Conner watches history unfold from museum balcony

<p>Smithsonian NMAI photo Bobbie Conner wore traditional dress at a post-inaugural ball at the National Museum of the American Indian.</p>

Bobbie Conner remembers being chilled, but thrilled, during the swearing in of President Barack Obama.

Conner, director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, stood on a fifth-floor deck of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, training her binoculars on the president as he raised his right hand.

Conner’s breath froze in the cold air as Obama’s words reverberated off buildings in the National Mall. She could have viewed the ceremony through glass and listened on a large monitor inside, but she shrugged off the notion.

“I’ve never seen an inauguration in person before,” Conner said. “It was once in a lifetime.”

Her perch was almost three football fields away — definitely too far to tell if Beyonce was lip syncing, she cracked. But, Conner could see all the players and history unroll before her in miniature.

She marveled at the security. The museum sat only 300 yards from the Capitol’s west steps so at least one Secret Service agent roamed the building. A large swath of an area encompassing the mall was cordoned off — spectators walked through metal detectors and past dogs. Security teams watched from “every rooftop in sight.”

“You are acutely aware of how complex the logistics are to protect our president,” Conner said.

Since the museum was one of the buildings located closest to the ceremony, the Secret Service had closed it to the public. Only the 700-or-so VIPs invited to the museum’s inaugural gala could enter. Conner, who chairs NMAI’s Board of Trustees, had traveled to D.C. to help with the post-inauguration bash and attend several meetings.

As the inauguration finished, Conner turned her attention to the gala. The black-tie affair spilled into most levels of the sprawling museum with food and beverages, entertainment, dancing and exhibits. The music of American Indian singers such as Martha Redbone wafted through the building.

Conner circulated among the guests wearing traditional dress — buckskin, leggings, moccasins, otter furs, feathers and beads. Her photo would land on page six of the Washington Post’s style section the next day.

Conner travels to Washington D.C. periodically to attend to museum business. She said the Indian museum is the brainchild of Sen. Daniel Inouye, who died in December at age 88. Though of Japanese descent, he championed Indian Country, Conner said.

“He said ‘in a city full of monuments, there is not one that represents American Indians,’” Conner said. “He knew our people, especially the veterans, had made great sacrifices for this country.”

The museum, which opened in 2004, showcases the history and contemporary contributions of indigenous peoples through North America, South America, Central America, including Inouye’s home turf — Hawaii.

“The museum sits at the threshold to the nation’s capitol,” Conner said. “I want it to do a stellar job of representing our indigenous peoples … and paying homage to our ancestors, who made it possible for us to be here today.”

The gala doubled as a fundraiser. Conner estimated gross proceeds at around $1 million.

D.C. holds a special place in Conner’s heart. She gravitates there on business just as her grandfather did decades ago. The elder Conner, an elected official of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and a World War I Navy veteran, traveled by train to the capitol to weigh in on issues and legislation affecting American Indians or to interpret for others.

“During these trips to Washington D.C., the leaders passed a hat to raise travel money, lived meagerly and took dried meat and fish with them,” she said. “They stayed in the same room and kept themselves to one or two meals a day.”

Her grandfather was often on her mind as Conner navigated her busy D.C. schedule.

“When I go there, I think about my grandfather,” Conner said.

Her grandfather, she said, would have loved the inauguration.


Contact Kathy Aney at or 541-966-0810.

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