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Belgians Honor American Indians

October 27, 1999

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ With Washington’s National Museum of the American Indian not due to open its doors until 2002, Belgium’s capital is currently one of the world’s best places to discover the treasures of native North American culture.

Sound unlikely? Just ask the director of the U.S. museum, still under construction.

``To the best of my knowledge, it is (Europe’s) most significant show representing the native culture of the Western hemisphere for a generation,″ said Rick West. ``They can be proud.″

West crossed the Atlantic to attend the late September opening of ``Indian Summer _ The First Nations of America″ at Brussels’ sprawling Royal Museum of Art and History.

The show traces Indian heritage from pre-Colombian days to the present through more than 600 art works, video displays, life-size reconstructions of Indian homes and even a restaurant serving Buffalo steaks and maple syrup cakes.

In its first days, the exhibit was attracting packed crowds of curious Europeans, and winning rich praise from American Indian artists.

``We all thought it was great, better than much of what we get at home. Canadian museums could learn from this,″ said Bob Boyer, a Metis artist from Saskatchewan, who led a group performing spectacular traditional dances at the opening.

Central to the exhibit is a vast chamber dedicated to revealing the deep diversity of American Indian societies.

There’s a giant teepee from the Great Plains, an Iroquois long house lined with grimacing masks from upstate New York, a totem pole from British Columbia carved with images of a bear, whale and eagle.

Inuit kayaks frozen in a mock snowscape face a reconstruction of a sacred Kiva chamber from the deserts of New Mexico filled with the richly decorated Kachina spirit dolls of the Hopi and Zuni peoples.

``I envy them the material. Much of it is very, very beautiful,″ said West in an interview from his Washington home.

Haunting chants and rhythms of native music follow the visitor past displays of Siksika headdresses, Apache basketwork, intricate Sioux beadwork in a kaleidoscope of colors, Cree snowshoes, lacrosse rackets from the Cherokee and vivid red-and-yellow Navajo blankets.

Under a glass floor are pair upon pair of brilliantly colored moccasins. The empty shoes are a poignant lead-in to the next room where the Indians’ downfall is illustrated by a cabinet stuffed with repeater rifles, revolvers and a U.S. cavalry saber displayed alongside a screen rotating photographs of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, S.D.

The show does not dwell on the tragic history, but seeks to show how Indian heritage is kept alive by a vibrant contemporary arts scene.

``Great consideration was given to showing that we are not just a historical phenomenon,″ said West, a Southern Cheyenne. ``It helps people to see that native arts are still here, that the quality is every bit as good as it was.″

The exhibit, which runs through March 26, has a succession of live events scheduled to bring the show to life. This month there are Inuit dancers and drummers from the Arctic. Through November visitors can watch a Kwakiutl artist carve a totem pole.

Later events will feature Tlingit sculptors from Alaska, Montagnais dancers from Quebec, storytellers recounting Indian myths and legends, craftsmen building a bark canoe and experts offering art history courses.

``This is very unique in Europe. I would like to see more in Europe so they could have a better idea of our culture,″ commented Joyce Kitson, a Sioux artist from North Dakota displaying her porcupine quill embroidery.

The exhibit’s commissioner, Sergio Purin, said his team sought to present American Indian culture in a new light to Europeans brought up on Hollywood Westerns, the Indian adventure novels of Karl May or the comic-book capers of ``Tintin in America.″

``We also had to destroy a certain mangled or romanticized image of the Indian, passed on by popular literature, the movies or even the hippie movement,″ Purin writes in the exhibit catalog.

West thinks they’ve more than succeeded.

``There really was a significant effort to disabuse stereotypes of Native Americans,″ he said. ``It’s a splendid job.″

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