Thursday, August 19, 2004

A Museum of Indians That Is Also for Them

WASHINGTON, Aug. 18 - A century ago George Gustav Heye, a New Yorker, traveled across the United States, gathering up Indian objects by the boxcar. All told, he amassed 800,000 examples of Indian art and life, which will have a new home at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, which opens here on Sept. 21.

Unlike the impoverished Indians who happily sold Heye, a wealthy oil heir, their tribal treasures and sometimes their dregs, today's Indians see these same objects as an opportunity to tell their story - their way.

Long before construction began on the museum's curvy, buff-colored limestone-clad building on the National Mall, W. Richard West Jr., a Southern Cheyenne who has steered the museum's plans since 1990, began asking native tribes what they wanted in a museum in the nation's capital.

What they did not want, museum officials found, was the static display of 10,000 years of tribal life and culture that was represented in Heye's collection. Their ideal museum would celebrate the glories of the past, to be sure, but they also wanted their artifacts and their contemporary culture to be accessible.