New Indian museum tells Chicago tale

With only about 32,000 in the Chicago area, Indians often seem invisible  here. But they'll play a starring role in a new national museum opening  in Washington this year.

The aim of the Smithsonian's $200 million National Museum of the  American Indian is to describe not only the past but reflect the
present. Chicago is used to illustrate the Indian urban experience, an acknowledgment that the majority of Native Americans now live in cities.

Of the 4.3 million Americans who identify themselves as Indians, some 66 percent reside in metropolitan regions, a change from 1990 when most lived in rural areas, according to the U.S. Census.

Though Chicago is only the eighth largest city in terms of Indian population, "it's a very significant one with deep historical roots,'' said Richard West, director of the D.C. museum that will open Sept. 21.

West, 61, a Stanford-educated attorney from the Cheyenne tribe, said curators focused on life at the American Indian Center, 1630 W. Wilson, because it is the oldest urban social service agency for natives in the United States.

Founded 50 years ago, the center runs job training, after-school classes and tutorials for teachers on educating kids about Native Americans.

West, in town Tuesday to speak at the Chicago Historical Society and visit the Uptown center, said one of the goals of the new museum is to emphasize that the Native American culture was not wiped out by John Wayne.

While there were probably twice the number of Indians in North America at the time of Columbus than there are now, the population today is eight times higher than recorded by the Census at the beginning of the 20th Century, he said.

Some of those numbers reflect what he calls a "profound cultural renaissance'' among Indians, where ethnic pride has replaced, for some, reluctance to identify oneself as a Native American.

George Gustav Heye never saw an Indian artifact he didn't like. Starting with a deerskin shirt he bought in 1897 from a Navajo woman in Kingman, Ariz., Heye obsessively accumulated about 800,000 objects. The rich son of a petroleum baron, Heye bought headdresses and cradle boards, baskets and beads. Criticized by some as a hoarder, praised by others as a preserver, he died in 1957. His trove is the core of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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