EVENT: Museum celebrates 20th anniversary, reaches for the future

Posted on October 17th, 2009 by americanindiannews in Past News

Washington—The first director of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry, ordered his staff in 1846 to document the cultures and languages of American Indians—before they disappeared.

Credit Rochester Institute of Technology Big Shot. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian lit on the exterior by more than 800 people holding flashlights and other light sources.  Click photo for full resolution version.

Credit Rochester Institute of Technology Big Shot. Click photo for full resolution version.

“He was wrong,” Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) told 400 people gathered earlier this month at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian 20th Anniversary Gala.  “Indian tribes are flourishing.”

The black-tie gala in the museum’s Potomac Atrium raised over $450,000 for museum programs, and featured the Arizona California Territorial Bird Singers, the Metis Fiddler Quartet and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Classic rock band InKompliant of Temecula, Calif., rounded out the festivities. Speakers, including Director Kevin Gover, reflected on how unlikely a museum like this one seemed in the 1980s.

“Within the lifetimes of many of us here, the official policy of the United States was the termination of American Indian tribal existence,” said Gover, who took over the museum leadership in December 2007. “And yet, here we sit, in a great institutional center of living Native cultures, just a stone’s throw from the capitol of a mighty nation.”

Inouye and former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, were honored for their role in the founding of the museum, sponsoring legislation that established it on Nov. 28, 1989. The Oct. 7 gala also marked the fifth anniversary of the museum on the National Mall, the 10th anniversary of the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md., and the 15th anniversary of the museum in New York.

Campbell recalled Inouye saying, “‘Washington is a city of monuments, but there is not one for American Indians.’ From the beginning we wanted it to be a living,  breathing place.”

On Sept. 21, 2004, when the museum on the National Mall opened, Campbell remembers being so elated that he danced to the music from a powwow drum on the museum’s plaza.

More than 25,000 Native people marched on the National Mall that day to mark the opening of a museum that would tell the real stories of indigenous America. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, recalled the people walking “hand in hand, in regal procession, whether on cell phones or in wheelchairs, with eagles flying overhead.”

It was a long journey to opening from 1989. Kurin told the celebrants that it was clear from the beginning, “No Quonset hut would do for the collection.”

The world-class collection acquired from the Museum of the American Indian in New York, included 800,000 objects acquired a century earlier by collector George Gustav Heye. The 18th Smithsonian museum would need to be a showcase of American Indian design, and a landmark 400 yards from the U.S. Capitol, a state-of-the-art collections center in Maryland and a museum in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York.

Starting in 1989, founding museum director W. Richard West, Jr., Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho, traveled Indian Country speaking about the vision for this museum which would be like no other.

“I remember listening to Rick in the early 1990s when I was president at Haskell Indian Nations University, and it was hard to imagine what he was talking about,” said Robert Martin, who is Cherokee and the current president of the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. “To see this manifested is a striking tribute to our people.”

The development of the museums took many throughout Indian Country. In attitude, the effort displayed an intellectual resistance to the way Indians have historically been portrayed in America and instead demanded respect.

“This museum was not built only by architects, workers and donors,” Gover said. “It was also built by Native thinkers, Native culture-bearers, and Native artists.”

If the museum’s anniversaries are a milestone, they are also the foundation, he said, for a museum—which like its sibling museums in the Smithsonian Institution—will stand indefinitely in the heart of the nation. The museum’s work is “no less than to change what the world knows about Native peoples of the Americas and Hawaii.”

“We do all this out of a belief that the ancient wisdom of Native peoples, as expressed in contemporary lives,” Gover said, “holds promise not only for continuing the recovery of the tribal nations, but for meeting the challenges facing all of humanity.”

– By Kara Briggs, American Indian News Service

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