April 22, 2015

Every day is Earth Day

NMAI from woodland landscape
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Foreground, lower left: George Rivera (Pojoaque Pueblo), Buffalo Dancer II (detail). Cast bronze, 2nd of an edition of 4. Gift of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, George Rivera, and Glenn Green Galleries. NMAI 26/7920. For the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the Buffalo Dance is an enduring celebration, a prayer for the well-being of all.

The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., stands out for its evocation of monumental sandstone cliffs and tumbling streams. The grounds that surround the building are a living collection of indigenous plants, and details throughout the museum connect indoor spaces to the natural world. The museum's commitment to the environment, however, goes beyond the building's striking and thoughtful design to engage staff members at all levels—from senior management to cultural interpreters to facilities specialists and kitchen crew.

In 2011, the National Museum of the American Indian became the first Smithsonian museum to achieve LEED status. LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is the building rating and certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to promote sustainability in building design, construction, operation, and maintenance. LEED measures nine key areas:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Location and linkages
  • Awareness and education
  • Innovation in design
  • Regional priority

The museum has an active sustainability program and a sustainability committee of staff from various units and departments to monitor museum activities, brainstorm ideas to address challenges, and take follow-up actions. To give just one example, the staff works to improve recycling throughout the museum. New signage in English and Spanish helps visitors and staff be more aware of separating recyclables and compostables into the correct bins. The museum recycles more than 60 percent of total waste and this year redirected 35 tons of material from disposal in landfills to reuse via recycling and composting.

In addition to LEED certification, the museum received a 3-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) for the award-winning Mitsitam Cafe. The GRA certifies restaurants' environmental friendliness, including waste reduction and recycling, water efficiency, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable foods, energy consumption, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction efforts. 

The museum seeks to reflect Native values in all its work. One teaching that comes to mind today is to think in terms of seven generations: Our ancestors gave us the world to keep in trust for our children and grandchildren. Happy Earth Day, everyone!

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April 17, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Guayabo and Las Mercedes

Tomorrow, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video, led by Ricardo Vázquez Leiva, an archaeologist who works at the National Museum of Costa Rica, takes a look at two archaeological sites in what is now Costa Rica—Guayabo and Las Mercedes.

Guayabo and Las Mercedes are important for excavation because the scale of the architecture found there suggests that they represent societies where power was highly centralized. In southern Central America, they stand as uniquely monumental examples.

Many of the objects unearthed in this area were excavated in the early 20th century by teams who worked for the American businessman Minor Cooper Keith and his wife, Cristina Castro Fernández, whose family was prominent in Costa Rica. The Keiths amassed a collection of nearly 16,000 objects during their time in Central America. In 1916, Minor Keith became a trustee of the Museum of the American Indian—Heye Foundation, later to become the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. 

Research excavations resumed in the region in 2005. Objects recovered from Guayabo and Las Mercedes continue to provide new insights into the lives and societies of the peoples who lived there.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue. A short article on Minor Keith can be found on pages 72 and 73.

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.


Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.


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April 13, 2015

Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Stone Spheres of Costa Rica

This Friday, April 18, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This third video takes a look at three archaeological sites—El Silenció, Finca Seis, and Batambal—all of which contain stone spheres made by peoples of what is now Costa Rica before AD 1500.

The video features Francisco Corrales, a member of the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Costa Rica. The three sites he invites us to experience are within the Greater Chiriquí region of Central America, an area that is further explored within Cerámica de los Ancestros.

The sites are unique from one another in terrain. El Silenció houses the largest stone sphere recorded thus far, but years of pasture burns in the grasslands area have taken a toll on the stone's outer layers. In the low-lying river plain of Finca Seis, flooding buried the spheres under many layers of sediment, preserving the only original alignment found to date. Batambal rests high in the mountains, a strategic position for views of surrounding hills and the valleys below.

The reasons for the stones’ creation remain a mystery. Corrales explains that while spheres apparently marked locations with special significance where important events would have taken place, some may have had astronomical purposes as well. Anthropologists and archaeologists continue to survey the areas, and junior members of their fields do much of the cataloguing work, providing a unique learning environment in which to build the expertise of a new generation of scholars.


For more details about the first peoples of Costa Rica, download the free exhibition catalogue

All four exhibition videos can be seen as a playlist here.

—Joshua Stevens

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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April 10, 2015

Meet Native America: Robert J. Welch, Jr., Chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh 

Chairman Robert Welch Jr
Chairman Robert J. Welch, Jr., Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Photo by G. Ballard. © 2015 Viejas Tribal Government. 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Howka—hello, my name is Robert J. Welch, Jr. I am the chairman of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

Where is your tribal community located? 

My tribe is the Capitan Grande Band of Diegueno Mission Indians of California: Viejas (Baron Long) Group of Capitan Grande Band of Mission Indians of the Viejas Reservation, California. The Viejas Reservation is located approximately 35 miles east of San Diego and contains 1,600 acres of land.

Is there a significant point in your people's history that you would like to share?

The Viejas Band originates from the Capitan Grande Reservation and the village of Los Conejos, in the area known today as El Capitan Reservoir. The Capitan Grande Reservation was comprised of 22,000 acres and actually included the original land of two bands: Capitan Grande and Los Conejos. Due to the growing needs of San Diego, in 1935 the city dammed the river and diverted the water. Capitan Grande and Los Conejos tribal members were convinced to sell the heart of their reservation, since the land was inevitably going to be taken by imminent domain by the City of San Diego and flooded by the new reservoir.

A significant point in our history is during this time in the 1930s, when the original members of the Capitan Grande Band and Los Conejos Band were forced to sell their lands. The proceeds from the sale of the land could have been divided equally amongst the current members, allowing them to purchase individual land holdings throughout San Diego, which was, at the time, a small city. Instead, the tribe agreed to stay together and pool their money to buy new lands. After careful consideration by members of the tribe, they bought the Baron Long Ranch. After members of the band relocated, however, the water rights and infrastructure promised never came to fruition. The Viejas Valley became solely dependent on the meager supplies of rainfall and groundwater. Without river water, farming—which the people depended on as their sole source of income—was no longer possible. 

Today, Viejas tribal members are proud owners of a tribal-government-owned and operated casino. There is a job for every tribal member who desires one. There are no Viejas tribal members on welfare or dependent on taxpayers for social services or improvements to their lands. The economic foundation we fought hard to create is providing a better future for our people, from housing and healthcare to college scholarships. In addition, the casino has created nearly 1,700 jobs and contributes millions to the local economy through the purchase of goods and services.

How is your tribal government set up?

The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is a sovereign government recognized by the United States as having governmental jurisdiction over its land and tribal members. The tribe’s government consists of two levels: General Council and Tribal Council. The General Council includes all of the band’s voting members. A rigorous form of participatory democracy, the General Council has approval over land use and tribal budgets. The General Council elects the Tribal Council, which includes the chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer, and three council members at-large. Tribal government officials are elected to four-year terms of office. Like local governmental entities, the Tribal Council serves as the executive and legislative branches, and has quasi-judicial powers as well. Like special district boards (water district, port authority, economic enterprise or redevelopment agencies), the Tribal Council also serves as the “board of directors” for Viejas Band economic enterprises, with all tribal members as “shareholders.”

Is there any other functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system? 

The foundation for policies and procedures is our custom and tradition.

Chairman Welch Congressman Peters and others 
Viejas tribal leaders meet with Rep. Scott Peters. From left to right: Councilman Gabriel T. TeSam, Councilman Adrian M. Brown, Congressman Peters, Chairman Welch, and Vice Chairman Victor E. Woods. Photo courtesy of the Viejas Tribal Government. 

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Tribal government officials are elected to four-year terms of office.

How often does your government meet?

The General Council meets on a monthly basis, and the Tribal Council meets daily.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader? 

As chairman, my goal is to continue to grow programs and infrastructure for the health and welfare of my people, and to diversify our business holdings so that we may continue to be economically independent as a tribe for generations to come. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe? Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I have been loved, guided, and supported by two very strong family figures and tribal leaders—my mother and grandfather. I follow in their footsteps as a leader of my tribe.

My mentor was my mother, Carmen Daisy Welch. She was the first and remains the only tribal chairwoman elected by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

My grandfather, Thomas Hyde, was a member of the Viejas Tribal Council for 40 years, holding virtually every position on the council. He was also a guiding force and mentor in my life.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

There are 264 adult members of the Viejas Band and approximately 80 children. 

What are the criteria to become a member?

The criterion to become a member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is to have one-eighth Capitan Grande blood.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Unfortunately, the percentage of fluent Kumeyaay language speakers on the Viejas Reservation is very low. However, in recent years the tribe has made the revitalization of the language a priority. The Viejas Tribal Education Center offers a Kumeyaay/English dual language preschool program for tribal children ages 3 to 5 years old. We also have a Kumeyaay Success program at three of the local school district campuses where teachers conduct leadership courses in Kumeyaay to tribal elementary and middle school students. Viejas tribal members also hold weekly Kumeyaay cultural classes for the community where they perform Birdsinging and dance, and teach the children other Kumeyaay cultural traditions. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Our enterprises include the Viejas Casino & Resort, 2014 recipient of the prestigious AAA Four Diamond Award. The casino and luxurious new hotel feature incredible gaming, multiple entertainment venues, a wide variety of dining experiences, and high-end shopping and recreation. Visitors will love Viejas Hotel’s modern amenities, streamlined design, and handcrafted, boutique feel. The hotel features a lush, spacious pool and lounge area, a modern fitness center, a convenient, user-friendly business center, 99 luxury rooms, and 29 VIP suites. With the new hotel, the Viejas Band has taken the next step in our ongoing property refinement, providing a premier guest experience. 

Across from the casino is the 255,000-square-foot Viejas Outlets shopping center, with more than 50 of America’s favorite brand-name stores. At the heart of the center is the Show Court, featuring an interactive water fountain by day and dynamic seasonal shows choreographed with lasers and pyrotechnics by night. 

Ma-Tar-Awa RV/Camper Park, which opened in 1976, was the first business venture of the Viejas Band. Sitting on 133 sheltered acres of the Viejas Reservation, Ma-Tar-Awa features a clubhouse, convenience store, laundry facility, propane service, and swimming pool, as well as 88 RV hookups and campsites.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Aside from the casino, hotel, outlet center, and Ma-Tar-Awa campground, there are several fun attractions at Viejas, including the Viejas Bowl. Viejas Bowl provides the perfect atmosphere for beginners and serious bowlers alike with 12 lanes, unbeatable specials, and Galactic Bowl on Friday and Saturday nights. Plus, a great all-American menu, a wide selection of suds and sodas, and flat screen, hi-def TVs make Viejas Bowl the go-to venue for watching sports—or just hanging out. Also, within the casino is the V Lounge, which offers the perfect atmosphere for mingling, lounging or enjoying the best in local live entertainment and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights.

What annual events does the tribe sponsor? 

The Kumeyaay Indians, whose ancestors welcomed explorer Juan Cabrillo to San Diego with open arms in 1542, continue ancient traditions of hospitality and sharing. We honor these traditions today through generous contributions to a wide variety of charitable and community organizations. Each year, the Viejas Band makes philanthropic donations to local community groups, schools, and service and civic organizations, as well as to charity events sponsored by other commercial businesses. Such support comes directly from the Viejas Tribal Council and its wholly owned business enterprises—Viejas Casino & Resort, Viejas Hotel, Viejas Outlets, Viejas Entertainment and Production, and Ma-Tar-Awa RV/Camper Park.

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation? 

The Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians is a sovereign government recognized by the United States government as having jurisdiction over its land and tribal members. Tribal governments have autonomy and are not subject to state jurisdiction, based on their inherent sovereignty—tribal governments were governing our lands prior to the founding of the United States, and prior to the signing of treaties with the federal government or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Along with the other tribal governments throughout the United States, the Viejas Band has a “trust” relationship with the federal government, enforces federal laws, and participates in issues relating to its land and people on a government-to-government basis.

The Viejas Band has become one of the nation’s most respected gaming tribes for its entrepreneurial success and political advocacy of economic sovereignty, and for the example it has set for tribal government businesses throughout the nation.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?

The message I consistently share with our youth is, education is the key to success. I highly recommend and encourage our youth to move off the reservation to attend college, pursue employment opportunities, or enlist in the military. I encourage them to broaden their horizons and interact socially with other cultures and communities. Then when they return to the reservation—and they will, because our people are tied to the land—they will be better prepared to run our business through the real-world experiences they have gained. 

In closing, I would like to share the following with the youth: Poor leaders will tell you how many people work for them. Great leaders tell you how many people they work for.

Thank you.

Eyay ahun—thank you.


To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 

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April 06, 2015

The Skábmagovat Film Festival: Indigenous Film above the Arctic Circle

Yoik singer, opening night
A yoik singer opens the Skábmagovat Film Festival. January 2015, Inari, Finland.

As a film programmer you become a seasoned festival-goer, immersed in the cultural landscape of film, new media, and the relationships you build with other filmmakers and film institutions around the world. The Film and Video Center of the National Museum of American Indian thrives on building those relationships, and my experiences with the Skábmagovat Film Festival are some of those unique cultural exchanges.

The village of Inari
The village of Inari, Finland, 2 degrees north of the Arctic Circle.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival is presented in Inari, Finland, a small village in Finnish Lapland just north of the Arctic Circle. The region is known for its sub-zero temperatures during the winter, spectacular Northern Lights, reindeer herding, and community of Sámi, the indigenous people of Scandinavia. The Sámi reside in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia and are the only indigenous people officially recognized in the European Union. They continue to preserve their language and culture in order to better provide for the livelihood of future generations.

The Skábmagovat Film Festival, which celebrated its 16th anniversary in January, is one of the premiere international Indigenous film festivals in the world. Each year the festival spotlights films from all indigenous regions, including First Nations, American Indians, Aboriginal Australia, Maori, and many others. This year the festival’s focus was on Latin America, and featured films came from Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. I was honored to be asked by Skábmagovat executive director Jorma Lehtola (Sámi) to help curate the Latin American indigenous section and serve as an invited speaker at this year’s film festival seminar.

Inari lake troutAs an invited delegate I had the pleasure of eating some traditional dishes, like reindeer and trout with a side of lingonberries, even eating a meal in a Sámi lavvu, a traditional tent or tipi. With other delegates, I had an opportunity to explore the wilderness by visiting a Sámi reindeer farm. Our reindeer adventure included a snowmobile journey over a frozen lake, sitting and observing wild reindeer, drinking coffee brewed over an open fire, and learning about the Sámi people’s nomadic traditions.

In the lavvu

The reindeer farm 

Coffee over an open fire
From top right to bottom: Inari lake trout with lignonberries and herbs, on china decorated with an antler motif. In the lavvu. The reindeer farm. Coffee brewed on an open fire.

I also explored the Sámi Museum Siida, the national museum of the Finnish Sámi people, which offers beautiful exhibitions and displays on Sámi history and culture and serves as an official venue for the film festival.

The most eye-opening experience was being in the Northern Lights Theatre, an open-air theater made completely of snow. Festival hosts lent me a snowsuit and boots, and I sat outside alongside other visitors to listen to festival introductions in Finnish, Sámi, and English and watch films under the moon and stars.

Sámi Museum Siida

Serious film lovers in the Northern Lights Theatre

%22My Legacy%22 on the ice screen at the Northern Lights Theatre
Top: An exhibition gallery at the Sámi Museum Siida, the Finnish national museum of the Sámi people. Photo courtesy of Siida. Middle: The audience seated on snow risers in the Northern Lights Theatre. Photo by Jeanette Paillán. Bottom: The film My Legacy on the big screen at the Northern Lights. 

Director Jeanette Paillan (left) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farmThe film festival seminar was held in Solju, the Parliament Hall in the Sámi Cultural Centre Sajos. During my presentation, I discussed museum initiatives for film and video, ongoing film programs like Native Cinema Showcase, and a step-by-step tutorial on navigating the Film and Media Catalog on the museum’s website. I also listened to some inspiring stories from invited delegates, including Mapuche director Jeanette Paillán, the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación), Sámi filmmaker Marja Bål Nango, and Yakutian director Michail Lukachevskyi, on film techniques and resources available in indigenous communities

Other highlights? Watching a new shorts film collective made by young Sámi filmmakers and funded by the International Sámi Film Institute’s Sámi Film Lab, as well as attending the festival’s concerts, which featured performers from various musical genres, including rap, bluegrass and yoik, a traditional Sámi form of song. 

Sámi Film Collective in Sajos

Upper: Jeanette Paillán (Mapuche), the founding director of CLACPI (La Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Cine y Comunicación) and Cynthia Benitez at the reindeer farm. Lower: Young filmmakers supported by the Sámi Film Lab discuss their work.


The Skábmagovat Film Festival was an unbelievable experience for me both as a visitor and as a film enthusiast. The Sámi people were so gracious and kind as hosts that I felt like I was with family. By bringing people from all different backgrounds together in one small village in Finland, the festival gives voice to the power of how film to strengthen dialogue across on all indigenous communities. To say my journey was surreal is an understatement. It’s an experience that will remain with me forever.

—Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

Cynthia Benitez is the Film and Video programmer for the National Museum of American Indian in New York. Before joining the museum staff, she worked as a publicist for international film festivals and Native media organizations, including the American Indian Film Institute, Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum and World Competition, and the Native American Film and Video Festival. She is currently seeking her M.S. in Media Studies at Brooklyn College. 

Photographs not credited above are by Cynthia Benitez, NMAI

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