"You might compare it to the opening ceremony of the Olympics," he continued. "Those nations come together to celebrate the athleticism, but they're all representing their countries. It's the same with our procession."
A history of loss binds most native tribes together.
"We all have our removal stories, our war stories, our poverty stories, our trying-to-recapture-our-government stories," Jim Gray, the principal chief of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, said in a telephone interview from Pawhuska.
"Some tribes have disappeared from the face of the Earth, never to return," he said. "Those are issues that unite us."
But Gray, who led a delegation of up to 50 Osage Indians in the procession, insists the museum and the procession are not a commemoration of the past as much as they are a celebration of the current cultures that still exist.
"It is part of the reconciliation of native peopleacknowledging the past, but really moving forward," he said.
With over a million members, the Mapuche is the most populous native tribe in Chile. At the procession they were the only South American group that had never been conquered by the Spaniards.
Traditionally the Mapuche lifestyle has been agriculturaltheir name means "people of the earth." Many Mapuche, however, have moved to cities over the years, abandoning their cultural heritage.
But Fabian Esteban Painemilla, a Mapuche native, said his culture is now growing stronger, as other young people begin to learn the native language their parents never taught them.
"I feel proud to be an indigenous person," said Painemilla, who is an anthropology student at the University of Maryland in College Park. "This procession is a chance to prove to the rest of the world that we are still alive."
Painemilla and many other Mapuche appeared in traditional dresspatterned ponchos and plumed headbands for the men and multicolored dresses for the women.
To other native groups, the procession and the museum are part of a long-term struggle not only to reclaim their lost heritage but also to establish their identity.
As descendants of intermarriages between European settlers and Indian people in the 1870s, the Metis Nation of Manitoba, Canada, has faced virulent discrimination from both whites and Indians.
"Nobody wanted us, and that's what forced nationhood in the beginning," said Louise McKay, a Metis native. McKay works as a policy analyst for a family-services office in Winnipeg.
Today, there are about a thousand people in the Metis Nation of St. Laurent living on the shores of Lake Manitoba. The group, which is known for its music and dance, is sending a delegation of 150 people to the procession.
"It will be an affirmation that we are a nationand one of the groups of aboriginal people," McKay said.
Organizers have predicted that half a million people would to line up to watch today's festivities, and tonight the museum will stay open all night to accommodate the crowds. And the Native Nations Procession was by no means the end of the celebration.
For the six days following, the First Americans Festival will host concerts, dance performances, and storytelling on the National Mall.
"This is a time for everybody to celebrate the history of American Indians," Pepper Henry said. "This history has had a great influence on every aspect of culture in the Americas."
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