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A journey of many lifetimes

The National Museum of the American Indian will open Tuesday in an honored position close to the Capitol after 15 years of planning.
Some 20,000 Indians will form a procession to mark today's opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Some 20,000 Indians will form a procession to mark today's opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post
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The white buckskin headrolls embroidered with red woodpecker scalps were packed. So were the sashes spangled with iridescent mauve hummingbird crests.

Luggage quandaries had been resolved: Costco nesting boxes and Tupperware bowls to keep woven hats from being crushed. Canvas duffels to preserve rolled-up maple bark skirts.

Everything had to go carry-on. No one trusted the precious items to be checked.

Now in the quiet of the morning before he was to fly to Washington for today's opening of the $219 million National Museum of the American Indian -- before this morning's unprecedented Mall procession of some 20,000 Indians hailing from Alaska to the Southern Hemisphere in full regalia -- a medicine man named Merv George Sr. drove his Dodge truck to the top of Bald Hill to remember what the journey was for.

The museum will open at last after 15 years of planning in an honored position close to the Capitol. "Kind of fitting," mused George: "First peoples here, last place on the Mall."

He looked over his ancient valley. The rising sun glinted off the Trinity River winding among the homes and schools of the reservation. Steep hills of fir and pine rose on either side. He descended to the river, to a jagged outcropping of rock. Here the tribe launches the Boat Dance during what it considers a 10-day world-renewal ceremony every other year.

Tribal members still take comfort in the old spirits. The regalia they will wear in the procession today and that will be unveiled in the new museum is what they never stopped wearing at home in ceremonies said to restore balance to the universe. The disastrous advent of the white man did not kill the spiritual core of this culture. It is not just an exhibit -- it lives.

But inhabitants of Indian Country from Cherokee to Pine Ridge to Hoopa Valley aren't sure the rest of America understands -- so this is what the journey is for. Not just to experience one of the largest collections of native artifacts in the world or the six-day festival on the Mall this week.

But also: "To show we still do this," George, 60, said, standing on the Boat Dance grounds, where participants are said to gather up all the prayers that were ever said and ever will be said. "We got modern things now. We got cars. But our basic root -- this is still what we do. Our basic lives are still tied to this."

A new chapter
As native people throughout the Western Hemisphere prepared for the mental and physical journey to Washington -- capital of the land-grabbing empire, now attempting to write a new chapter -- Emmilee Risling, 15, checked her uniquely Hoopa look in the dining room mirror.

It was two days before departure. Her father, Gary, is the wildland fire chief on the Northern California reservation, but he commutes an hour from the family's home on the coast near Arcata.

Emmilee's mother and great-aunt fussed with details while she tried on a white cape made of conical dentalium shells. It had been handed down for generations, while her dress of buckskin, clam shells, pine nuts and beargrass was newly made by one of her aunts, a lawyer. She also wore a woodpecker sash dating back to the 1870s and a woven hat.

"My culture is really important to me," said Emmilee, president of her sophomore class and vice president of the Native American Club. "That's the way I've been raised."

Her tribe is one of the 24 that will have exhibits when the museum opens. These exhibits will rotate to other tribes every few years. The Hupa still feel humiliated by how they were treated in an old exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The regalia were mismatched, songs were mislabeled, according to tribe members.

About 2,300 people belong to the Hoopa Valley Tribe. Scientists, who trust in carbon dating, say campfires have burned in the valley going back 10,000 years. The Hupa, who place their faith elsewhere, say their people have lived in this remote place since the beginning of time. (The people are Hupa, the place is Hoopa.)

Emmilee had never been to Washington. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be with this many different Indian tribes," she said.

But first she needed moccasins. The Hupa don't wear moccasins during their dances. Feet must touch the Earth directly. But tribe members had heard of the gravel paths on the Mall, and they worried about broken glass.

Clad in a Bob Marley T-shirt, Emmilee set out moccasin-shopping with her mother. After enduring two stores and wincing at all the souvenir Indian footwear -- "Mom, I think I'd rather wear flip-flops!" -- Emmilee found moccasins handmade by a tribe in Montana.

After shopping, Emmilee visited her great-aunt's home in Eureka. The girl laid out her aunt's heirloom regalia on the living-room rug. Aunt Viola Risling, a petite eighty-something woman, sat on a couch with her Maltese dog.

"We live like this," she said, gesturing around the modern American living room, "but we're trying to save our culture."

She asked Emmilee to explain the dances and regalia to a visitor.

A mental journey
The White Deerskin Dance renews and restores balance to the world. The Jump Dance wards off evil. The Brush Dance comforts the sick. The Flower Dance turns girls into women. Participants summon the dances down from the k'ixinay, the spirits, who are always dancing. The Hupa take over the dances for 10 days at a time to beseech the k'ixinay (pronounced "ki-hinn-ae") to answer their prayers. As in any religion, Hupa believers run the gamut from literal-minded fundamentalists to more liberal interpreters of the stories.

"I hope Emmilee will continue doing it so it will go on," Aunt Viola said.

The regalia have mystical meanings, but they also evince the Hupa's location between Pacific coast culture and high timber country -- a marriage of shells and nuts, woven river roots and upland grass and ferns. The tribe believes that spirits inhere in such elements of the land, and incorporating them gives the garments spiritual resonance. The woodpecker is revered as a fellow woodland spirit with family values, mating for life.

Aunt Viola's regalia are not for sale or loan to outsiders.

"I've got to keep my own things for our dances," she said. "They can't go to the Smithsonian!"

Part of this journey is mental.

Between the generation of young people like Emmilee Risling and members of the older native generation like her great-aunt, there is a middle generation that came of age during an especially activist period for American Indians. Members of this generation are the link between a past of culture destruction and a present when a museum on the Mall could be contemplated.

The Risling clan is emblematic. Aunt Viola's brother, David Risling Jr., is considered a father of Indian education who first imagined such a museum 30 years ago. Emmilee was traveling to Washington with her aunt and uncle, Lois Risling, 55, and Steve Baldy, 54.

The Rislings say the white man appeared only two lifetimes ago: Lois Risling was 10 when her great-grandmother, Nancy Sherman, died; she was more than 100 years old. Sherman, in turn, was a girl in the 1850s when white settlers entered the valley.

A living museum
When she was in graduate school at Stanford University, Lois Risling came across an anthropological text about the Hupa. It contained a picture of her grandmother -- illustrating the skull measurements of her people.

Lois joined in the Indian activism of the late 1960s. She was part of the nonviolent occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. "I don't think we thought of ourselves as radicals," she said. "I think we thought of ourselves as Indian people doing what had to be done."

Baldy, 54, took part in the occupation of a surplus military base near Davis, Calif., in 1970. That led to the founding of D-Q University, an Indian institution still open today. Baldy was president for several years.

Lois Risling, now director of Indian community development at Humboldt State University in Arcata, doesn't think a museum on the Mall can make everything right between Indians and America. Her worst fear is that the museum will be held up as an excuse not to take action on other problems in Indian Country. But she sees it as an important turning point.

"It's a statement and a recognition: We are," she said. "We were here first, and we continue to be here. That's the concept of a living museum. This is a recognition by the United States of America that Indian people are a part of America."

Postcards from the reservation:

One evening at dusk, children were playing in the river. There was a rope swing -- suspended from the highway overpass. The kids dangled merrily, dropped with a splash, and did it again.

There are trailer homes and beautiful wooden ranchers, a couple restaurants and gas stations, a supermarket, no traffic lights. The Lucky Bear Casino is one room. Few gamblers find their way to Hoopa Valley -- a mixed blessing -- so the Lucky Bear only breaks even. But it provides 20 to 30 jobs. Unemployment is about 60 percent.

The tribe was one of the first to take over all governing functions from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in the early 1990s. Its budget is $65 million.

Clifford Lyle Marshall, Hupa tribal chairman, sat in the spacious, modern tribal council chamber. He was not making the trip to Washington. He was troubled that so much Hupa regalia will remain under glass. He believes regalia are for dancing, and he worried that some visitors might think this is a museum to the past.

Still, he applauded the effort. "I'm not boycotting anything," he said. "I've got a budget to do. I feel I've got to take care of business."

A short drive upriver leads to Hoopa Valley High School, where a Hupa language class was in session. The taped voice of a departed elder filled the room, telling a story in the native tongue. The dozen students answered questions in Hupa.

"These guys represent who's going to fill my shoes," said the teacher, Melodie George, 37, daughter of Merv George Sr. and one of a handful of fluent speakers. "I don't want to be the last Hupa speaker."

Her daughter, Kayla Rae Carpenter, 16, was in the class. Two years ago, the tribe held a Flower Dance for her, the coming-of-age ceremony. It was the first Flower Dance in Hoopa Valley in a generation. Since then there have been several.

Grandfather rocks
Back downriver, at one of the nicer houses, Merv George Jr. opened a freezer in his garage and pulled out a stiff woodpecker. The bird's body was black, its scalp velvety red.

George, 31, is administrator of an intertribal fish and water commission. On his own time, he makes regalia. It took him five years to craft two Jump Dance headrolls, each decorated with about 50 woodpecker scalps. He will wear one on the Mall today, and his son, Merv George III, 7, will wear the other.

George and his father and sister consulted with Smithsonian curators on the Hupa exhibit, to get it right this time.

He held up his headroll. "This is my flag," he said, "who I am as a person first."

Somewhere over America, the in-flight movie for the Rislings was "The Alamo," with the scene in which Davy Crockett tells a bloody tale of killing Creek Indians. The characters use such words as "squaw" and "redskin," which the Rislings consider derogatory.

A flight attendant announced the defeat of the Washington Redskins.

After arriving in Washington, Baldy, Lois Risling and Emmilee Risling dropped their regalia at the hotel and paid a night visit to the museum. Its doors were locked for one more day, but they could see this monument from the outside for the first time.

The limestone curves were floodlit against the dark sky. The visitors took in the scene, saying little.

Lois Risling felt drawn to the plants and herbs growing in the native-style landscape. She and Baldy found ferns that grow in Hoopa Valley. Boulders called grandfather rocks are scattered on the grounds. Risling patted them with a happy sigh. Back home, during ceremonies, you draw strength from boulders.

Risling sensed her people won't be specimens this time. No more skull measurements of her great-grandmother. "If the inside is as impressive as what's out here, it's going to be a tremendous wonderful thing," she said.

"There's something familiar about it -- and something new."