Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

The First Americans Festival

Hula hunk Photo, Washington, D.C., United States

For openings of major museums and monuments, such as last year’s Memorial Day dedication of the World War II Memorial, Washington pulls out all the stops. This was the case again last September, when the long-anticipated National Museum of the American Indian opened. I’d seen this striking museum slowly take shape in the space between the National Air & Space Museum and the National Botanical Garden, and it was clear that this was going to be a new type of museum for the city.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004, the day the museum opened, began with an amazing procession of thousands of native people from all over the globe, many in traditional regalia. I didn’t manage to make it down early for the first day’s festivities (in fact, I had just come back late the night before from the IgoUgo get-together in Vancouver), but I managed to get down to the Mall later in the day for an unforgettable afternoon. What struck me most was the incredible diversity of native peoples that were assembled. This was a very special day for them, and the pride and sense of inclusion they felt was palpable.

Moments after exiting the Smithsonian Metro station, I stopped in my tracks just to watch festival participants pass by. I don’t ever think I’ve seen such beautiful traditional clothing – beaded, feathered, embroidered, and elaborately worked in all manner of materials. This was a day for unabashed picture-taking, as people who had earlier marched in the procession continued to wear their regalia throughout the day. Perhaps the most striking ensembles were worn by an Aztec dance group hailing from San Francisco, but, really, everywhere I turned were there native people – from as far away as New Zealand all the way up to the northern reaches of Canada.

I’d just spent time in Vancouver at the Anthropology Museum of British Columbia, so I was glad to see so many people from the Pacific Northwest, including the Git-Hoan dancers of the Tsimshian people, who performed traditional dances wearing beautifully carved and painted masks. Throughout the day, I gravitated toward the Dance Stage, which featured one impressive group after another. Dancers from Rangimarie, a pan-tribal Maori performing arts group, gave the museum’s new director, Richard West, an honorary welcome in a heartfelt ceremony. Later, on the same stage, I was so impressed by the performance by the Halau O Kekuhi group, practitioners of the art of hula and oli (chant), that I made sure to take in their performance again on another day of the festival.

Indeed, Hawai’i was particularly well represented. Outside the new museum, large volcanic rocks "on loan" from our fiftieth state (for it is said to anger the gods when pieces of the landscape, such as rocks, are permanently removed from the islands) have been set in the reflective pool running the length of the building, just below to the shimmering waters that cascade down the side of the building. I was happy to hear Ledward Ka’apana, one of the masters of ki ho’alu, or slack-key guitar; I’d seen him the winter before at the Barns of Wolftrap in Vienna, VA, during the annual Slack Key Festival, and it was a pleasure to hear him once again.

The evening featured a star-studded concert with such well-known musicians as Buffy Sainte-Marie, Rita Coolidge (now we’re talkin’ ‘bout my generation, folks!), and Lila Downs. Before the performance ended, though, we got in the immensely long line to enter the museum. Timed passes had been given out earlier in the day, and ours were for 10pm. In fact, it was around 11pm when we finally entered the building, but it was worth the wait. The museum stayed open all night long, with dancing, drumming, and singing taking place continuously in the Sacred Circle, the focal point of the atrium of the museum. Only the thought that our carriage (the Metro) would soon into a pumpkin (that is, shut down) sent us scurrying home well past midnight.

We came back a few days later, though, for more of the same. The festival stretched over 6 days, though the first day was unquestionably the most unique, as there were so many people wearing traditional clothes. Still, we wanted to bring several friends with us to see some of the musicians, exhibits, and dancers that we hadn’t been able to take in on Tuesday. Somehow, for example, we’d missed the amazing "scissor dancers" from Peru, who performed jaipanakay, "the dance of confrontation," with almost unbelievable agility and strength. We watched young Diné (Navajo) carry on the traditions of their people through decorous but lively dances; ate traditional foods, such as fry bread, authentically prepared at the food tents; relaxed in the shade while the Aloha Boys played backyard-style Hawaiian music; and listened to traditional Inuit throat singing and storytelling.

Diné feet

Although this festival was what I’d call a fabulous one-off never to be repeated, performances are still regularly held at the new National Museum of the American Indian – the Sacred Circle is an ideal performing space – so if you do plan on visiting the museum while in Washington, check their website’s event page to see if there will be an performance or gathering. Also, it’s worth noting that the National PowWow, sponsored by the NMAI, will be held at the nearby MCI Center from August 12 to 14, 2005.

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