NMAI: A Rich Native Nations Inaugural Ball—Mitt Romney Loincloths and All
There were many intriguing celebrations in Washington, D.C. during the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, but the Native Nations Inaugural Ball took the prize. Just ask the guy wearing the loincloth made out of a Mitt Romney campaign shirt.
The event, a first-of-its kind glitzy fundraiser for (and at) the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), had a bounty of uniquely American Indian moments. A member of the 1491s comedy group joked about pulling some of the sacred headdresses on display at the museum out of the cases to add to the authenticity; First Nations comedian Gerry Barrett said if he were president, he’d fill the White House lawn with grazing buffalo; and some of the tribal leaders, lobbyists and spouses were decked out not in black tie, sequins and diamonds, but bolos, feathers and turquoise.
Tickets for the January 21 gala fundraiser were $1,000 per person. Gold sponsors, the Chickasaw Nation and Morongo Band of Mission Indians, donated $100,000 each. Other sponsors donated a combined total of $1 million, according to an NMAI program.
The money showed, and flowed. The emcee was Twilight movies star Chaske Spencer; there were several musical and comedy performances; four floors of the museum were dotted with cocktail tables, candles and fancy tablecloths. The Native Nations ball even apparently outspent the president’s two official balls on at least one major front: food and drink. Reports surfaced that at the two galas the president attended with First Lady Michelle Obama at the Washington Convention Center, Cheeze-Its and pretzels were served, while drink lines were 40 people long. At the NMAI, buffalo filets, pear-infused vodka and ginger-apple sparkling water were abundant.
The high cost of the fundraiser was a sensitive subject for some attendees, who said they knew it kept out friends who would have liked to have been there. The fact that the American Indian Society of Washington hosted a less pricey Native-focused ball and powwow in Arlington, Va. the night before put some peoples’ minds at ease.
Organizers said that the expense of the event was a concern, but pointed out it was a fundraiser, and that they believed it was high time for Indians to become a part of the American political process, and that, to them, means participating like the other D.C. political power players do. “I remember when we couldn’t get in the front door of the Smithsonian—we were in the basement of the Natural History Museum with the extinct animals,” said LaDonna Harris, a long-time Comanche political activist and co-chair of the gala, along with Marc Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians. “Being here and having this event means everything to us—employing people, breaking barriers, telling our stories, participating. This is remarkable.”
Harris said the Smithsonian would use monies from the event to better educate the nation and world about Native America. “It will be money well spent,” she added.
If getting attention of American politicians was an intended effect, it happened, with at least three congressmen in attendance at the ball: Raul Ruiz, D-Calif.; Dan Kildee, D-Mich.; and Tony Cardenas, D-Calif. Jodi Gillette, the White House’s senior policy advisor for Native American Affairs, also chatted for a good chunk of the early evening with Keith Harper, a lawyer with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton who helped negotiate the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement.
The only sour note for many Indians who made the trek to the capital was that the president didn’t mention American Indians in any of the inaugural events. “We didn’t get mentioned all day today,” lamented Harris. “Everybody seemed to have a role to play but us—I think we have a lot more work to do.”
Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer and former congressional staffer, said he expects Obama to be more specific about addressing Indian issues in his second term. “He did want to hit some of the larger societal issues, and I think he did a great job with his plea to America to use its strength to ‘be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice....’ I came away feeling that, as a Native American, my family and I are really more a part of America than ever before.”
The museum, at the footsteps of the Capitol Building, was a natural place for such ponderings, said Kevin Gover, the Pawnee director of the museum, in his opening remarks of the evening, which also included remembrances of departed tribal leaders Stanley Crooks, Richard Milanovich, and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye.
Gover and others, including Rick West, founding director of the NMAI, hoped the Native Nations ball would become a regular occurrence. “This is a very significant event for the future of the NMAI to maintain the program going forward,” said West, after dancing enthusiastically for much of the evening with his wife on both the main atrium floor and in a third floor lounge area where Martha Redbone performed Native soul blues and funk jams.
West added that he always had big dreams for the NMAI, but seeing a major inaugural party in a Native American museum next to the Capitol Building was “beyond anything I could have imagined. I love it!” he exclaimed, beaming. “This space was always conceived of as a place for celebration. And this was one big celebration.”