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NMAI staff show off 'truly Native place' to first visitors


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The new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., doesn't open until next week but members of the media were given a preview of the facility on Wednesday.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small called the museum a "visually stunning place" that reflects the vision of the Native people it is designed to showcase. "It is a tribute, frankly, that is long overdue," he said.

NMAI Director Rick West, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, agreed. He said the museum, the last to open on the National Mall, is a "truly Native place" that confirms the continued existence of American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and other indigenous communities.

Staff and consultants who played a critical role in the opening of the institution were on hand to share their experiences. Donna House, a member of the Navajo Nation, designed the ecosystem that will serve as an introduction to the facility.

Featuring a wetlands, several billion-year-old rocks, plants and trees indigenous to the area and a mini-field with corn, tobacco and other crops, the welcome plaza is designed to be sustainable, House said. "The landscape is what Native people depend on," she explained in an interview.

Visitors will enter the museum through the Potomac, a large foyer designed for gatherings, dances and cultural performances. A glance upwards reveals an all-white ceiling with a portal to the sky and a prism that will reflect the natural colors of the rainbow inside.

The five floors of the museum are immediately visible from the entrance. Four floors are open to the public and are accessible via a grand staircase or a bank of elevators.

The first floor includes a gift shop with jewelry, pottery clothing and books, the Signature Theater for intimate performances and the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe featuring cuisine from throughout the hemisphere -- yes there's fry bread and buffalo burgers.

A second gift shop, meeting rooms and exhibition spaces take up the next three floors. Open to the public are "Native Modernism" featuring the works of Apache sculptor Allan House and Chippewa painter and sculptor George Morrison, "Our Universes," an explanation of Native cosmology and worldviews and "Our Lives" and "Our Peoples," two exhibitions that tell Native stories from the Native point of view. In total, 24 Native communities are represented.

Also of interest is the resource center on the third floor. Members of the public will be able to come here to conduct research and use computers to connect to the Internet. The room boasts a collection of books and a spectacular view of the U.S. Capitol.

Marty DeMontano, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation from Kansas, runs the center. She called it an "interactive learning center" that includes virtual exhibits created by Native students who photographed and catalogued items from their own cultures.

"It's the technology that's the hook that gets the kids interested," she said in an interview. Staff said the museum will prove exciting even for students of younger ages.

The Smithsonian expects 4 million visitors a year to the museum, Small said.

Relevant Links:
National Museum of the American Indian -