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20,000 American Indians March at National Museum Opening

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
Updated September 21, 2004
 
This morning thousands of Native Americans marched on Washington,
D.C.'s National Mall to celebrate the opening of the new National
Museum of the American Indian. (See photos
of the museum.
) To Jim Pepper Henry, the march represented a
homecoming of sorts.

The museum's assistant director for community services, Pepper Henry is a Kaw/Muscogee Indian. In the 1830s his forefathers were uprooted from their ancestral homes along the East Coast. They were forced to walk west on the infamous Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, where they were resettled.

Today Pepper Henry joined the walk from the Smithsonian Castle along the Mall to the Smithsonian's newest museum—a journey that took him from west to east.

"In a metaphorical sense the procession symbolizes a return home for me, a return to my native place," he said.


Pepper Henry was hardly the only Indian making the symbolic journey. Some 20,000 Native Americans—from the Arctic to the southern tip of South America—took part in the Native Nations Procession, each carrying his or her own personal story.

Organizers had predicted it would be the largest gathering of Native Americans in recent history.

Native "Olympics"

The National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum in the United States to be dedicated exclusively to Native Americans and the first to present all exhibitions from a native viewpoint.

The procession, which culminated in the opening ceremony, began with a tropical flourish, as Hawaiian conch-shell blowers signaled the start from the balcony of the Smithsonian Castle.

Native American U.S. Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii led the procession. At their sides were Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small and the museum's director, W. Richard West, Jr., a Southern Cheyenne Indian. Many of the 20,000 participants wore traditional native regalia.

Along the way, artists from Hawaii, Alaska, eastern Canada, and Equador—representing west, north, east, and south—performed traditional songs and dances.

"People will be here as one," Pepper Henry said before the procession. "But there are many different components of one. Tribes will carry their own flags."

"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."

Moving Forward

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 people—acknowledging 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 agricultural—their 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 dress—patterned ponchos and plumed headbands for the men and multicolored dresses for the women.

Discrimination

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 nation—and 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."

Full Coverage of National Museum of the American Indian
New National Indian Museum Is Native by Design
At New National Indian Museum, Artifacts Are "Alive"
Photo Gallery: National Museum of the American Indian
Photo Gallery: Exhibits at the Museum
Fast Facts: National Museum of the American Indian
16 Indian Innovations: From Popcorn to Parkas
Order Official Museum Book, Native Universe

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