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History unseen?

From Brian Todd

National Museum of the American Indian
Art Museums
Wolf Blitzer

(CNN) -- On one of the last sections of prime real estate on Washington's greatest expanse, thousands of Native Americans evoke the storied moments of their past -- and the beginning of a new era.

The National Museum of the American Indian is a moving tribute to the first inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere.

"It creates a sense of pride -- that we're not only people of the past, we're people of the present and we're going to be a people of the future," says Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Smith traveled about 1,500 miles for this. As leader of the Cherokee Nation, he's inspired by what's called the "curvilinear" limestone architecture and the breathtaking sculpture and artwork, some of which dates back thousands of years.

"People will leave here with not a sense of loss. They'll leave here with a sense of hope," says Smith.

The celebration of Native American culture here is evident. The symbols are powerful. But if you come here looking to get a vivid, graphic sense of the Indian struggle -- of the wars and slaughters of the 18th and 19th centuries -- you won't find it.

There are no photographs, no portraits, no dramatizations of Indian resistance to the white-American settlement drive in the 1800s -- and the massacres that ensued.

There are references in text to the killings and displacement and displays of treaties betrayed and weapons used.

But the closest you'll get to a visual of the notorious Battle of Wounded Knee, where more than 200 Sioux Indians were cutdown by the U.S. Army, is a display of the book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."

"That's the way the outside world, the non-Indian world, has always spoken about the violence that has beset the Native world. From the Native standpoint, that might not be the same way they want to be depicted," says Bruce Bernstein, the assistant director of the NMAI.

Museum officials say they visited more than 30 Native American communities -- and say the consensus was: Don't dwell on Indian victimization.

But in a structure that occupies 250,000 square feet and cost nearly $220 million, why is there no hall of heroes?

An entire section features Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and his jewelry-making skills, but neither we, nor an assistant director, could find one picture of the great Dakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull, arguably the most famous Native American leader.

We found a rifle surrendered by Geronimo, but no illustration of the legendary Apache warrior.

We asked a historian if this was an omission.

"Most of the stories that we Americans tell ourselves about the great Indian leaders are tragic stories ... These leaders invariably fail in the end, fighting a losing but worthy battle. Clearly that's not a story that this museum was interested in telling," says David J. Silverman, professor of Early American History at the George Washington University.

Those stories may yet be told. Museums do evolve -- exhibits rotate -- and for now, the cultural vibrancy of art, folk tales and music is the draw.

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