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Indian Museum Holds Groundbreaking

By Libby Blake

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A groundbreaking ceremony held Sept. 28 marked the start of construction of the 270,000-square-foot Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Located on the last available site on the prestigious National Mall, the nation’s newest national museum will present contemporary and traditional stories of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere from their own perspectives.

Scheduled to be open in late 2002, the museum will be a showcase for tribes to tell their stories in their own words and through tribal objects. The museum has the world’s largest collection, more than 800,000 pieces, of American Indian artifacts.

The museum will be built on a four-acre site adjacent to the Air and Space Museum and directly across from the Capitol. "This prized and symbolic location will add significant weight and emphasis to what many call ‘the museum different,’ states W. Richard West, Founding Director of the Museum and a Southern Cheyenne Indian."

Approximately six million visitors a year will experience three inaugural exhibitions: Our Universes, Our People, and Our Lives, are programs that will focus on the more than 1,000 diverse Native communities from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.

To begin the extensive process of tribal consultations, workshops, and other means of presenting tribal perspectives, the Museum’s curatorial staff began meetings last summer with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. This process will continue until some 40 nations collaborate to present their stories.

The design for the museum is an abstraction of sculptural landforms found in nature. The museum’s Native references and design came directly from 23 consultations with tribal elders and other Native peoples in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Billy L. Cypress, Executive Director of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, served as a consultant and is currently serving a three-year term on the museum’s Board of Trustees.

"Soon the historic and contemporary voices and accomplishments of Native peoples will be heard and understood by visitors to the remarkable museum we are about to construct," states W. Richard West. "Creating the National Museum of the American Indian on our National Mall is an endeavor that has profound meaning and symbolism to many people worldwide."

From a flourishing Native population of 6-9 million people at the time of initial contact with Europeans in the late fifteenth century, the attrition of war and disease had reduced the number to barely 250,000 by 1900. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also politically and culturally devastating to Native communities in the U.S. as well as elsewhere in the hemisphere.

Against this troubling and tragic historical backdrop, or perhaps in spite of it, the National Museum of the American Indian will rise as an international institution of living cultures. It will also offer the proof that annihilation, forced assimilation and de-culturalization by the federal government did not succeed.

Nothing summarizes this better than the museum’s mission statement:

‘The National Museum of the American Indian shall recognize and affirm to Native Communities and the non-Native public the historical and contemporary culture and cultural achievements of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere by advancing, in consultation, collaboration, and cooperation with Native peoples, knowledge and understanding of Native cultures, including art, history, and language, and by recognizing the Museum’s special responsibility, through innovative public programming, research, and collections, to protect, support, and enhance the development, maintenance, and perpetuation of Native culture and community.

"As a museum of living cultures, the National Museum of the American Indian hopes to change forever the way people view the Hemisphere’s first citizens - primarily by erasing the mindless and often harmful stereotypes that frequently haunt Native peoples," states Mr. West.

The following is from a fact sheet circulated to the press at the groundbreaking ceremony:

The centerpoint of the Potomac (the large central rotunda space) and the front doors of the building align perfectly with the U.S. Capital.

The birth date of the museum, the summer solstice of 2002, is illustrated in the paving pattern of the Outdoor Welcoming Area.

The primary exterior cladding material is Kasota stone (limestone) from Minnesota. The stone will vary in size, coursing and surface treatment giving the building the appearance of a stratified stone mass carved by wind and water.

The building covers more than a quarter of the site; the remaining 74 percent constitutes reconstructed natural habitats.

The museum will house a 300-seat theater, a 120-seat outdoor performance space, three 49-seat conference rooms, two 50-seat education workshops, and a board room that accommodates 25-30 people.

Tiber Creek, a tidal creek that originally ran through the site when the National Mall was a swamp, still exists - running through an eight-foot diameter underground tunnel at the site.

Funding for the museum came from legislation passed in Congress in 1989. Strong support for annual appropriations thereafter came from Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

The former Secretary of the Smithsonian, Bob Adams, who headed the Institution at the time Congress created the Museum stated, "Looking forward as well as backward, I have no doubt that the launching of the National Museum of the American Indian represents a fundamental turning point for the Smithsonian. It begins to correct a vast wrong and all the myths and stereotypes with which we surrounded it in order to hide it - or at least not to have to confront it ourselves."

It envisions a partnership of a new and unprecedented kind - with those whose history and culture, once torn away from them, will now be represented only with their full complicity. It creates a model of a dialogue with wider relevance than any in which we have participated, ending the separation between specialists as embodiments of authority and a passive audience, and leading in the direction of a museum without walls.

It saves for posterity a magnificent collection that will lead the world to look at the cultural and artistic achievements of Native Americans with new and admiring eyes.

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