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."

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