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

Download this article as a Word document

Comments are closed.

More News


FOOD: Let’s eat: The executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe whips up a cookbook

FOOD: Let’s eat: The executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe whips up a cookbook

Washington, D.C.—Chocolate, chiles, tomatoes, blueberries and corn are just a ...

RECIPE: Mitsitam Cafe buffalo and duck burger

Buffalo and duck burger topped with roasted pepper, Dijonaise sauce ...

RECIPE: Mitsitam Cafe’s Mexican hot chocolate warms up cool summer nights

When the summer sun gives way to cool nights, chef ...

RECIPE: As cherries blossom, a taste of summer

Cherries pair with the earth and sea in this favorite ...

RECIPE: Chocolate’s indigenous history makes spicy tale

Washington—Chocolate is a flavor as old and varied as the ...

Readers' Favorites

CULTURE: Children step up as culture-bearers

CULTURE: Children step up as culture-bearers

Washington, D.C.—Kelly Church, a weaver of black ash baskets, is ...

EXHIBITION: Quileute separate fact from fiction for ‘Twilight’ fans

Seattle, Wash.—The Seattle Art Museum opened an exhibition of some ...

ART: One man’s interest helps save ancient art

Dennis White, 63, an Ojibwe mathematics scholar from the Lac ...

ARTS: Jungen’s farfetched animals stretch the imagination

Washington—Artist Brian Jungen’s oversized animals have invaded the Smithsonian’s National ...


MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music

MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music

R. Carlos Nakai’s new album “Dancing into Silence,” (with William ...

MUSIC: Sky’s the limit for blues musician Derek Miller

Washington, D.C.—Derek Miller stepped onto an international stage in early ...

MUSIC: Jazz sax in a Native key

New York—Cherokee saxophone player and bandleader Sharel Cassity has a ...

MUSIC: Native American school band rocks the oldies – and the ancients

Ten years ago Kim Cournoyer answered an ad seeking a ...

MUSIC: Roots of the blues go deep into shared Native and African American history

Jimi Hendrix meteorically rose to rock-and-roll fame playing, smashing and ...


PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)

PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)

Washington, D.C.—Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, ...

MOVIES: Big and blue, ‘Avatar’ with Wes Studi comes to DVD

Cherokee movie star Wes Studi is no stranger to standing ...

Movies: Native film star tells of his hero’s journey, on and offscreen

For Wes Studi, playing a character confronting colonial powers while ...

People: Unsung hero has a million books he’d like you to check out

Irving Nelson has had a desk in the director’s office ...

Museum: Seeds of understanding accompany interns into wider fields of work

Washington, D.C.— As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American ...

Online Exhibitions

ARTS: Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

ARTS: Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

Rick Bartow’s sculpture “From the Mad River to the Little ...

Exhibition: “A Song for the Horse Nation” gallops into museum and onto the

The exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation” recently made ...

Fritz Scholder continues to stir, stretch boundaries of Indian art

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian recently held ...

U.S. Postal Service delivers a tiny timeline of Native America

Washington—Stamps have carried art portraying Native Americans all over the ...