Sen. Ben Nighthorse Cambell
Darrell Bowling  /
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., leads the procession of tribes at the dedication for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
updated 9/27/2004 7:19:12 PM ET 2004-09-27T23:19:12

On a sunny and cloudless fall equinox last week, tens of thousands of native people made the trek to the nation's capital for the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

Many felt ambivalent. The idea that the U.S. government was now embracing a people it once tried to destroy, transform and confine to reservations — with a century of unfulfilled promises — left many asking, what's the catch?

"This is a beautiful building. It's like the white man is saying, this is payback for the bad things we have done to you," said Donulus Otto, a 68-year-old Saginaw Chippewa Indian and Korean War veteran.

Saginaw Chippewa history
The history of the Saginaw Chippewa nation shows why Otto has reasons to be skeptical. While tribal members now live in Mount Pleasant, Mich., the tribe originally lived throughout Michigan.

Darrell Bowling  /
Donulus Otto, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, laughs while waiting in line at the  National Museum of the American Indian.

Treaties between the U.S. government and the Saginaw began in the late 1700s and continued into the 1800s, with each treaty providing less land for the tribe. By 1837, all their land had been taken; in 1855, the tribe was forced to move to Isabella County, Mich.; in 1864, the Saginaw lands were formally surrendered to the U.S. government. Individual tribal members, not the tribe as a whole, were allotted land in Isabella County. Descendants continue to live there today.

Otto and six other veterans and their wives, plus 55 other Saginaw Chippewa tribal members, made the trip from Michigan because, as Otto says, despite his skepticism, "this is a celebration for my people."

Focus should be on today
But Otto says the building is only an institution and doesn't address the pressing needs of Native Americans. "It's nice and everything, but what about the northern tribes?" Otto said, referring to the poor tribes in South Dakota and North Dakota, where inadequate education, alcoholism and unemployment trap Indians in unconscionable conditions. He believes this is what "we should be concerned about" and that "this is what is happening today. They have nothing. What is happening in the Dakotas is now. The focus should be on today, not just historical artifacts."

Otto and the Saginaw Chippewa started a program to help the northern tribes during the holidays. They send money and toys for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Otto says it's certainly not enough, but it's more they would have had. He wishes society cared more about the poor than about constructing fancy buildings.

Otto could have listed many memorable moments for him that day: the breathtakingly beautiful art and majesty of the museum's architecture with countless displays of native peoples' creative genius; the dedication and the opening, including his walk in a procession with more than 400 other tribes.

But Otto focused on a 13-minute movie that moved him more than anything else. Entitled "Where We Came From," the film was shown on the fourth floor of the museum.

Lawrence Jackson  /  AP
The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Otto waited in line with fellow tribal member Joseph Sowmick and dozens of others. He had seen the movie before, and he wanted to see it again. The movie "hits me here," Otto said as he put his hand over his heart. "It reminds me of the struggles of my ancestors and how they forced them to go to boarding school where they couldn't speak their language. My mother and father wouldn't teach me the native language. They wanted me to speak English and be able to make it in the white man's world."

Tears flooded his eyes. Walking into the movie, he continued, "It hurts me not to be able to speak Chippewa. My parents said to go out and learn the white man's ways."

Today, the Saginaw Chippewa has an educational program that teaches young people how to speak the native language. The tribe's Ziibiwing Cultural Society attempts to preserve their history and a program called The 7th Generation promotes "today's living and breathing culture. It's about reaching out and helping others," Otto said.

Sowmick added that this museum is like the native people's culture, "Anyone with an open mind that can relate to this celebration is a welcome part of the circle."

What it's like on the 'reserve'
Outside the museum at the First Americans Festival on the National Mall, the bass is booming and peoples' heads are nodding. "Check one, two. D.C. we came a long way to be with you today", says Cree Indian Rex Smallboy, the leader of the "reservation political and social" rap group Warparty.

Darrell Bowling  /
Indian Rex Smallboy and Thana Saddleback of Warparty perform at the First Americans Festival on the National Mall.

Warparty is composed of Smallboy, Cynthia Smallboy and Thana Saddleback. The group made Native rap history, winning the first ever Canadian Aboriginal Music Award for Best Rap or Hop Hip album in 2001.

"We're here to tell you about what life is like on the reserve," Rex Smallboy tells the sun-baked crowd. He raps: "Let's take a look back into the history books. Never telling how you people where crooks. You called us thieves and then you called us savages. But it was you who did the residential damages. We got the wrong end of the stick, it's true. Because we're red, not white and now we're blue."

With that, some whites get up and leave. Smallboy says he doesn't mean to offend. "There is more to my lyrics than hating the white man," he said. "The truth, the truth," added Saddleback. "Yeah, we've been hearing them speak for centuries. And they can't respect us enough to listen for 15 minutes? That's not our problem," said Cynthia Smallboy.

Darrell Bowling  /
Cynthia Smallboy entertains the crowd during Warparty's performance at the First American Festival.

Warparty says it was important for the group to be at the opening of the museum even though its members "have mixed feelings." They say the museum makes them proud, but they wonder where the money collected from the packed museum gift shops and the restaurant is going. They hope poor tribes can benefit from the windfall.

They also said they came because they have a message to deliver. A message that Rex Smallboy says "needs to be said and heard about the untold injustice inflicted on the American Indian." Hip hop helps Rex Smallboy deliver his "message of truth and reconciliation in a quest for change."

Smallboy loves hip hop. He recalled when he first started rapping, people on the reservation said he was trying to act black. But he said he loved rappers like Chuck D and Ice Cube, not because of their skin color, but because of "what's in their hearts. It's the message in the music, man." And since that time Smallboy has been trying to tell the story of his people through rap.

Warparty raps focus on subjects like racism, hate and love. But they also touch on subjects you don't hear rappers discuss much — like suicide. Smallboy has lost two cousins to suicide. It's a silent epidemic in native communities. Smallboy said his advice is to "tell the people in your lives that you love them."

That is why Smallboy said his message is for young and old, adding, "It is for anyone with an open mind." And on one glorious week in Washington, it seemed that most all had an open mind and were welcomed into the circle.

© 2013 Reprints


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments