New Indian museum survives big opening week

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The greater Washington, D.C., community received its official introduction to the National Museum of the American Indian on Monday night with a gala reception that marked the end of the opening festivities.

Retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) summed up last week's events with a stirring speech that recounted the struggles Native people face today. Diabetes, unemployment, suicide and alcoholism affect Native Americans at extremely high rates, he said.

"In some Lakota communities in South Dakota, one out of every four babies is born with some degree of fetal alcohol syndrome," the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said.

But Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, noted that Native cultures have endured despite years of oppression and negative government policies. That continuing legacy was represented in the Native Nations Procession that preceded the museum's opening last Tuesday, he told the audience.

"For many of us, it was like being reborn," Campbell said of his participation in the historic walk down the Mall.

All told, upwards of 20,000 Native people from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and South America traveled to the nation's capitol to take part in the festivities. Dozens of tribes sent sizable delegations, with the Cherokees of Oklahoma and North Carolina, the Poarch Creeks of Alabama and the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe of Oklahoma being among the largest.

For six days, the Mall bustled with activity as musicians, dance groups, storytellers and artisans presented their work to large audiences. More than 300 performances took place on several stages.

Throughout the week, the museum remained crowded with visitors eager to be among the first to view the three permanent exhibitions and one changing art gallery. Reactions among Native Americans ranged from overwhelmed to unimpressed, with some seeking more emphasis on the negative history Campbell referenced in his speech.

With the opening out of the way, the museum's success or failure depends largely on how the public sees the facility. An estimated 4 million people are expected to pass through the doors every year.

Alma Powell, wife of Secretary of State Colin Powell and the author of children's books, said the museum is a place, ultimately, about education. She was the honorary chair of last night's gala.

"Most of us in this generation grew up with very little understanding of our Native Americans -- only what we saw in movies or tourist attractions," she said. "Now our children have the opportunity to know so much more than we did about our first Americans."

The museum is open every day of the year except Christmas. Hours of operation are 10am to 5pm daily. Timed passes are required for entry and can be reserved online at Some same-day passes are available each day at the museum.

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