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WASHINGTON — For now, there’s just a big hole in the ground next to the U.S. Capitol.

But as the National Museum of the American Indian slowly rises from that hole and takes its place on the grassy National Mall, it carries the long-delayed dream of a great national center to honor America’s native peoples.

“The symbolism is so powerful,” said museum director Richard West, a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe. “I really believe that we should have been given the first place on the Mall, as our place in the history of this country.” Actually, the Indian museum fills the last available site on the Mall, but it’s quite a site: between the U.S. Capitol and the Smithsonian Institution’s famed Air and Space Museum.

When it opens in 2004, the Indian museum will join the vast Smithsonian complex, where millions of visitors each year already see dinosaur bones and moon rocks, Charles Lindbergh’s airplane and Dorothy’s ruby slippers.

“We are the last to get there, as far as what’s presented by the Smithsonian,” West said. “But we occupy the first place on the Mall. That’s a nice circling-back of history on itself.”

But more than its site, the museum hopes to be known for presenting the American Indian story in a new way. They want a museum of Indian voices, Indian spirits, Indian perspectives.

“These communities are telling their own stories,” said museum spokesman Thomas Sweeney, a member of the Potawatomi Nation. “They choose the objects that they want to represent them,” how those objects should be displayed and what stories they convey.

That’s not how museums have usually functioned. It cedes power to those outside the museum, and potentially opens the door to endless disagreement.

“It wouldn’t be their story if they’re not telling it,” Sweeney explained. “In the past, it’s been nonnative people representing the American Indians. That’s been done. But this is a new day and a new way.”

At the heart of the Smithsonian’s American Indian collection are artifacts gathered in the early 1900s by a wealthy white man, an adventurer named George Heye. Heye spent decades traveling the Americas and obsessively buying every Indian-made object in sight, amassing 800,000 items.

“The secretary of the Smithsonian called him ‘a great vacuum cleaner of a collector,’” said Pat Nietfeld, supervisory museum specialist.

Heye was collecting a century ago when virtually every Indian item was handmade from natural materials. Today, his huge collection is gradually being moved from New York to an indoor canyon of orderly shelves in the Washington suburbs: the beaded baby carriers of the Kiowa, feathered headdresses of the western Sioux, ancient stone thrones of the Manabi in Ecuador, seal-intestine raincoats of the Eskimos, saddles from the Cheyenne, totem poles of the Haida, and more.


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museum also has 866 artifacts collected in Minnesota, ranging from a pair of Ojibwe snowshoes to a Sioux tomahawk to arrows from the Winnebago/Ho Chunk.

Joe Horse Capture, an assistant curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is co-curating an exhibit based on Heye’s collection of Plains Indian shirts. The exhibit will travel to Minneapolis in 2003.

“The collection they have — and I’m trying to remain curatorial — it’s just completely mind-boggling,” Horse Capture said. “It’s just very much of a national treasure.”

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