"Spirit Lodge;"  The Indian Museum Storage Facility Feels Less Like a Warehouse
The Washington Post


The dancing is what Lucille Bell remembers most. Two years ago, Bell -- a member of the Haida Indian tribe -- left her home on an island off the coast of British Columbia and journeyed east to visit museums with large collections of her tribe's materials. She and the other members of the Haida Repatriation Committee went first to New York, where the bones of 48 Haidas at the American Museum of Natural History were returned to them. They took the opportunity to examine the other Haida materials in the collection as well. But when they asked for permission to dance ceremonially with some of their people's treasures, the museum's reaction was disappointing. 'It was 'No way,' ' Bell recalls.

Then they bused down to Washington to view the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. At the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, where NMAI's collection is maintained, staffers didn't appear nervous as Bell and her companions looked over some of the more than 1,600 Haida objects stored there. When the question of dancing came up, they were directed to the light-filled 'welcome space' at the CRC entrance, with its lustrous mahogany floor and its cherry wood columns marking the four cardinal directions: east, west, north and south. 

The Haida performed there for may be an hour with masks, rattles and regalia from the collection. Museum people watched approvingly and, when invited, joined in. Why not? They'd said from the beginning that NMAI would be a different kind of museum. Wasn't dancing with the Haida exactly what being different meant? 

What most people know about the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian's newest large-scale venture, is that it is putting up a building on the National Mall.  The dramatic, curvilinear structure nearing completion next to the National Air and Space Museum will be NMAI's main exhibition venue. Its Sept. 21 opening, with the six-day festival that is to follow, is shaping up as a very big deal. It is expected to draw celebrants from all over the hemisphere, for whom the opening represents a triumphant moment in the history of the diverse peoples misnamed by Christopher Columbus in 1492.

The new museum, Smithsonian officials say, will offer a prominent space in which Indian stories can be told -- from their point of view, for once. And its emphasis on contemporary native peoples and cultures is intended to make an essential point often overlooked by the descendants of the European colonists who overran and nearly extinguished them: We're still here.

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