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Museum is Topic for Public Discussion
30 September 2004
by Dennis J. Neumann, United Tribes News

WASHINGTON, DC - Even as Richard West was at the podium during the opening program describing his vision for the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Indian Movement was distributing a press release in the audience criticizing his work.

      When the doors opened and people marched in, visitors and media reviewers began weighing in with their impressions. Those from United Tribes Technical College had their views.

National Museum of the American Indian building
Entrances passes were at a premium - nearly 18,000 people toured the museum on opening day. UTN photos by Dennis J. Neumann

      "I think the museum has the most impressive exterior in the city," said Larry Laducer (Three Affiliated), a Construction Technology student. "Other buildings have beautiful architecture but the wind-blown sandstone look of the museum is different. It stands out."

      When nearly eighteen thousand people entered on opening day September 21, three major exhibitions were ready: "Our Universes," an examination of how traditional knowledge shapes the world, "Our Peoples," historical events told from a native view, and "Our Lives," a look at contemporary life and tribal identity.

      The UTTC visitors were not always successful when searching for evidence of their tribe in the major exhibits. Some found items or references in the displays. Nothing was presented about the renowned Lakota leader Sitting Bull.

      On display was over 7,000 works from Native cultures throughout the western hemisphere, only a fraction of the 800,000 Native American objects held by the Smithsonian.

      "It's true that it displays only a small portion of the collections of Indian artifacts," said UTTC President David M. Gipp. "I'm sure that more will be displayed in time."

Alan Houser artwork
One of the contemporary works of Alan Houser on display in the Native Modernism exhibit.

      UTTC Counselor Julie Cain (Blackfeet) spent four hours touring on opening day.

      "From a tribal artist's point of view, it's fantastic. It's like going to a spiritual source. It's so rich with our culture," said Cain enthusiastically. "Now I have to tell everyone at home about this place. I've been privileged to see it and they're waiting for me to tell them about it."

      "There probably could have been more exhibits but this is just the beginning," said Julie's husband Don (Turtle Mountain) an artist. "I was looking especially at getting ideas of what to make. It was awesome."

      The Cains, who paid for a membership to the museum years ago, collected up application forms, guidelines, and other information about how to get the work of native artists back home into the museum for display and sale.

      Visitors who only had the stamina to tour the temporary exhibit hall could be forgiven for thinking the museum says nothing about the past. On display was a retrospective about Native Modernism, featuring the striking, contemporary works of George Morrison (1919-2000) and Allan Houser (1914-1994).

      For out-of-town visitors it came down to what a person was capable of seeing and absorbing during a rushed and crowded tour.

      "I'd like to come back when there are fewer people, and take some time going through it," said Karen Paetz, director of UTTC's Tribal Tourism Program, weary from a day of walking in Washington.


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