The top level of the imposing building of light brown limestone featuresa permanent exhibition that highlights how spiritual beliefs and valuesmerge with everyday life of native peoples across the Western Hemisphere.
"Spirituality is really a rather fundamental tenet of native life," saidRichard West, director of the newest Smithsonian Institution museum. "It imbues everything, as far as I'm concerned."
The fourth-floor exhibition, "Our Universes," uses the spoken andwritten words of "community curators" to examine eight native communities,from the Lakota in South Dakota to the Mapuche in Chile.
"We are spiritual beings on a human journey," said Garry Raven, ofManitoba, Canada, who teaches about the Anishinaabe people located in theGreat Lakes region and central Canada. "Everything has a spirit and everything is interconnected."
Emil Her Many Horses, curator of the "Our Universes" exhibit, spoke inan interview about what he gained from spending time with spiritual leadersand elders of the Yup'ik community in Alaska who were the last in theirgeneration to be raised in what was called "the men's house."
"They said that that was ... comparable to their university or theirchurch," he said. "It's where they learned all the lessons of life."The curator said museum staffers met several times with elders andspiritual leaders of the featured communities, involving them in the reviewof the exhibit's design, scripts and use of media.
"Anytime we gathered and came together they wanted to have a blessingthat went along with it to bless our work so that things went well," hesaid.
The well-lit individual exhibits on each community are off a darker,curved path with markings of the solstice calendar and simulated stars on acanopy above--reminders of native use of the sun, the moon and the starsto mark time long before calendars were used. Multiple entrances to each ofthe eight featured communities permit visitors to turn and twist through thecolorful displays featuring videos, audio and the drums and decorative dressused in ceremonies and everyday activities.
The sacredness of most anything--from mountains to crops--isexplained by the different community leaders.
Many of the spiritual references connect the current generation to thosepreceding it. Mervin George Sr., a community curator of the Hupa people innorthwestern California, described the importance of the religious dances heleads.
"When they leave this world, all the K'ixanay (ancestors) go to a placewhere they dance forever," he said. "So when we pray, we ask them to comeback and dance with us. During this time, the world is being remade and allthe ancestors are with us."
Other references to spirits from the past are included in amini-exhibit on the Day of the Dead, in which a video shows people withpainted faces celebrating the annual welcoming of the spirits of loved oneswho have died.
Her Many Horses, the curator, notes in the mini-exhibit that the ongoingritual is one that continues despite attempts by Spanish colonizers to haltit. An exhibit plaque explains what happened: "To integrate it intoChristian tradition, they moved its observance to the first two days ofNovember: All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day."