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Indian museum finds a home on the National Mall

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Click to enlarge
The new National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., won't open for another week but the National Mall is already teeming with activity in advance of the big launch.

Scheduled to open September 21, the museum is attracting a steady flow of curious visitors who are drawn to one of the most unique sites on the Mall. The striking limestone design, flowing water features and large outdoor seating area are hard to resist. A group of ducks has already made its home in the pond.

Nearby, work crews are busy putting up stages, tents and other structures that are part of the First Americans Festival. The week-long event features musical acts, cultural demonstrations and Native arts and foods from September 21-26.

The goal, said NMAI director Rick West, is to show that Native people and their cultures are still going strong more than 500 years after European contact. In remarks at the National Press Club in Washington last Thursday, he said the museum is a tribute to the 35 million American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other indigenous people who make their home in the Western Hemisphere.

"The NMAI intends to affirm, in exhibition and public program, this cultural vitality and continuance," he said. "At the time of the museum's opening itself, some 300 Native performing artists, dancers, singers, storytellers and other community cultural experts from throughout the hemisphere will join us ... in literal demonstration of the fact that we are very much among the living."

The opening day will feature what West has called the single largest gathering of Native people in Washington in history. Upwards of 20,000 people representing more than 400 tribes and indigenous communities will take part in the Native Nations Procession.

From 9:30 a.m. until noon, the participants will walk down the Mall, starting at the Smithsonian Castle and ending at the dedication site next to the museum. The procession will be led by West and Lawrence M. Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian.

The procession is making four stops on its way down the Mall. Each stop is representative of the four cardinal directions and will feature a short musical performance from four Native groups. The first, representing West, will be Hawaiian music by Haulau o Kekuhi.

From there, the procession will split into two groups, one led by West and the other by Small. The 2nd music stop, representing South, will be Andes Manta from Ecuador. The 3rd stop, representing North, will be the Alaska Native group Pamyua. The 4th stop, representing Easter, is the Six Nations Women Singers.

The first wave of procession participants is set to reach the site of the dedication ceremony at 10:30 a.m. They will be guided to the seating area, whose background is framed by the U.S. Capitol building.

The ceremony will then begin at noon. To last one hour, it will feature remarks by West, Small and Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who were instrumental in the legislation that created the museum. President George W. Bush is not scheduled to attend although another head of state, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, who is Indian, will speak at the ceremony.

The seating area has room for more than 10,000 people. Two large video screens on either side of the stage will broadcast the ceremony.

The museum will finally open to the public at 1 p.m. Entrance requires a timed-entry pass, all of which are sold out for the opening day. But passes are not required from midnight until 7 a.m. on September 22. Reservations for other times can be made at

The First Americans Festival officially kicks off after the opening and will run from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., a concert with Buffy Sainte Marie, Lila Downs, Rita Coolidge and Indigenous will start with comedian Charlie Hill as the emcee. The concert is expected to end around 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m.

Other opening day events include a Social Dance sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians and the American Indian Society of Washington. From 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., cultural performances and presentations will take place at a site near the Hirshorn Museum's Sculpture Garden on the Mall.

Museum staff held a logistics briefing last Wednesday to give an overview of the day's events. Preparations for the procession begin at 5:30 a.m. on September 21, when participants are will start lining up at the Smithsonian Castle.

Staff warned participants to be aware of street closings near the Mall. Due to national security concerns, law enforcement have set up checkpoints at various points around the Capitol. Several streets will be shut down starting at 9:30 a.m. on the day of the opening. They will generally reopen in mid-afternoon to account for rush hour traffic.

Staff also warned of extra security measures at the Mall. For the July 4 festivities, each person was subject to a short search. A fence is already in place around the perimeter of the Mall.

As of last week, a decision had not been made on the level of security on the opening day. "We usually release the information a week ahead of time so that people can be prepared," said Agent Scott Fear of the U.S. Capitol Police.

More information on additional events taking place throughout the week can be found at
. NCAI is holding a rally at the Capitol on Wednesday morning featuring a number of members of Congress. NCAI is also hosting two luncheons, on Wednesday and Thursday, with prominent Native leaders, at the National Press Club.

Relevant Links:
National Museum of the American Indian -