Digital History
Speech at the Opening of the National Museum of the American Indian
Digital History ID 4309

Author:   Ben Nighthorse Campbell

Annotation: For the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2004, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell gave a speech before thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Document: Senator Dan Inouye, my friend and colleague, to whom we owe so much, often says that Washington is a city of monuments and yet, there is not one monument to the Native people of this land. This magnificent structure is that monument and in it we will tell our story.

Indeed it is a monument to the Mimbres, the Anasazi, the Toltecs and Hopewell, the Chacoans and hundreds of other cultures now long gone, who lived in communities called Tikal, Tenochtitlan, Cahokia and a multitude of other enlightened communities while European cities were in their infancy.

They were communities inhabited by farmers and doctors, teachers and craftsmen, housewives and soldiers, priests and astronomers, who with all their collective wisdom could not have known that earth mother would someday be called real estate. They knew not alcohol or drug abuse, tuberculosis or cholera, smallpox or AIDs or even the common cold. How much we can learn from them.

It is a monument to the millions of Native people who died of sickness, slavery, starvation and war until they were reduced from an estimated 50 million people in North and Central America to just over 200,000 souls in the United States by 1900. Only 400 years after the old world collided with their world, the Native people of this land became America's first endangered species.

In spite of this sad truth, this beautiful structure is also a monument to the 190,000 American Indian veterans who served with honor and courage in our armed forces, defending a nation that was founded on religious freedom, yet practicing their own was often against the law. They faithfully carried out the orders of the Commander in Chief, even though before 1924, they could not legally vote for him because they were not considered citizens.

It is a monument to our elders, who as children, were taken from their loved ones and placed in boarding schools that often had the adage: "Kill the Indian to save the child."

All too often they were beaten for speaking their Native language or praying to their Creator. All too many chose suicide as their only alternative, but those who endured through shorn of their hair and stripped of their dignity were never shorn of their spiritualism or stripped of their pride. They are our mothers and fathers.

It is a monument to a people who were here before the birth of a boy king in Egypt called Tutankhamen and before the Greek poet Homer wrote the Iliad and before Caesar watched Roman chariots race in the Circus Maximus and before Christ walked the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

It is a monument to their gifts to humanity. Native Americans are much more than a sum of gifts. They are more than squash and tomatoes, corn and beans and potatoes, pumpkins and peanuts, and all the medicines derived from plants that began as Indian lore and are now used to save lives around the world.

Their supreme gift to the world, in my view, even surpasses the treasures you will see in this beautiful building. It was a unique system of self-governance never before tried in the monarchies of Europe or Asia. It is called Democracy. It was a system copied from the Council Fires of the Iroquois Confederacy by Benjamin Franklin and penned for a new fledgling United States of America. It is still used by this nation and is copied, in part, by almost every emerging Democracy in the world.

This system was best described by President Abraham Lincoln as a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

And last, we open this monument to all the dreamers who helped make today come true.

As I leave public office in a few short months, I am reminded of a stanza from the Navajo chant of The Beauty Way.

The Navajo people sing: In the house of long life, There I wander, In the house of happiness, There I wander, Beauty is before me and behind me, Beauty is above me and below me, Beauty is all around me, With it I wander, In old age traveling, With it I wander, On the beautiful trail am I, With it I wander.

Thanks to the efforts of all those assembled today and so many more, we celebrate the opening of this house of happiness, this house of long life and walk the trail of beauty.

To all our Native American friends here today I say: The sacred hoop has been restored. The circle is complete. And the Hopi prophecy of the reemergence of the Native People has come true.

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