By Maggie Master
Medill News Service
WASHINGTON--Lorenda Sanchez laughs, recalling a conversation she overheard earlier that day on the National Mall between a boy of about six and his mother.
"Is that a realIndian or is it just a costume?" the boy asked, tugging his mother's shirt. When his mom responded that the man in full tribal regalia was, indeed a "real Indian," the boy gave her a puzzled look and replied: "My teacher said all the Indians were extinct."
For Sanchez, a Native American who works directly with California tribes, it was a laugh tinged with disappointment.
"This isn't just kids," Sanchez said. "This is somebody's teacher telling him this. It's a misconception about Indian tribes and Indians in the twenty-first century. A lot of people think we're extinct."
And it's a misconception Sanchez hopes will be dispelled with the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, which Tuesday became the Smithsonian's 18th national museum to open its doors on the Washington Mall.
The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian set off a six-day festival celebrating Native American culture, music and food and marked the culmination of a dream 15 years in the making -- a process many Native Americans say was long overdue.
The museum is the first monument or museum dedicated to American Indians in the nation's capital. It aims to offer visitors a comprehensive perspective on the lives of Native peoples, stressing not only the history but also the contemporary reality of tribes across the nation.
"At long last, the culturally different histories, cultures and peoples of the Americas can come together in a new mutual understanding and respect," said W. Richard West, Jr., founding director of the museum. It is only through that respect, West said, that a cultural reconciliation long overdue may take place in America.
Mary Phillips, a member of the Omaha Nation tribe in California who came for the museum's opening festivities, said there is much ground to make up in educating the public. Phillips said she hopes the museum will demystify the Native American culture and trample classic Indian stereotypes. She was outraged earlier this year when popular music group Outkast featured an Indian-themed performance of their hit song "Hey Ya" at the 2004 Grammy's. The dance-number involved women in revealing buckskin costumes dancing around teepees.
"I couldn't believe this was happening in 2004," Phillips said. "It made me feel ill."
Looking around the festival, Phillips said she was overwhelmed to see her world colliding with mainstream America.
"This is so basic to us," Phillips said of the elaborate Native American dress, music and foods flooding the mall's gravel paths. "Whereas it is new ground to the rest of the country. We're [usually] so invisible."
Dr. Jerry Bread, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Kiowa tribe, said the museum speaks to a changing tide in greater America's perception of the American Indian.
"The museum is just an indicator of what is taking place in our country," Bread said. "There is a movement to bring about appropriateness of the image of native Indians rather than always driving around in circles of our past."
But Bread conceded there was still work to do in abolishing the "teepees, wagons and horsies" stereotypes of yesterday.
"Those stereotypes are detrimental to Indian people realizing the American dream," he said.
Jennifer Villalobos sees firsthand what is at stake in battling these perceptions. She runs a consulting group geared toward promoting wellness and sobriety among tribal youth.
"We are the minority of the minorities," Villalobos agreed.
Yet Villalobos speaks of a renaissance period for Native American teenagers currently underway across the country, with a greater number of this group returning to the foundations of a culture they had previously turned away from.
"We're seeing more and more teens come back to the language, learning the songs, the history," Villalobos said.
She still hopes that this resurgence in Native American pride will someday rub off on mainstream American culture.
"I dream of a day when I turn on MTV and see a native singer."
"Or how about MNTV?" Phillips pipes in. "Music Native Television. Keep watching. It will catch on!"