National Museum of the American Indian

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Today we tell about the National Museum of the American Indian which opens this week in Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of the American Indian is opening with six days of events celebrating Indian culture. The events begin on Tuesday with a Native Nations Procession. About fifteen thousand people from North, Central and South America are expected to walk along the National Mall and gather for the museum’s opening ceremony. Many will be wearing traditional Native clothing. During the week, more than three hundred performers and artists will present music, dance and storytelling as part of the First Americans Festival.

The new National Museum of the American Indian is part of the Smithsonian Institution, a group of museums operated by the government. It was built on the last open space on the Mall, between the Air and Space Museum and the United States Capitol.

But the National Museum of the American Indian is more than another museum in Washington. It is a gathering place for living cultures. Its goal is to save, study and show the life, languages, history and arts of the Native people of North, Central and South America. One thousand Native communities are represented.

The most important words in the museum’s goal are “living cultures.” This museum shows American Indian objects from the past and also from the present. Native people provide the explanations about the meaning and importance of the objects. Members of these living cultures played an important part in creating the new museum. They also decided which objects to show to the public and how they should be shown.

Visitors can see more than seven thousand objects in the new museum. Some of them are more than ten thousand years old.

These are some of the objects visitors can see in the new Museum of the American Indian: Wood and stone carvings and face coverings from the northwest coast of North America. Clothing and head coverings made of animal skins and feathers from the North American plains. Clay pots, woven baskets and silver jewelry from the southwestern United States.

The collection also includes ancient objects from the Native peoples of the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America.

These include ceramic containers from Costa Rica, Mexico and Peru. Beautifully carved jade objects from the Olmec and Maya peoples. Woven cloths and gold objects from the Andean cultures.

The objects are shown in three permanent exhibits. Through these objects, twenty-four Native communities tell their own stories of who they are. The exhibits are called "Our Universes," "Our Peoples” and “Our Lives.” "Our Universes" explores Native peoples’ theories about the world around them and their spiritual worlds. It contains objects and stories that tell about the values and beliefs of different Native cultures.

In "Our Peoples," several Native communities present their tribal histories. They have chosen the objects, pictures, songs and other materials to tell about their past and their present.

"Our Lives" examines the modern history of several Native communities through their cultural, social and political beliefs.

Richard West has been the director of the Museum of the American Indian since nineteen ninety. He is a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe. Mr. West says the museum will show the success of Native people in keeping their way of life and overcoming pressures against them. He says it “will be a place to show and tell the world who we are and to use our own voices in the telling.”

Mr. West said the museum would not avoid addressing the troubles in American Indian communities since the arrival of colonial powers five hundred years ago. These include broken treaties with Indian tribes, the capture of Native lands and the killing of Native Americans. They also include the poor living conditions on reservations where many Native Americans live today.

Experts say building the museum in the very heart of the nation’s capital represents a kind of cultural justice. It is a sign of a long-delayed cooperation between the people whose ancestors came to this country and the people who were already here.

The National Museum of the American Indian owns about eight hundred thousand objects. They are from the collection of one man, American businessman George Gustav Heye. He spent the first fifty years of the last century gathering American Indian objects. He created one of the largest collections in the world. He collected objects from the far northern Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America. These objects have great artistic, historic and cultural meaning.

In nineteen twenty-two, the Heye Foundation opened a private museum in New York City to show the collection. However, the museum had space to show the public only a small part of the collection. The foundation did not have enough money to expand the museum or to correctly care for the huge number of objects being stored.

After years of negotiations, an agreement was reached to make the Heye Foundation Museum of the American Indian part of the Smithsonian Institution. Congress approved the action in nineteen eighty-nine.

In nineteen ninety-four, the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in the old Custom House in New York City. It is one of the most visited museums in New York. It will continue to offer major exhibits and public programs.

Thomas Sweeney is the head of public relations for the new National Museum of the American Indian. He says tribal representatives from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America were asked for their ideas about the design of the new building. They said the building needed roundness, light and open space, natural materials, water and plants.

The finished design of the museum includes all this. It is beautiful and unusual. It looks like no other building in Washington. The museum covers only about twenty-five percent of the two hectares of land that surrounds it. It fits into the setting on the Mall, yet it shows traditional American Indian values.

The outside wall is made of different size blocks of sand-colored limestone. It looks like waves of stone. The wall seems to flow as if formed by wind and water. Glass window areas provide light and a connection between inside and out.

The main entrance to the museum faces east and the rising sun, like the doorway in a traditional American Indian home. About thirty thousand trees and plants native to the area surround the building. The grounds recreate four traditional environments of Native peoples: A hardwood forest. Lowland freshwater wetlands. Eastern grassy meadows. And traditional croplands where beans, corn and squash will be grown.

Water is very much a part of the building’s surroundings. It flows over and around rocks. There are more than forty huge rocks from Canada called Grandfather Rocks. They show the respect of Native Americans for ancient things that existed in the area long before people arrived.

Visitors to the National Museum of the American Indian enter a large central circular space. It has a rounded top more than thirty-three meters high that is similar to the dome of the nearby Capitol building. This area is called Potomac, which in the Native local language means “where the goods are brought in.”

Live demonstrations like boatbuilding, storytelling, music, and dance will take place here. The public will experience the living traditions and skills of Native people.

One of the most important parts of the new National Museum of the American Indian is called the Fourth Museum. This is not a physical structure. It is the Community Services office, a link between the museum and Native communities throughout the Americas.

Native people have been employed to work with individuals, communities and organizations to develop museum programs. They have created traveling exhibits, educational materials and an Internet Web site. The address is americanindian.si.edu. The National Museum of the American Indian will use these to inform people around the world about the living Native cultures of the Americas.

Our program was written by Marilyn Christiano and Shelley Gollust. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. We leave you now with a Lakota Sioux Indian song, “Heart is Sad, The Morning Song.”