WASHINGTON, D.C. - Thousands of American Indians, including about 20 members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, wended their way along the National Mall in Washington, D. C., Tuesday in a processional celebrating the opening of the Smithsonian Institution's newest attraction - the National Museum of the American Indian.
"It was phenomenal," said Bobbie Conner, director of Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Mission, of the processional and opening ceremony. Conner joined Tribal elders Lea Conner (Bobbie Conner's mother) and Cecelia Bearchum, and several staff members from TCI and Tribal government, including Board of Trustees Chairman Antone Minthorn.
"The processional started at the west end of the Mall and traveled to the east end, just before the Capitol," she said.
Because the procession was in alphabetical order, considering the Eastern Oregon tribe a "C" for Confederated, Conner said the group was seated close to the stage and didn't need to rely on the several jumbotron televisions to view the ceremonies.
Because the Conners, Bearchum and Marcus Luke of the Confederated Umatilla Journal had been able to see the museum on Monday, Conner said the speeches at the official opening Tuesday were more memorable than they would have been.
The museum, which celebrates all indigenous people of the Americas, is a five-story complex crafted of rough-hewn limestone. The building is made up of curves and is cleverly landscaped to honor the native tribes. The grounds, called the Native Landscape, make up 74 percent of the site and include a meadow, crops, woods, wetlands, grandfather rocks, 700 trees and more than 33,000 individual plants.
Conner said people lined the mall Tuesday morning to pay respect to the Indians in the procession as well as those on the dais. Among those speaking at the opening ceremony were Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo Manrique and Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Rick West, the museum's director. Conner said Manrique is the first indigenous person to be elected to lead Peru in that nation's modern democratic history.
Following the ceremony, the museum opened to the public, which was quick to line up to see nearly a million Native American artifacts and to take in the other features of the new facility.
In addition to those permanent displays, the site also has a light show. Liquid-filled crystal prisms catch the sun's rays and reflect the spectrum into the entry hall, a fire-pit equipped cafe, and three main shows titled "Our Universes," "Our Peoples," and "Our Lives."
The museum, which collaborated with a number of tribes in its inception, also has master Indian boat builders constructing full-size boats from birch-bark canoes to dugouts in the entry hall. Unlike other museums, it will loan even its most delicate pieces to tribal members for ceremonies.
The museum has instituted a strict policy on human remains, sacred objects or any holdings that have been acquired illegally. Such objects will be returned to groups able to demonstrate a cultural affiliation or factual claim to them.
"It's a fabulous facility," Conner said. She found the orientation theater the most moving. "What you're seeing appears over your head in the dome as well as on the centerpiece, which is like a stone and three screens in the middle."
The museum, which is just south of the Capitol Building, is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Christmas. For information online, go to news.nationalgeographic.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
National Museum of the American Indian
Location: Fourth Street and Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. On the National Mall between the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol Building.
Size: The five-story building has 250,000 square feet of floor space. With grounds it occupies 4.25 acres.
Exhibits: Nearly one million tribal objects and art are housed in the museum and more are stored in a Maryland warehouse, some as much as 10,000 years old and coming from more than a thousand indigenous cultures in the Americas and from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America.
Admission: Free. Timed-entry passes are required and are available on the same day of entry at the museum, or in advance for a fee through tickets.com.
Cost of construction: $214 million. An estimated $95 million was raised privately, including $33 million from tribes. The rest was funded by the government.