27 September 2004

A Modern Life?

NMAI is, at last, bringing some long needed recognition...


After Decades of Discrimination, Poverty, and Despair, American Indians Can Finally Look Toward a Better Future

A modern life
After decades of discrimination, poverty, and despair, American Indians can finally look toward a better future
By Thomas Hayden

Johnpaul Jones stands alone, slowly beating a rawhide drum. A tall man with weathered features and long, gray hair, he walks clockwise around the domed hall four times, the thumping drumbeat echoing as he goes. He is listening--not with his ears, he says, but with his heart. It is late June, and after 15 years and $200 million of planning, design, and construction, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is nearing completion. Jones, a Cherokee/Choctaw architect from Seattle, joined the project in 1998. But today he isn't occupied by load weights or angles. The building, he says, "has to sound right. You have to be able to hear the drum in your chest."

Last week, the museum performed to spec, resonating with the sounds of its first visitors. Some 25,000 Native Americans came to Washington for Tuesday's opening festivities, including retired education professor Wayne Mitchell of Phoenix. He recalled his grandmother Mattie Grinnell, the last full-blooded Mandan Indian. At 101 years old, upon her return from the 1968 Poor People's March, she declared: "There's not much for Native Americans in Washington."

"Twenty-five years later, what a change," Mitchell said over the hundreds of tinkling chimes a nearby group of Ojibwe women wore on their jingle dresses. "Indian people . . . can be proud now."

The museum's opening comes at a remarkable moment in the history of America's indigenous people. After generations as the nation's poorest and most overlooked minority, American Indians continue to suffer from what a 2003 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report called a "quiet crisis" of discrimination, poverty, and unmet promises. Unemployment, substance abuse, and school dropout rates are among the highest in the nation, and Native Americans face epidemic levels of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. But despite it all, this is a time of unprecedented optimism. Buoyed by a decades-long push for self-determination, recent improvements in education, and the success of new tribal businesses, more and more Native Americans are finding ways to "walk two lives," blending a return to traditional culture and values with successful careers. "For a huge long time," says Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, "it was not a good thing to be an Indian in this country. But it's starting to be a good thing again."

Native Americans just might be this country's most diverse group. There are 562 distinct tribes with federal recognition, and scores of others recognized only locally or not at all. They are in every state of the union, some living lives steeped in tradition, others more comfortable in a law office or operating room than at a powwow. Despite a history of exclusion from the American mainstream, they serve in the U.S. military at higher rates than any other ethnic group. And while reservations and traditional lands continue to play a central role in Native American identity, 66 percent of the 4.1 million Americans who checked the "American Indian or Alaska Native" box on the 2000 census lived in urban areas...

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