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Native American museum to seek balance of old, new

WASHINGTON -- The newest Smithsonian museum is gathering ancient ceramics, intricate beadwork, and modern art to illustrate the past and present of native peoples spread across the Western Hemisphere for some 20,000 years.

''It's a set of cultures with a deep past, but at the same time communities that are thoroughly contemporary -- they're here right now too," said museum director W. Richard West Jr. ''There are 30 to 40 million native people living in the Western Hemisphere."

When the National Museum of the American Indian opens Sept. 21, it will seek to give the appropriate weight to injustices suffered at the hands of white settlers, but will not make that the focus of a history that sweeps over millenniums.

''The truth is what it is," said West, who is of Southern Cheyenne extraction. ''The history between Native Americans and Euro-Americans has been quite tragic. We do not propose to skirt that tragedy."

But, he said, the museum will show ''so much good and so much positive along with the tragedy."

The five-story museum took the last remaining spot on the grassy National Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument -- a four-acre site at the foot of Capitol Hill.

It is the first new museum on the Mall since the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, for Asian art, opened together in 1987.

Indian museum curator Gerald McMaster expects 5 million visitors a year.

Exhibits will include ancient artifacts, such as a 2,000-year-old ceramic jaguar clutching a man between its paws, as well as works from modern Indian artists George Morrison and Allan Houser.

Other exhibits will focus on the lives of Indians today, touching on the highs and lows. For many Indians, wealth generated by casinos has increased living standards. But Indians still have higher poverty rates than the national average, and higher rates of diseases such as diabetes, respiratory infections, and alcoholism.

The Indian museum will be surrounded by 700 trees and a wetlands area with plants such as yellow pond-lily and wild rice. The ''three sisters" of American Indian agriculture -- corn, beans, and squash -- will also be planted.

The exterior, made from Kasota limestone quarried from Minnesota, is rounded to reflect the curves of the earth, sun, and moon.

The inside of the museum also emphasizes curved features, with a skylight topping off a series of narrowing concentric circles that make up the building's ceiling. Crystal prisms facing south will reflect sunlight through the museum, and a ''Welcome Wall" will greet visitors with 200 native words, all meaning welcome.

This is not the first national Indian museum, but it will be the biggest and most prominent. The late New York banker George Gustav Heye collected much of what now makes up the Smithsonian collection in the first half of the 20th century, and used that to launch the original Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

After the collection fell into disrepair, the Smithsonian reached an agreement with the museum to take it over in 1989. Later that year, President George H.W. Bush signed legislation establishing a new Indian museum on the Mall.

The George Gustav Heye Center remains in New York City as part of the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian, but it will serve a much smaller audience.

The museum in Washington will open its doors with 8,000 objects filling five major exhibitions.

That represents only 1 percent of the Smithsonian's 800,000 objects, which are in storage at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md. Those items range from a 45-foot, 19th century totem pole from an island off the coast of Alaska, to 11,000-year-old Clovis spear points from what is now New Mexico. The collection includes items from every country in the Western Hemisphere.

The museum staff consulted with 24 tribal communities -- half from the United States, and the other half from Canada and Latin America -- in selecting items.

Objects will include baskets, pottery, beadwork, stone carvings, photographs, textiles, and mosaics.

The museum has invited native communities from across the Western Hemisphere to participate in a ''Native Nations" procession to mark the museum's opening. More than 250,000 people are expected to attend, many in traditional Indian dress.

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