In this city brimming with monuments to presidents, statues of generals and memorials to heroes of American history you would search in vain for a single tribute to the First People of this land.

Ten thousand years before the arrival of the Mayflower, the Indian people flourished throughout North America. The citizens of Washington jog through former tribal grounds and drive on byways first trod by Indian travelers. But except for the occasional unearthed arrowhead or pottery shard, we have managed to obliterate all traces of native Americans in our nation's capital.

I hope to change this. As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, I am working to establish in this city the finest collection of American Indian artifacts. The Museum of the American Indian is now in New York City but in search of a new home -- its collection of more than 1 million Indian artifacts of North, Central and South America is the most comprehensive known to exist. Few are aware of, or bother to visit, this little-known museum located in a remote neighborhood north of Harlem. In the tiny 1916 building, priceless items are crowded on shelves in displays unchanged for 20 years.

Less than 2 percent of the huge collection of the late George Heye is open to public view. The bulk of the items are stored in a warehouse in the Bronx, closed to visitors. In these buildings is a priceless legacy of the Indian people.

Legislation that I am preparing in conjunction with Rep. Morris Udall would establish the National Museum of the American Indians as part of the Smithsonian Institution, to be built at a site on the Mall between the Air & Space Museum and the Botanic Gardens, just a pebble's toss from the Capitol.

The National Museum would provide the Heye collection with the space needed to properly exhibit its artifacts, such as hundreds of rare buffalo robes, ancient woven baskets and archaeological stone implements. Precious items, such as the rifle of Sitting Bull and a 1685 Indian Bible (one of the first books printed in North America), could be viewed by a national audience of millions -- not just the 40,000 annual visitors at its present New York site. Its library, one of the foremost repositories of literature about the Indian people, would be available for scholarly and legislative research.

It would be a monument to the great visionary leaders of Indian history, such as Sitting Bull, Sequoia, Geronimo, Tecumseh, Seattle, Joseph Bryant. It would also serve as a memorial for the skeletal remains of more than 10,000 American Indians collected in the 19th century from bloody battlefields and grave-robbed from burial grounds under official government policy. Now in the custody of the Smithsonian Institution, those remains would be returned to their Indian tribes if identifiable or interred with dignity in a memorial designed as a part of the new museum.

This would be a "living" national museum that would foster public education in Indian history, culture and literature. On the model of the Smithsonian's popular traveling exhibit program, the museum would present exhibits at Indian reservations that include educational programs for Indian youth.

The Mall has been described as our nation's "Main Street," and the National Museum of the American Indian would be a beautifully designed addition that recognized the historic grandeur of America's Indian people. -- Daniel Inouye is a Democratic senator from Hawaii.