News & Politics

A Night Out: National Museum of the American Indian Gala

George Gustav Heye Center board member Howard Teich, singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. Photograph by Leonda Levchuk.

What: National Museum of the American Indian 20th Anniversary Gala.

Where: National Museum of the American Indian.

When: October 7, 7 PM.

Ticket prices: $500 regular admission, $1,000 VIP.

Who: The charming, no-nonsense former Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, that’s who. Campbell, who now is a member of the museum’s board of trustees, was an honoree at the event. “I refer to myself as a recovering senator,” he cracked during his speech. Also honored: Hawaii senator Daniel K. Inouye, who sponsored the NMAI Act during his 18-year tenure on the Committee of Indian Affairs. Prior to his speech, we spotted Senator Inouye munching on miniature skewers of chicken and bison, served with a sweet-potato sauce.

The Early Show correspondent Hattie Kauffman, dressed in a glamorous long blue velvet gown, played mistress of ceremonies to a boisterous crowd gathered around the museum’s expansive Potomac Atrium. Kauffman, alongside actor Wes Studi—who’ll be seen in James Cameron’s much-anticipated film Avatar—presented the museum’s first Prism Awards for outstanding service to tribal communities to 99-year-old tribal elder Maria Hinton (in absentia) and Navajo National Library System director Irving Nelson.

NMAI director Kevin Gover and Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture Richard Kurin made welcoming remarks and mingled with guests throughout the night. Also in the crowd—though far from blending in—was folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, who closed the official ceremony with a two-song performance.

Why: To commemorate a series of landmarks for the museum, including the 20th anniversary of the signing of legislation by then-President George H.W. Bush, which established the NMAI as part of the Smithsonian, as well as the fifth anniversary of the museum’s opening on the Mall. The ceremony also celebrated the 15th anniversary of the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City and the tenth anniversary of the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland.

Scene: This wasn’t your typical stuffy, austere Washington gala. Many guests wore a colorful array of garments, despite the black-tie dress code. We spotted a number of women wearing gorgeous, colorful traditional Indian dresses. Vice chairman for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Lynn Valbuena’s metallic shall won our unofficial “accessory of the night” award, hands down. We also spotted a fair number of men wearing bolo ties as well as the occasional cowboy hat and dazzling bow tie.

Mingling guests were given a preview of artist Brian Jungen’s work, whose latest exhibit, “Strange Comfort,” opens next Friday. Jungen’s “Crux” installation, which features five suspended animals constructed out of found objects and arranged so as to mimic a constellation, is currently on display in the atrium.

During the ceremony, slides with pictures of the museum, its facilities, and past and current exhibits were projected onto one of the walls, serving as reminders of the night’s momentous occasion. Attendees were encouraged to wander around the museum’s exhibits, which remained open both prior and immediately after the ceremony.

In addition to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s closing performance, musical acts included the Arizona California Territorial Bird Singers and the Metis Fiddler Quartet.

Food and drink: The NMAI lived up to its reputation as the museum with the most delicious food. “An embarrassment of riches” is perhaps the best way to describe the bountiful hors d’oeuvres and appetizers—not only in the Potomac Atrium but on all four levels of the museum. Some of our favorites: the tamales, maize pudding, caramelized bacon bits, lentil salad, miniature bison burgers, and the avocado-and-orange salad. For dessert, there were chocolate-covered frozen banana bits as well as bananas Foster. Heaven, we tell you. As for drinks, there was a standard selection of beers and wines plus some delicious sangria.


Boldface names: 2 out of 5.
Swankiness: 4 out of 5.
Food and drink: 3 out of 5.
Overall exclusivity: 4 out of 5.

Total score: 13 out of 20.

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