Thousands of Native Americans, many in full tribal regalia, converged on the Mall yesterday to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, a colorful, emotional and triumphant milestone in their long-standing quest for national recognition.

In fringed ceremonial dresses, skirts jingling with ornamentation and headdresses that told the stories of their people, representatives of more than 400 tribes formed a procession that started at the Smithsonian Castle. For more than two hours, they filed up both sides of the Mall before ending at the site of the dedication near the foot of the Capitol.

"To all our Native American friends here today, I say: 'The sacred hoop has been restored. The circle is complete,' " Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in headdress and buckskin jacket, told the crowd. "The reemergence of the native people has come true."

On a cloudless, sun-splashed day, the dedication and procession were the focal points of an event that organizers said drew 55,000 spectators, in addition to 25,000 Native Americans, to the Mall. The festivities included the opening of the museum to the general public, the beginning of a six-day First Americans Festival on the Mall between Third and Seventh streets NW and an evening concert featuring Native American performers.

But the emotional high point was the procession, which brought together tribes and native communities from across the Western Hemisphere -- everyone from the Chickaloon Native Village of Alaska to the San Carlos Apache tribe of Arizona to the Tapirape of Brazil -- in a dazzling display of elaborate, colorful native costumes and a cacophony of drums.

After a Hawaiian musician on the balcony of the Smithsonian Castle blew a conch shell horn at 9:30 a.m., the procession moved along the Mall toward the morning sun, past crowds of spectators that stood as many as 10 deep in some places.

Over and over, tribal members said it was the largest native gathering in which they had participated. And the significance, they said, was only magnified by the geography, on the same hallowed terrain as the Washington Monument and memorials saluting everyone from Abraham Lincoln to veterans of World War II and Vietnam.

"This is the greatest thing to happen to Indian people in 500 years," said Nate Mayfield, 60, a Cherokee chiropractor from Colorado, wearing a deerskin shirt and pants and moccasins. "Since the beginning, we have been shoved around and killed and shut out, and this is a symbol of our survival."

Harlan Bearhand, 51, a member of the Arizona-based Gila River Indian community, said it was difficult not to think about the atrocities that Indians have suffered over the past five centuries.

"This was our land, and they came and took it without asking," he said after arriving at the Mall carrying a suitcase packed with the buckskin shirt and loincloth that he planned to wear. "They slaughtered a lot of people who didn't need to be slaughtered."

But, he said: "That was yesterday. I have to look forward to tomorrow. They have finally allowed the American Indian to be part of the history of this country."

Bearhand said he eagerly anticipated visiting the $219 million museum, a curving, sand-colored edifice designed to resemble a windswept southwestern rock formation. When the dedication ceremony ended, a stream of visitors headed for its entrance.

Mariah Cuch, 28, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah, was among the earliest visitors, peering over the edge of a walkway on the fourth floor and staring at the flow of tourists, Native Americans and Smithsonian staff members below.

From her spot, Cuch had a breathtaking top-down view of the 120-foot-high atrium called the Potomac. Surrounding her were the white spiraling stairwells of the museum, and down below was the Potomac's wide wooden circle, in the center a disk of red granite.

"It's very humbling," said Cuch, in a blue-toned beaded buckskin dress. She wore a beret of beads in the shape of a hummingbird on one side of her head and white eagle feathers in her hair.

As she spoke, she turned her back to a jewelry exhibit to take in the view of the people streaming in. "Life and culture is not about an object or even a building," she said. "It's about the people. . . . You can stand here and look at the movement of people and it's like blood. . . . The blood coming into it, and bringing it alive."

Just after sunrise, tribal representatives had started lining up for the ceremonial procession, assembling outside the Smithsonian Castle, where sprawling white tents were erected for men and women to change into ceremonial garb.

Daphine Strickland, 59, a member of the North Carolina-based Lumbee Tuscarora tribe, rested on a park bench with two friends as she waited. She said she left her husband at home and drove all night to participate.

"I wouldn't have missed this for anything," she said, wearing a beaded headband and a cotton and velvet ceremonial dress. "This represents a healing, a coming together. We have survived a holocaust in the Americas, and the story has not been told. This is the beginning of telling that story."

Following the conch horn blast, Campbell and Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small led the procession toward the Capitol, while clusters of journalists -- some from as far away as Russia -- jostled to keep up.

Sprawling crowds of spectators lined the route, many shooting videotape and snapping away with disposable cameras.

"Hello to you," a spectator called from Jefferson Drive as Carol Parra, 44, of the Arizona-based Gila River community passed with a dozen or so members of her tribe.

"Top of the morning!" another man called out.

Parra smiled. "It's wonderful to see so many people who are happy to see us," she said. "What a cool feeling."

The sentiment seemed to be shared by the spectators, many of them non-Native Americans who took off the morning from work or school to watch. Officials reported no traffic or Metro problems, despite the closing of several thoroughfares. Metro ridership was heavier than usual.

"When are you ever going to see something like this again?" asked Susan Magee, 59, of Adams Morgan, a hypnotherapist and retired federal policy analyst, as she stood near Jefferson Drive.

Small presided over the dedication ceremony, which began with the Hopi honor guard performing a tribute for Pvt. Lori A. Piestewa, a member of the Hopi nation who was killed in Iraq, the first Native American woman to die in an overseas battle for the United States.

Speakers included Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who with Campbell sponsored the 1989 legislation passed by Congress that mandated the museum's construction. It is the Smithsonian's 18th museum and the first on the Mall since 1987.

Inouye told the crowd that nearly two decades ago he made a discovery about the nation's capital that inspired him to propose the creation of a museum.

"I couldn't believe that out of 400 statues and monuments, there was not one for the Native American," he said. "This monument to the first American is long overdue."

Alejandro Toledo, president of Peru, and W. Richard West Jr., the museum's director and a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, also addressed the crowd. President Bush sent greetings that were delivered by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Chicasaw nation.

Then the festival began, as crowds watched performances by singers and storytellers and lined up at food concession stands selling everything from Indian tacos to sweet potato fries.

In a tent devoted to craftsmen making musical instruments, Rock Pipestem, 32, a member of the Norman, Okla-based Otoe-Missouria/Osage tribe, started on a 15-inch high drum as a small crowd formed around his booth.

A drum can take as long as three weeks to make, but Pipestem said he could complete it by tomorrow, particularly with so much unaccustomed attention.

"This is giving me an adrenaline rush," he said. "I'm going to get this baby done."

From the dedication, the crowds streamed toward the museum's entrance, where a line of people had formed. The museum remained open overnight and will not close until 5:30 p.m. today.

But some had made sure they wouldn't have to stand in an overnight line. Lance Kimmel, a lawyer from Los Angeles, was among those at the front, clutching VIP passes he had obtained for having made a $500 contribution to the museum.

"We got our tickets eight months ago," he said. "We've been waiting a long time."

Standing just inside the entrance, Glynn Crooks, 53, vice chairman of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux community of Prior Lake, Minn., leaned his head back to gaze up toward the top of the 120-foot atrium.

"Awesome," he said before wandering off to see the exhibits.

Staff writers Steve Ginsberg and Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, holding flag, and Secretary of the Smithsonian Lawrence Small lead the procession to the museum's dedication.Apache Mountain Spirit Dancers from San Carlos, Ariz., bless spectators while performing on the Mall. The First Americans Festival will feature myriad performances through the week.Larry Dick, left, of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Ore., and Joseph Vasquez of the Yakama tribe, try out a digital camera. Ojibwa Indian Cody Blue, 16, of Wisconsin checks out an American bald eagle after the procession of tribes and native communities from across the Western Hemisphere.Kauilani Almeida, left, Keola Owong and others drape ti leaves over a stone from Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii as part of a farewell ceremony. The stone is on loan to the museum.Among the museum's earliest visitors was Mariah Cuch, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah, taking in the view of the museum's 120-foot-high atrium called the Potomac.