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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 14, 2003 - Issue 89


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Indian museum has local touch

by Tom Webb, St. Paul Pioneer Press - May 2, 2005
credits: photo: NMAI under construction (courtesy of NMAI webcam

NMAI under constructionWASHINGTON — Stone by Minnesota stone, the long-awaited national museum of American Indian life and culture is going up on the National Mall in Washington.

In April, workers began installing Minnesota Kasota limestone on the museum's exterior, even as stonecutters continued to quarry blocks from the Minnesota River Valley. The butter-colored stone is meant to evoke a different feel from the rest of Washington's monuments.

"There's some very rough-face stone, and some very smooth, and it's really intended to resemble a canyon wall, resembling the natural world," said museum spokesman Thomas Sweeney.

On Wednesday evening, officials from 3M and the 3M Foundation underscored Minnesota's role in launching the new museum by presenting a check for $200,000 to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, part of 3M's overall $1.1 million gift.

3M Foundation Vice President Fred Harris envisions that money being used for students around the nation to "benefit from the richness that the museum will be able to preserve and present."

The dream of building a museum in Washington to tell the American Indian story has been decades in the making, and finally is taking form on a prime piece of land — on the grassy mall between the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol.

"It's such a tremendously fine location; it's the first building you see when you come down the Capitol steps," said Howard Vetter, chairman of Vetter Stone Co., the Kasota firm that's providing the distinctive stone.

Kasota Stone"Washington is such a gray city, and it's refreshing to see our nice golden Minnesota stone among all those gray buildings," he added

When the museum opens its doors next year, curators hope the golden building will help tell the American Indian story in a new way: entirely from the tribal viewpoint.

"It will be a much different museum than people are used to," said Sweeney, the museum spokesman and a member of the Potawatomi tribe. "There will be very prominent demonstrations that native cultures are alive and well.''

Tribes or communities from North, Central and South America will be telling their own stories through the exhibition, Sweeney said.

Here again, Minnesota tribal influences will be prominent, starting with the museum's grand centerpiece: a 120-foot-high domed performance space. There, set into the floor, is a 30-inch circle of pipestone, the rare and sacred blood-red stone quarried in southwest Minnesota.

Travis Erickson, of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota, is quarrying the museum's pipestone by hand, a labor-intensive process.

To reach the thin layer of pipestone, Erickson first must dig through 10 feet of quartzite. Erickson sees the job in a spiritual way.

"In my mind, the pipestone pieces I'm putting in are going to be the heart of the building," Erickson said. "When I talked to the Smithsonian people, they want this building to come alive, in a spiritual sense. The pipestone rock has always been important to our people for over 1,000 years. … I understand that spiritual point of view, that respect for our ancestors."

When the museum opens — timed for the autumn equinox of 2004 — its first exhibits will include contemporary Indian art, featuring work by the late George Morrison of the Grand Portage band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Later exhibits will draw on the museum's permanent collection, which includes more than 800 Indian artifacts from Minnesota tribes.

Many of the artifacts were collected a century ago by a wealthy adventurer named George Heye, who scoured the continent for virtually any Indian-made item he could find, amassing a staggering 800,000 items.

For Minnesotans, pale yellow limestone is a familiar sight along river bluffs, and Kasota stone is featured in such prominent buildings as the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Minneapolis. But the Indian museum is "probably the most prestigious job we've ever had, although we've done a lot of large work," Vetter said.

The museum building appears to undulate, giving it a flowing feel — but causing some headaches for the stone cutters.

"It's the first time that we've produced curved, split-faced stone," Vetter said. "We actually developed the machine to split the stone on a curve. Two years ago, we didn't even know it could be done."

On Wednesday evening, Vetter and his son, Ron, were in Washington to attend a special Indian museum event at the Smithsonian. So were 3M officials. They heard about the construction progress, and got a preview of the museum's grand opening plans in 2004, when the Smithsonian will hold a festival to introduce the Indian museum to America.

"It will be a way for more people to experience what is really a renaissance of American Indian culture over the last few decades," Sweeney said.

The National Museum of the American Indian Web site is To see construction in progress from the museum's live webcam, go to

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  

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