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Smithsonian Exhibit Previews New American Indian Museum

Tracey A. Reeves Knight-Ridder

Imagine the Cherokee people, in deerskin coats and leather moccasins, dragging themselves across the rough terrain from North Carolina to Oklahoma along the famous Trail of Tears.

Or the Shoshone woman, Sacajawea, wearing a worn coat of goat hide, guiding Lewis and Clark on an exploration of land that made up the Louisiana Purchase.

Picture a Sioux warrior in his signature war bonnet of golden eagle feathers, or an Apache girl adorned in a multicolored beaded dress as she prepares for her tribe’s coming-of-age ritual.

For most Americans, such visions of Native American life are remote yet somehow romantic. Now these symbols of a lost history can be seen, part of a display in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building in Washington.

The exhibit is intended to preview the National Museum of the American Indian, a $110 million facility that will be the new permanent home for the more than 1 million native objects in the George Gustav Heye collection.

“People are excited about it,” said Russ Tall Chief, an Osage Indian from Oklahoma and a spokesman for the Heye Center in New York City, current home of the collection. “It’s a chance for native people to tell their own history.”

The Smithsonian is scheduled to break ground on the 250,000-square-foot museum next year. Funded with public and private dollars, the new building will sit between the National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol on the last available museum space on the National Mall, according to a Smithsonian spokeswoman.

Although construction won’t be completed for another five years, project organizers want the public to know the prizes that will be on display.

In addition to promoting the museum to Indian reservations and states with large native populations, the Smithsonian has organized the current exhibit, called “Stories of the People,” which features 200 artifacts chosen from the collection and assembled by seven native scholars.

The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 25, 1998, is as telling as the tribes that produced the art, said Greig Arnold, a member of the Makah tribe in northwest Washington state.

“Finally, we, the nation’s first people, won’t have to rely on outsiders to tell our stories,” said Arnold, who helped assemble the exhibit. “We can show native life the way it really was.”

Dale Curtis Miles, first historian of the San Carlos Apache tribe of south central Arizona, chose a set of traditional moccasins from the Heye collection for the exhibit.

Rather than pick ceremonial masks and eagle feathers often depicted in the history books, Miles said he chose his tribe’s booted moccasins for the exhibit because of the huge part they played in everyday life.

“We wore them to hunt, fish and dance,” said Miles. “The moccasins are our trademark. It’s how people distinguish the San Carlos from the other Apache tribes.”

On a recent afternoon, young visitors to “Stories of the People” admired a model of a canoe used by Arnold’s ancestors to hunt whales. Others were attracted to the Cherokee doll made of wood and cloth, and the 18-foot-tall painted tepee cover stitched of dogwood and pine. There are baskets of cedar bark and spruce tree roots and woven rugs and fighting shields.

The exhibit also tells the sad stories of native life in this century, like the one of how the U.S. government forced the Cherokee people to move west of their homes in 1838 and 1839.

During the 850-mile journey, the Indians had to eat unfamiliar food and adapt to weather they had never experienced. Of the 17,000 Cherokees who set out on the trail, between 4,000 and 8,000 died of disease and despair.

All the pieces on exhibit belonged to the late George Gustav Heye, a New York investment banker who was obsessed with collecting Indian art.

xxxx NATIVE EXHIBIT “Stories of the People,” an exhibit depicting tribal origin and identity, runs through Jan. 25, 1998, at the Arts & Industries building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW, Washington, D.C. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except for Dec. 25, when the building is closed. Admission: free.

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