someone else to be taken care of."

On the other hand, Kitcheyan said, the opening of a museum is ample compensation. "We're finally being recognized," she said. "This is long overdue."

Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum of the Mohegan tribe blesses Liberty and Freedom totem poles at the Pentagon, in honor of the 184 people who died there in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The totem poles were carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James, a councilman for the Lummi Nation.After the blessing, some in attendance at the ceremony touch one of the Liberty and Freedom poles, which are believed to be tools of healing. Fred Simpson, one of the master carvers who created the totem poles, speaks with people in attendance at the Pentagon ceremony. Jeff Lee, center, with Dylan, 5, and Aaron, 7, observes the ceremony at the Pentagon. Other totem poles carved by Jewell Praying Wolf James and his colleagues were presented in New York in 2002 and in Shanksville, Pa., last year.