More than 500 years ago a Chimu Indian living in Peru hammered a sheet of gold into a mask. He gave it two eyes of turquoise.
For centuries, few people have seen this object. But in eight days, visitors will see 8,000 such extraordinary artifacts -- from carved wood paddles to headdresses of macaw feathers -- when the National Museum of the American Indian opens on the Mall. Looking at objects, however, is far from the only experience the visitor will have as this museum dramatically illustrates "a native authority" in its architecture, landscaping, exhibition text and even the food in the cafe.
Perched between the Capitol and the National Air and Space Museum, NMAI is the newest in the Smithsonian Institution's system of 18 museums and the National Zoo. Its creators hope it will attract as many as 6 million visitors a year. It cost $219 million, almost half of which came from private donations.
Expect a departure from the antique museumology of fixed dates and heroes on pedestals. On a 4.5-acre plot, with almost three acres of garden, the Indian touch is everywhere. The skin of the building is Kasota dolomitic limestone from Minnesota. It purposely looks like a natural mass that has been hammered for years by wind and rain, a sign of native unity with nature. The shelves of the two gift shops are inlaid in some places with purple and white tiles crafted from quahog shells by the Wampanoag tribe of Martha's Vineyard.
No other museum in the world has, on such a scale, devoted itself to this fresh and unusual approach to the story of Native Americans. Its planners have created what they call a "museum different" that might make it very hard for museums on the drawing board ever again to tell a story about people from a detached, third-person point of view. The museum is built around native communities expressing their own authentic voices and their own interpretations of events -- part of its mission to change myths and stereotypes.
It rings with "the first-person voice," says Director W. Richard West, a Southern Cheyenne and Stanford-educated Washington corporate lawyer.
"I see the National Museum of the American Indian as a symbol or metaphor for something far more fundamental that sort of transcends the fact that you are opening a museum," West said in a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors. "It is reflective of a turning point in American history where the United States is beginning to reckon with the history in various ways of the first citizens of the hemisphere."
That is a loaded quest for any museum. Every step of the way, the Native American community has been involved in curating the museum. This might be due to the Smithsonian's own history and bruises. The institution learned one lesson about extensive consultation on controversial topics in 1995 when it developed plans to display the Enola Gay on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Veterans and others objected vehemently to the text proposed to accompany the display.
Yet this ambitious undertaking also might be postmodern philosophy struggling with 10,000 years of culture. The museum deliberately rejected interpreting its materials from the anthropological point of view that is the basis of most museums' treatment of Native Americans.
This is a direct slap at the National Museum of Natural History across the Mall, which has collected its extensive Indian materials through the anthropology department. Though the materials there have been striking, the presentations have sometimes treated Indians as objects of inquiry, like gems or elephants.
For years Natural History displayed artifacts in old-fashioned dioramas with mannequins of Indians in sparse hunting gear. As part of its renovation, it has been tearing up those exhibitions. This summer it dismantled the hall in which they resided. It has also returned to tribes many items that had been collected and donated by scientists. One of the most famous was the brain of Ishi, who for years was believed to be the last Yahi-Yana of Northern California. His brain was sent to the Smithsonian by an anthropologist and remained in museum storage for 83 years. It was returned to his kin from other tribes in 2000.
In trying to correct past museum practices, curators and designers of the new museum met with nearly 150 communities from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States. "It is a marker," West says of the scale of involvement. "We are evoking the authentic voices of native peoples themselves in having a look at their own cultures."
What they created, in function and spirit, is a museum, a memorial, a clubhouse and a cathedral. Inside the atrium -- called the Potomac for its proximity to the original riverbed settlements of the Piscataway -- eight prisms reflect the light in surprising arrangements with the grace of a stained-glass window. Its impressive overhang at the front entrance is aimed directly at the U.S. Capitol. What is that message?
West says cultural redemption and reconciliation. Indians, he says, "are a present cultural phenomena, a set of communities, a set of peoples. We want people to understand that, because for much of American history, until rather recently, native communities were relatively invisible. We are still here and making vital contributions to contemporary American culture and art."
The displays don't wallow in the genocide, broken promises and bloody wars of the 19th century, West says. Planners didn't want Native Americans viewed as victims, but as fully dimensional people. Yes, there have been horrors, West says, but they are presented through native voices and treated as part of a long history.
This history is presented from a distinctly native perspective. For example, there is no reference in the entire museum to the scientific hypothesis that Indians came to North America via a land bridge at the Bering Strait, says spokesman Thomas Sweeney. Instead, beliefs such as the ones of the Tohono O'odham of Arizona are expressed. In that view two creators, Earth Medicine Man and I'itoi, produced the world and everything needed for physical, mental and spiritual sustenance, and the Tohono O'odham have been here since the start of time.
In addition, current controversies are addressed, West says. In one gallery there is an examination of casino operations by the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians in California. And yes, there is world-class craftsmanship. Another gallery is devoted to contemporary art. The first temporary exhibit there shows the work of George Morrison, of the Grand Portage Band of the Chippewa, and Allan Houser, a Chiricahua Apache. Along corridor walls are cases full of 3,500 objects, from dolls to baskets to ritual cups.
To mark the opening on Sept. 21, the museum has invited Native Americans to a procession on the Mall. At least 15,000 Indians in ceremonial dress are expected to gather, as well as 600,000 other visitors over the first few days. A six-day festival similar to the Smithsonian's annual summer Folklife Festival will follow the dedication ceremony. The museum initially will remain open for nearly 30 hours straight to accommodate the expected crowds. After that, passes with specific entrance times will be distributed every day, with these free tickets reservable on the Internet. For the opening, however, museum officials have put aside 6,000 tickets for the opening all-nighter on a first-come, first-served basis.
The museum's history dates to discussions that began in 1980 about the fate of a vast collection of Indian materials, the bulk of which was sitting in a cramped warehouse in an out-of-the-way area of the Bronx. The man behind the collection was George Gustav Heye, a rich financier who was a "boxcar collector," stopping at villages, buying up everything in sight and shipping it back to New York. He accumulated the largest private collection of Native American objects in the world. The artifacts include materials from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle.
In 1987, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) introduced a bill to establish a Smithsonian museum based on the Heye collection, but a lot of push and pull between New York and Washington interests ensued. In January 1989, the board of directors of the Heye collection and the Smithsonian regents agreed most of the materials should be transferred to Washington. In May, Inouye, joined shortly by then-Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), introduced legislation to build a National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. In November, President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. Groundbreaking took place in September 1999. To accommodate the size of the collection, the Smithsonian opened a vast research and study center in Suitland that year.
"Without, hopefully, being accused of undue ethnocentrism, I think a case can be made that native America, as the originating element of American heritage, should have been among the first to be acknowledged with a museum on the National Mall -- and yet we arrived last," West said earlier this year.
The large undertaking also provided a model for fundraising, with the government setting goals for the private sector campaign. Three tribes -- the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut and the Oneida Indian Nation of New York, each operators of lucrative casinos -- donated $10 million apiece. Overall, the museum raised $100 million privately. The government contributed $119 million.
Inside the building, the exhibitions cover less than 30 percent of the space. The rest is devoted to other functions, including two theaters, the ceremonial atrium and performance pit, a library center, the gift shops, and a food court serving primarily Indian fare. (If you want typical fast food, stop next door at the Air and Space Museum.) West says the space devoted to displays is similar to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which has large areas for reflection. "I think museums, including ours, have proceeded beyond the point of addressing their visitors as simply being displayers of objects," he says.
Some of the objects they are displaying, nonetheless, certainly are unusual for a Mall museum. Nearly 40 huge "grandfather" rocks are set by a manufactured stream outside the building. These boulders were taken from a quarry in Alma, Quebec, and blessed by the Montagnais First Nations of Quebec before they were loaded on a tractor-trailer. They received a welcome from the Monacan Nation of Virginia when they arrived. Thousands of carefully considered plantings thrive at the site, forming a garden and a wetlands. A family of ducks migrated from the Potomac and settled in, eating the wild rice.
The museum is accessible from the Metro stops at L'Enfant Plaza, the Smithsonian and Federal Center Southwest. Parking is very limited.