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Museum opening allows focus on top tribal issues

When the new National Museum of the American Indian opens in Washington, D.C., next week, Native culture won't be the only attraction.

Several tribal organizations are taking advantage of the opening to draw attention to the myriad of issues facing American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other indigenous people in the United States. Public forums and meetings on sovereignty, treaty rights, gaming, economic development and health care will be held throughout the entire week.

The goal, according to Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, is to show that Native culture isn't the only thing that has survived more than 500 years after European contact. So have the tribal governments themselves.

"We hope the general public can see the reality of tribal nations as the thriving governments and successful communities with flourishing cultures and traditions that we are today," Johnson, a Tlingit from Alaska, said in a statement.

In hopes of meeting that goal, NCAI, the largest inter-tribal organization, is holding a series of events featuring prominent Native leaders and members of Congress. A rally on the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, the day after the opening, two National Press Club luncheons and briefings on legislation are planned.

The National Indian Gaming Association, which represents more than 160 tribes, is also making its case at the National Press Club. The organization hopes to show how the $16 billion and growing Indian gaming industry has been a "success story."

Even federal agencies are using the week to raise awareness. The Indian Health Service, for one, is sponsoring a two-day summit on reducing health disparities affective Native Americans.

Not that the museum is shying from these issues, which for many tribes are all related. Rick West, the director of NMAI, said the museum, while a "cultural institution" foremost, will rely on Native people themselves to emphasize what's important.

"We focus primarily on making sure Native communities are self-defined and self-determined and that they have a voice in presenting themselves," he said in remarks at the National Press Club last week.

For the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians of California, one of the tribes featured in the "Our Lives" exhibition, that means highlighting gaming. "There's no question it's had a dramatic economic impact," West said of the tribe's casino. "Unemployment itself probably fell by 50 points as a result of setting up that casino operation."

One political issue that Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who passed the legislation creating the museum, had hoped to address in time for the grand opening is an apology resolution on behalf of the United States. Sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), it would apologize for the government's "official depredations and ill-conceived policies" towards Native peoples.

The bill appeared to be on a fast track for approval at the beginning of the summer but was sidetracked due to concerns raised by some senators. It is ready for action on the Senate floor, but has not seen any movement in the House.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, run by Campbell and Inouye, itself will highlight the contributions of Native Code Talkers who served the U.S. in various military actions, notably World War II. A hearing will be held on Wednesday.

A partial list of some of the events taking place next week:

Monday, September 20
8:30 a.m. - Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families tribal consultation, B-339 Rayburn House Office Building
9:00 a.m. - National Indian Gaming Association briefing at National Press Club
3:00 p.m. - Briefing on funding disparities, 2105 Rayburn

Wednesday, September 22
9:00 a.m. - National Congress of American Indians rally at U.S. Capitol
9:30 a.m. - Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on Code Talkers
12:30 p.m. - NCAI luncheoon at National Press Club
1:00 p.m. - Indian Health Service "Healther Indian Communities" summit
3:00 p.m. - Briefing on gaming, 2105 Rayburn

Thursday, September 23
8:00 a.m. - IHS summit continued
12:30 p.m. - NCAI lunchehon at National Press Club
1:00 p.m. - Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference

Friday, September 24
9:00 a.m. - Federal Bar Association Indian Law Conference
3:00 p.m. - Briefing on Human Services Act, 2105 Rayburn

More events can be found at

Relevant Links:
National Museum of the American Indian -