By Francis X. Clines
New York Times
March 28, 2004


WASHINGTON - The word Potomac means "where the goods are brought in" and it dates from the local Indian tribe rudely displaced here centuries ago by colonial whites intent on a New World. The word seems perfect for the whiff of irony and history in the air this month as the last of 800,000 Indian artifacts -- priceless goods, in fact -- were trucked in from New York City to become the bedrock treasure of the new National Museum of the American Indian:


Even incomplete, the museum stands as a modernistic cynosure, defiantly staring down its immediate neighbor, the gleaming white Capitol, where so many treaty promises to American Indians were written and broken. The museum marks a grand turning point in that history, a sacred federal site ceded to Indian management and broadcasting a message of hardy survival, not tribal extinction, to throngs of tourists.

The museum -- a 10-story, cantilevered edifice suggesting a mesa with a cascading brook, indigenous landscaping (from corn bed to marshland), and a cladding of desert-toned Kasota limestone -- opens in September and is likely to be the last Smithsonian attraction built on the National Mall. It will offer a kaleidoscopic sampling of stories from hundreds of tribes that were consulted from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.

The peerless collection -- from papoose carriers to sacred regalia, from armadas of dugout canoes to armories of bows and arrows -- is the rapacious trove of George Gustav Heye, the heir to an oil fortune who collected Indian treasures by the boxcar loads a century ago. A buccaneer with a Hearst-like obsession for hunting and gathering other peoples' stuff, Heye left a collection that stuns today's Indian leaders for its power to recapitulate so much lost history.

The collection, from towering totems to shimmering beadwork, had been crammed for decades into a 20,000-square-foot storage space in New York that few Americans knew to visit. The new Smithsonian enterprise offers 12 times that museum space, as well as an even larger state-of-the-art preservation center in suburban Maryland. Even then, the collection will have to be rotated across time like a galaxy to be fully sampled here and in its remaining Manhattan outpost, an already-open Customs House museum.

Quite poetically, what Heye collected as artifacts of a fading culture are about to be displayed instead as evidence of tribal resilience across 10,000 years in the Western Hemisphere. There now are about two million Indians in the United States, an eightfold rebound from the low point of tribal decimation after the Indian wars.

Indian leaders see the museum as an opportunity for what one termed "a cleansing and a blessing at the same time" -- a mix of honest history, resurgent pride and a sense of discovery that invites reconciliation. It has inspired tribal chiefs across America intent on tracking down and trying to reclaim other holy objects and human remains purloined in past "scientific" sweeps when "civilization regulations" were part of the federal dictate to force assimilation on the reservation tribes.

With more than five million visitors a year expected, the museum's spirit is decidedly more informational than confrontational. It aims to exude pride devoid of militancy. And it's a hospitable pride -- visitors will be able to sample five regional cuisines at the Mitsitam ("let's eat") Cafe there.

Featured tribes will hold court for tourists in a 100-foot-high "Potomac space," a circular, giant, lodgelike interior topped by a copper dome. The museum is oriented to Indian cosmology, with windows designed to track the sun's course across interior walls. Décor runs from wampum cabinet detailing to "grandfather rocks," prehistoric markers imported from the far ends of the hemisphere to display sacred tribal reference points.

Federal marshals were riding shotgun as the final truckload of artifacts arrived March 16 from Interstate 95: a kayak, a birch-bark canoe, a tule reed boat and a wooden canoe. They represented vessels from the hemisphere's four tribal corners. A welcoming prayer was offered by Emil Her Many Horses, a museum staff member. The Heye treasure, purchased and snatched so providentially from near and far, had finished its transfer intact back to the tribes' care. The museum opens for the autumnal equinox, with tens of thousands of Indians expected to march and dance, sing and pray at their new showcase status in America.

Informant: NHNE


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