America's Indians reclaim a little bit of the capital

In the 1830s, native Americans were forced out of their homelands. Now they have returned to Washington DC, where a new museum reflects their resurgent optimism. Rupert Cornwell reports
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The Independent US

The history of the United States will be symbolically turned on its head tomorrow. The monumental heart of the imperial city will belong to descendants of those peoples the US government variously betrayed, subjugated, and all but exterminated as it became a transcontinental power. More than 15,000 are expected to take part in a procession - in ceremonial tribal dress - down the Mall towards the US Capitol, source of many of those injustices. But this is no act of revenge. These American Indians will belatedly be celebrating themselves.

The history of the United States will be symbolically turned on its head tomorrow. The monumental heart of the imperial city will belong to descendants of those peoples the US government variously betrayed, subjugated, and all but exterminated as it became a transcontinental power. More than 15,000 are expected to take part in a procession - in ceremonial tribal dress - down the Mall towards the US Capitol, source of many of those injustices. But this is no act of revenge. These American Indians will belatedly be celebrating themselves.

At last, the first Americans have their own museum in Washington DC. Some speak of a resurgence of the native peoples, but resurgences are relative. If you drive across the reservations of New Mexico, Arizona or South Dakota, with their shabby settlements, and air of general desolation, little seems to have changed. Poverty, unemployment and alcohol are still visible scourges of Indian life. In Washington, Congress can still, on occasion, be as heartless as it ever was towards the Indian. But there are signs of change for the better - and none more obvious than the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) which opens its doors to the public tomorrow.

For one thing, it occupies one of the prime sites in town. Once the National Air and Space Museum owned the finest view of the US Capitol. That distinction now belongs to the NMAI. The new museum is also the most architecturally dazzling of the 18 under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. Third, and symbolically most importantly, it is utterly different.

On the Mall, the white man's museums are all similar, however magnificent their contents: square piles of granite or marble, enlivened only by the odd dome or neo-classical colonnade, containing meticulously ordered collections, as unchanging as a Latin lesson. The Indians' museum is a glorious rebellion.

It is surrounded not by lawns and tended beds of annuals, but by semi-kempt wetland, and small fields with Indian crops such as corn and squash. Dotted around are some 40 "grandfather rocks" - boulders taken from quarries in Canada and blessed by native elders before being shipped to Washington. The museum building itself, designed by the Canadian Indian architect Douglas Cardinal, is extraordinary, a curving, jutting structure of honey-coloured limestone, like a mesa rising abruptly from the western desert plains. Inside, a white, tiered atrium soars like a cathedral, lit entirely by natural light. Indian experts have been consulted over every detail, down to the last tiny inlay of stone or wood. The main indoor lecture theatre, with its vertical wood panelling and its dark blue ceiling twinkling with tiny lights, deliberately recreates a forest clearing on a starry night, that perfect place for story-telling. Even the restaurant is themed, serving Indian dishes, featuring corn, squashes, tomatoes and steaks of the buffalo variety. The artefacts are no less stunning: fabulous baskets and jars, masks and figurines, and beadwork of a delicacy and intricacy that take the breath away. Not surprisingly, the museum is the richest of its kind anywhere, possessing 800,000 items covering 10 millenniums of Indian history, of which just 8,000 or so will be on show at any one time.

Congress gave the go ahead for the project in 1989, passing a bill sponsored by two Indian legislators, senators, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. The ground-breaking ceremony was in 1999; five years and $219m later, the museum is opening its doors to what its creators expect will be more than 4 million visitors a year.

But note the name of the museum. The "American Indian" denotes not only the unfortunate tribes of the US who were cheated, infected and persecuted into near extinction in the 19th century - but the original inhabitants of the New World in its entirety from the Bering Strait to Tierra del Fuego. It tells the Indian story from the Indian point of view. It is an assertion of identity, not a lament for a disaster already chronicled a thousand times. This is no imitation of the Holocaust Museum - whose establishment in Washington preceded that of the NMAI by a decade, even though the events it deals with took place 4,000 miles from America's shores.

That, however, is another story, written by modern American politics and lobby groups far more powerful than the American Indian. Suffice to say, as does Larry Small, the secretary of the Smithsonian, that this "living tribute to the first inhabitants of the Americas is long overdue."

The visitor finds himself not so much in the modern world as in a modern projection of an earlier world. Today's national borders are scarcely mentioned; only the descendants of those who lived there before the people who drew those borders set foot on the shores of the Americas.

Take the exhibition room devoted to Kahnawake. It is named after the Kahnawake Mohawks - or to give them their proper name Kahnawa'kehro:non, "the people who live by the rapids". But which rapids, and where? Only after a few minutes did I manage to establish that Kahnawake is a reserve 10 miles outside Montreal, in what is now Quebec, Canada. But for all the difference it made, Kahnawake could have been in the US, Bolivia or Argentina. And this is not the place to seek a show of contrition and apology for the genocide of the 19th century. Here there are no elaborate maps or time-charts, none of those musty still-life tableaux of the noble savage you find in traditional museums.

The museum pioneers a new way. It aims to have its subjects recount their history as they, rather than others, see it. In this case, the history is told not only by four US tribes (the Seminoles from Florida who endured the infamous Trail of Tears, the Tohono O'odham nation from Arizona, the Cherokee of North Carolina and the Kiowa nation from Oklahoma), but also by two each from Mexico and Brazil.

The museum has its signature pieces - Geronimo's rifle, Sitting Bull's drum, and a "Wall of Gold," crammed with figurines and other artefacts fashioned from the yellow metal that drew so many plundering Europeans to the New World.

But references to the tragic Indian wars of the 19th century, the forced migrations and the theft of land are mostly indirect - and none more ironic than a display of the "Peace Medals" that the federal government was in the habit of doling out in the days when the US officially treated native tribes as negotiating equals. One necklace, decorated with animal teeth, has a silver disc the size of a small saucer, awarded by President Andrew Jackson in 1829. Another, made of bears' claws and dated 1857, carries a medal from President James Buchanan. Thereafter, the accompanying text drily notes, "the medals grew smaller as the balance of power shifted".

Another section, called "Our Lives", is a gallery of Indians in modern society. Here too, the tone is not of melancholy, self pity or even defiance. Instead, an inscription reminds with quiet dignity: "We are still here. We are not just survivors, we are the architects of our survival." These are not freaks, failures, or society's flotsam. They are normal people - even though their lives, in many cases, have been irreversibly affected by the evils visited upon their ancestors. Much the same goes for the paintings and sculptures on display, by modern Indian artists. Overwhelmingly, they deal with themes of today, not with the miseries of long ago.

This is not a celebration of the past," says Richard West, the museum's director - a Stanford-educated lawyer and great grandson of a Cheyenne chief called Thunder Bull. "This is a testament to the vitality and diversity of these cultures. We want to give visitors a sense of the future."

Kahnawake offers some examples of how that might look. Take gambling. The reserve is home to the Kahnawake Gaming Commission, created in 1996, which regulates online gambling operations in the territory - online casino websites operated by licensees of KGC, and the only ones of their kind based in North America. The Canadian government has tried to close the operation, but always shied away from confrontation. So gambling - the "new buffalo", some call it - is the financial mainstay of Kahanwake, and of the broader Indian revival.

Of the 562 federally recognised tribes in the US, more than 200 run gambling operations, generating$15bn in revenue - money to fight the native American corner by hiring lawyers, paying congressional lobbyists and helping build handsome museums in Washington. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes of Connecticut and the Oneidas of New York, operators of three of the most lucrative casino franchises, contributed $10m apiece to the NMAI.

Then, less tangibly, there is the Mohawk language, the ultimate repository of Mohawk culture and national identity. Since 1900, the number of native languages spoken in North America has fallen from 400 to about 175. Mohawk, one of the Iroquoian languages, now spoken mainly by old people, had seemed about to be lost too. But slowly, the tide is turning. There are special summer immersion courses in Mohawk, and at least one Mohawk reservation, in northern New York state, has an elementary school where Mohawk is the language of instruction.

The trend is part of a wider reassertion of Indian heritage. In 1900, only 240,000 Americans, 0.3 per cent of the population, identified themselves as Indian or part Indian. Today, that proportion has quadrupled, to 1.3 per cent, or more than 4 million people. Between 1990 and 2000, per capita income for American Indians grew by 27 per cent, for once not far behind the national average.

Old traditions and old skills are being rediscovered. The first Americans are dusting off old tribal laws and customs they had long since been shamed into disowning. On the plains of South Dakota, even buffalo herds are to be seen again. And now the most beautiful museum in Washington - a museum which looks forward, not back. It may be tempting fate to talk of a renaissance or a new dawn for the Indian. But unmistakably, there is a glimmer in the eastern sky.