More than almost anyone else, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) has a personal stake in the new National Museum of the American Indian that opens today on the National Mall.
Not only was Campbell responsible for introducing the legislation that authorized the museum in the House (Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye did so in the Senate); he’s also a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe and the only American Indian in the Senate.
So when Campbell arrived at the museum Monday for his first viewing of the finished product, he was stopped every few feet by friends and well-wishers. Nearly every object on display, from the gourd rattles in the museum’s gift shop to a glass case of peace medals, invoked some personal association for Campbell. The museum’s director, Rick West, is a longtime friend; the modern American Indian artist Allan Houser, whose work is temporarily on display in the museum, is “a quiet Apache,” whose “daughter-in-law taught my kids in the first grade,” he said.
For Campbell, who will retire at the end of this Congress, the museum represents nothing less than the crowning achievement of more than two decades of public service.
“Personally, it’s not only the culmination of my political career, but the highlight because of the cultural significance for me,” he said. “They call it a closing of the circle. Things are complete and good.”
“See there’s your name,” said his former Congressional staffer Pablita Abeyta, who now works for the museum, pointing to an engraving just inside the grand, domed entry.
Campbell reached out to touch his name. “Could I make a rubbing?” he asked, smiling.
The Senator stepped onto the elevator that takes visitors to the start of the museum’s multimedia experience. Unlike most museums, the NMAI begins on the fourth floor, with a 13-minute introductory film, “Who We Are.” It then wends its way downward through a variety of exhibits on American Indian philosophies, tribes and lives.
In the elevator, Abeyta informed Campbell that he’ll be making an appearance in the film. That reminded Campbell of an earlier appearance on the big screen, when he acted in Japanese movies to make ends meet while training for the U.S. Olympic judo team in the early 1960s. Back then, he chuckled, “they typecast me as the thug.”
The Long and Winding Road
While Campbell’s heritage made him a natural supporter of the museum, the museum’s initial legislative champion, Inouye, said that a trio of events in the 1980s impressed upon him the need for some sort of memorial to American Indians in the nation’s capital.
First, Inouye said, was the realization that of the city’s some 400 “statues, monuments and places like that” there was “not one Indian.” Then, in the late 1980s, during a Senate hearing on a bill providing for the repatriation of Native American human remains, Inouye was shocked to learn that the Smithsonian Institution possessed some 18,500 human skeletons and skulls, of which 14,000 were Indians.
“How would the Irish community take it if they were told there were 18,500 skulls and skeletons” in the Smithsonian? he wondered. So he set about to explore what could be done in the way of a memorial on the Mall.
Inouye contacted the National Capital Planning Commission and was told that the last remaining site on the Mall had been designated for use by the Smithsonian Institution. If he was to accomplish his goal of a memorial to American Indians on the Mall, it would likely have to be in the form of a Smithsonian museum, said Patricia Zell, minority staff director and chief counsel to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Finally, Inouye was invited by the late Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), then a board member of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York, to view its roughly 800,000 piece collection of American Indian artifacts — one of the largest in the world.
Accompanied by then-Smithsonian Secretary Robert Adams, Inouye went to a warehouse in the Bronx. “Good God, what I saw, I could not believe,” he recalls.
It “looked like a drycleaning plant with rows and rows of plastic-covered buffalo robes,” he said. It also had “boxes of stone tomahawks” and “sacred masks by the hundreds.”
“I could almost see [the collection] deteriorating before me,” he said.
The Smithsonian was immediately interested in the collection, Zell recalled, but “the city and state of New York all of a sudden developed a keen interest and didn’t want it to move.”
Two years later in 1989, after “many, many meetings” and concerted urging by Inouye and David Rockefeller, an agreement was reached to transfer the collection to the Smithsonian. Advocacy by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) kept a New York “presence” for the collection, however, in the form of the George Gustav Heye Center in the Alexander Hamilton Custom House in Manhattan.
In May of that year, Inouye introduced a bill in the Senate to establish the museum. The next month, Campbell, then a Democratic Representative, introduced companion legislation in the House that included a provision requiring the Smithsonian to repatriate skeletal remains to tribal governments for burial.
The legislation, signed into law by then-President George H.W. Bush in November 1989, mandated that one-third of the construction costs be raised from private sources. A high-profile honorary committee, chaired by Campbell, was formed to help with fundraising efforts.
In 2000, Campbell introduced legislation directing the Treasury Department to issue commemorative American Buffalo coins — a move which netted some $5 million for the museum, its endowment and its educational outreach efforts. Inouye was also deeply involved in the fundraising effort, traveling the country on outreach trips aimed at securing funding from various gaming tribes. Ultimately, said Campbell, nearly half of the museum’s total $219 million cost was raised through private sources.
From the beginning, West said that both Senators supported the notion of the museum as a collaborative venture with native peoples.
“They wanted it to be ‘outside-in’ and ‘bottom-up,’” West said.
Their perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee also allowed Inouye and Campbell to play key roles in ensuring that the museum received funding each year, most notably during the mid-1990s when a reduction in federal discretionary spending meant that millions of dollars in funding for the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md. — where the majority of the Heye collection is now housed — was in danger of being cut.
“If we were not both on Indian Affairs and both on Appropriations, it could have been slower coming,” Campbell said.
During a dispute between the Smithsonian and the museum’s original design architect, Douglas Cardinal, Inouye was called in to try to mediate. In 1998, the relationship was severed when Cardinal, who had subcontracted to do the work with the American firm GBQC, was unable to resolve his differences with his employer.
“There were so many close scrapes when … the project seemed to be going south quickly,” Zell said.
Apart from his legislative and cultural association with the museum, Campbell, an accomplished jewelry designer, also has a temporary retrospective of his own there.
“Oh look at this,” he beamed as he entered the exhibit.
The 100 or so pieces, which span some 30 years, range from a detailed ox-blood coral buffalo skull designed for the 1976 centennial of the Battle of Little Bighorn to his pioneering painted mesa-style jewelry, a technique he learned from a samurai swordmaker while living in Japan.
The show was cleared in advance by the Senate Ethics Committee and was organized by Fort Lewis College with financial support from the Southern Ute Indian tribe.
Campbell stopped in front of a glass case and pointed to an intricate silver bolo tie.
“That will be George W. Bush’s,” he said proudly. Campbell has given a similar tie to nearly every U.S. president since Nixon upon their departure from office. (The Colorado Republican notes that he hasn’t “gotten around” to Bill Clinton’s yet.)
Campbell himself said he’s particularly fond of bolo ties due to a larynx injury during his judo days. And ever since first receiving approval from then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas.) after his 1987 election to Congress, he’s always worn them on the House and later Senate floors instead of the usually required neck tie.
A Legacy of Rebirth
When the colorful procession of native peoples makes its way down the Mall this morning for the museum’s dedication, Inouye and Campbell will take their place at the head of the march.
For the occasion, Campbell will don full American Indian regalia, including new buckskins made especially for the event. Meanwhile, Inouye, said he’ll also appear in “native” attire: in his case, a coat and tie. (Inouye, who is of Japanese ancestry, first joined the Indian Affairs Committee in 1978 at the urging of then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who told him — “in jest, I suppose” — that he should join the panel because he “looked like one”.
Campbell, who will be managing his final bill on the Senate floor later today, said he’ll likely return to the chamber in his Indian attire, assuming the Senate approves by unanimous consent his request to do so.
Before stepping into a taxi to head back to the Hill on Monday, Campbell stopped for one final glimpse of the museum’s undulating limestone wall.
It reminds him of an old Hopi prophesy that said that after a period of tribulation, the “red people” would experience a period of revival.
“A lot of people think this is that resurgence,” he said.