A simple drumbeat sounded across the Mall. Spirits of fire and earth were summoned in ancient languages, while overcast skies threatened water. Then ground was broken for the National Museum of the American Indian, in a place of honor near the Capitol where a nation of newcomers once issued orders to drive these native people from their land.
The latest museum created by the Smithsonian Institution will open in 2002 at Third Street and Independence Avenue SW, filling the last open space on the Mall, offering long-overdue tribute to a sometimes forgotten population and bringing local native culture full circle. In the 17th century, this same ground was walked by the Nacotchtank tribe, which farmed and hunted in the area now known as Washington, D.C., and built hamlets along the rivers still known by the Indian names Potomac and Anacostia.
An audience of several hundred, including representatives of dozens of tribes from across the hemisphere, assembled for the emotional ceremony under three tents. On the stage, white VIPs in dark suits joined Hawaiians and Inuits and Quechuas in colorful, traditional garb, along with Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), clad, Cheyenne-style, in white beaded buckskin and a floor-length feathered headdress.
Museum director W. Richard West, a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, said he found it ironic that the first inhabitants of this part of the world were the last to be recognized by the Smithsonian. However, he said, it was "historical justice" for the museum to join the East Building of the National Gallery of Art as the cultural landmarks nearest the Capitol.
"For Indian America, this hemispheric institution of living cultures represents a seminal occasion to reconcile a present and future with an often troubled and tumultuous past," West said. Quoting a great Nez Perce chief, he continued: "From a cultural standpoint, to use Chief Joseph's words, it gives the native peoples of this hemisphere an `even chance to live and grow.' "
The audience was like a United Nations of native peoples, with Nez Perce and Cheyenne and Arapaho and Navajo and Comanche and Oglala Lakota and Cocopah and many others rubbing shoulders and comparing notes on the meaning of the new museum.
"We're Comanches," said Yeoman Williams, 37, an ironworker who attended the ceremony with relatives. "We come from Oklahoma, and now we live in Rockville."
He bumped into a long-lost friend he went to school with outside Oklahoma City, Henry Little Bird, 34, an Arapaho who still lives in Oklahoma.
Little Bird said he was moved to the brink of tears by the "heart-catching" ceremony, and he is proud of the prominent location of the museum.
"It's a statement in itself," Little Bird said. "You see the Capitol, and you see this place, and you'll know this was our land."
From the beginning, Indians have been in charge of the project, and they will serve as curators of the exhibits. As a result, the $110 million museum -- one-third privately raised -- has broad support in the Native American community, from those who work for the federal government to members of the American Indian Movement, which in the 1970s staged radical protests for Indian rights in Washington and Wounded Knee, S.D.
"I just hope [the museum] tells the true story about how we lived before Columbus arrived and that we are not bloodthirsty redskins," said Clyde H. Bellecourt, executive director of AIM. "We have a beautiful history about how we were strong and how we survived."
The museum is to be about as big as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, less than half the size of the Museum of American History.
Its 800,000 artifacts, spanning a 10,000-year history, were collected by George Gustav Heye, a wealthy New Yorker who visited Indian villages in the first half of this century and eagerly acquired garments, tools, weapons and artwork. He built a museum in New York for the objects, and in 1990 the Smithsonian acquired what its curators call the most comprehensive collection of Indian cultural materials in the world.
The new museum won't be able to display the entire collection at once. Parts of it are housed at a new research facility in Suitland and a building in New York. Exhibits also will travel to various tribes for workshops, and the museum will keep up with the evolving culture of modern Indians.
"It's about time we got this recognition," said James Pedro, chairman of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, who brought 130 tribe members to Washington to lobby Congress for the return of tribal land west of Oklahoma City.
"The significance of it is, now we can tell our story," said Allen V. Pinkham Sr., a tribal liaison for the U.S. Forest Service. "No anthropologist, archaeologist, historian is going to do it for us. That is the significance of this institution. This is the changeover after 500 years of suppression."
The white-domed building that overlooks the site is where Congress passed the infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830, which called for pushing the tribes west of the Mississippi. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes General Allotment Act, which led to the appropriation of nearly two-thirds of land still owned by Indians.
More than a century later, Manny Gutierrez, a Cocopah in his mid-thirties from Reading, Pa., felt a little disoriented yesterday as he studied the Capitol dome rising above the speakers' tent. The juxtaposition was just too strange.
"What the hell," he said. "The museum doesn't belong here next to that. Or, that doesn't belong next to the museum, which should have been here long ago."
But soon the two buildings will be separated by only a few hundred yards, and Gutierrez decided that was progress.
David Sloan, 50, an architect and a Navajo, brought his daughter Valerie, 16, all the way from Albuquerque to be present for the ceremony because he felt it was an important moment in Indian history and he wanted Valerie to share it.
To Sloan, it looked almost as if the museum would be in the front yard of the Capitol. "It's kind of like saying we're knocking on the front door," he said. "We're still here. They have to get used to us knocking."
After the ceremony, Harry F. Byrd, 86, a Lakota Sioux, leaned down from his wheelchair to sprinkle tobacco from a Marlboro cigarette on the ground freshly turned by the shovels.
"I don't like to use contaminated tobacco, but this is what we have," he said. Indians traditionally have used tobacco leaves in ground-blessing ceremonies.
Byrd, a resident of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, recalled how the U.S. government forced him and other Indian children to go to a mission school where Native clothing, language and religion were banned.
After blessing the broken ground, Byrd, like several others, scooped up some of the Mall earth to take home as a souvenir.