Thursday, September 09, 2004

A Native Spirit, Inside the Beltway


MORE than the corn, the willows and the sunflowers stirring in the late summer wind, Donna House cultivates memory.

When Ms. House, a Navajo ethnobotanist, steps gingerly through the barbed wire fence into her backyard — a former alfalfa field along the Rio Grande now brimming with native plants framed by a distant mesa — there is a sense of homecoming, of reunion, of land returning to its origins.

So it is, too, on the Mall in Washington, where Ms. House is the guiding force behind a landscape of cornfields, meadows, forest and wetlands — complete with 3,500 specially introduced ladybugs — outside the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, which is to open just west of the Capitol on Sept. 21.

"Plants were here way before people," she said, walking through rustling rows of corn behind her home where ancient pottery shards from the nearby San Juan Pueblo share dusty furrows with ants and grasshoppers. "They know you, have a relationship with you. It's a sense of recognizing the plants, the animals, the insects as beings. They were here way before the five-finger people."