Wampanoag Tribe Joins Museum Fete

American Indian Gallery Opens in Capital

By MAX HART

Beverly Wright was walking through the National Mall in Washington, D.C., last week during the opening ceremony for the National Museum of the American Indian when a familiar face caught her eye. As she made her way through a sea of thousands of strangers, she was suddenly confronted by a huge image of her friend, Berta Welch, staring back at her.

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"I was walking along and all of a sudden there is Berta on the large video screens that lined the procession," Ms. Wright said. "We were all laughing. It was a very funny, yet a very proud moment. There she was, on TV, and she was one of us."

Ms. Wright, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head (Aquinnah), stood and watched with other Wampanoags as the screens showed Ms. Welch making shelves inlaid with wampum; the shelves now line the museum's gift shops.

"It took her almost two years, and she did a beautiful job, and to know that that little part of Wampanoag heritage will always be there makes us all very proud," Ms. Wright said yesterday.

An estimated 40,000 Native Americans attended the museum's grand opening last Tuesday. The Wamp-anoags, adorned in traditional dress, joined tribes from as far away as Peru and Alaska as they marched, danced and sang along the processional route.

The museum is the latest in the Smithsonian Institute's list of cultural showpieces. Years in the making, the opening of the American Indian museum marks a significant milestone for Native Americans, a milestone Ms. Wright said should have been reached a long time ago.

"We were the first Americans," she said. "We have been here for the longest time yet we get the last available spot on the Mall. At least now we have a place to tell our story, at last."

Ms. Wright rode on a chartered bus with dozens of members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes for a five-day visit to the nation's capital. She estimated that a hundred Wampanoags marched in the opening procession on Tuesday, one of the largest demonstrations of Native Americans in the city's history.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said. "Being part of that large crowd, being with all of the different tribes, I was very proud. I was tears-in-your-eyes proud."

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Along with the opening ceremonies, Ms. Wright participated in a congressional conference hosted by Sens. Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton, attended an Indian Health Service summit hosted by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and mingled with tribal chiefs at a breakfast hosted by President Bush.

"It was a busy week," she said, laughing.

Ms. Wright said she was impressed with the museum, particularly its educational value. Visitors are encouraged to get involved with the exhibits, as removable trays of arrowheads and computer-enhanced views of ornate beading allow an up-close view of history.

"It is very hands-on friendly," Ms. Wright said.

The $200 million building - a 250,000-square-foot, five-story undulating limestone structure that looks more like a southwestern pueblo than a museum - features interactive computer exhibits, a state-of-the-art movie theatre and a grand entry hall called the Potomac area, where from time to time, master Indian craftsmen build full-size canoes. The outside grounds, called the Native Landscape, include four native habitats: forest, meadow, wetlands and croplands. Tobacco and corn are two of the many crops grown on the grounds.

"This is a living museum," Ms. Wright said. "The exhibits will change and tell different stories about what Native people are doing today. I am honored I was there to help tell ours."

The museum currently features three main opening exhibits: Our Universes, Our Peoples and Our Lives. The exhibits focus on the spiritualities, unique identities and historical events that contribute to the Native American heritage.

"It's really a wonderful place where our ancestors' memories will live and where our voices will be heard," Ms. Wright said. "The Native population is still here and we are a viable community."

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Along with the native wampum that adorns the shelves in the gift shop, Ms. Wright has further plans to add to the Wampanoag legacy.

"We sent the cafe some oysters, so hopefully they'll be enjoying Wampanoag oysters there soon," she said.