An explosion of culture

Oct. 7, 2004, midnight | By Betsy Costillo | 16 years, 3 months ago

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian comes to Blair's backyard

Three women sit outside on a stage, their long, black hair flowing down the backs of their intricately beaded and feathered ceremonial dresses. Drum in hand, one woman begins beating a slow, steady rhythm, and soon the other two join in, faster and louder. Suddenly all three open their mouths and cry out in a piercing chant that echoes through the hearts of the audience.

The women, who form the American Indian musical group Ulali, raise their voices in song to honor the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2004.

What will distinguish this museum from all others is its rich cultural and interactive atmosphere. "We want to convey a history of living cultures, instead of just cultures from the past," explains Design and Fundraising Director Judy Kirpich. "The museum will feature music, dancing, storytelling and cooking, not just exhibitions behind glass cases."

On the museum's opening day, more than 300 American Indian artists representing over 30 American Indian nations performed directly after the Grand Opening Ceremony. Beginning at 8:00 a.m., the six-day First Americans Festival featured an explosion of culture, from the greasy, right-off-the-griddle frybread of the Onondaga Nation in North America to the calypso and jazz rhythms of the Caribbean Kuna tribe.

"Seeing so many nations and tribes together is a once-in-a-lifetime event that I never thought I would live to see," says museum festival participant Quietwolf Chin of the Cherokee Nation. "To see that a scattered people can unite and come together for a common cause is unbelievably powerful."

Five stages and two pavilions, as well as a marketplace, café and dance circle, housed the day's cultural events. The dance circle featured groups that performed various traditional dance styles and encouraged audience participation. Handmade American Indian crafts, ranging from the intricately woven baskets of the Amazon to the hand-carved antlers of Alaska, were sold at over 20 booths at the First Americans Festival Marketplace.

For most of the American Indians present at the celebration, the museum and its opening festivities are more than just a collection of art and a ceremony of heritage; they symbolize a country's awakening awareness to the political and cultural problems of the First People, according to Karayani McDonald of the Taino nation. "We are finally being honored as a people and as a family," explains McDonald. "The time has come to let the world know that we're still here; we've never left and we never will leave."

Blair Cultural Anthropology teacher David Whitacre plans to take his class on a field trip to the NMAI on Friday, Oct. 8 after the crowds from the initial festivities thin.

Senior Robert Duncan, who attended the Grand Opening festivities, feels that the museum heralds a new era for the American Indians, both culturally and politically. "As of now," explains Duncan, "the American Indian people are forced to live on reservations in third-world country conditions. The NMAI will increase awareness and shed new light on the mistreatment of the American Indian people."

The museum not only embodies the whole of the American Indian people, according to Dennis Redmoon of the Cherokee nation, but also serves as a "long overdue, beautiful event that reminds the country of the ever-growing presence of the Native American."

The NMAI stands as a memorial to the First People of America and a symbol of their reconciliation with those who took their land from them, according to the NMAI web site, The museum itself, whose unique design suggests a natural rock formation, features collections the Smithsonian brought from the original Museum of the American Indian in New York, as well as pieces that until now were in storage in the Bronx, according to Kirpich. The artifacts include materials of cultural, historical and aesthetic value, such as painted hides from the North American Plains and ceramics from Costa Rica, as well as spiritual artifacts.

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