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The Metis of Western Canada know a thing or two about traveling. Descended from Europeans and the Native people they encountered while trading furs in the 18th century, the Metis and their culture were literally born on the move. So it was in keeping with tradition that Jacinte Lambert, a Metis woman from the Saint-Laurent community on Lake Manitoba, climbed behind the wheel of a flatbed truck in the fall of 2003 and headed south with a most unusual cargo: a vintage 1950s Bombardier snow bus.
The ungainly "Bomber"--it looks something like a school bus on tank tracks--is the workhorse of commercial ice fishing in Manitoba, used by the Metis to ferry their catch of pickerel, perch and sauger from frozen lakes back to town. So when curators from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) visited Saint-Laurent looking for objects to represent the Metis, the community decided to send a Bombardier. On her 1,600-mile drive south with her husband to Washington, D.C., Lambert says, "Wherever we stopped, people kept coming up to us to look. I guess they didn't know what it was."
The Metis' snow bus is one of some 8,000 artifacts and artworks that will be on display when the NMAI, 15 years in the making, opens on the National Mall September 21. It's a good example of the lengths to which the new museum has gone to make it inclusive of groups large and small from all over the Americas. The $199 million home of one of the most important collections of Native American art and artifacts in the world will display plenty of arrowheads, beadwork and pre-Columbian gold objects. But the museum--established by Congress in 1989 as a "living memorial" to Native cultures, and conceived, designed and curated in large part by Native Americans--will also exhibit items that speak in other ways to contemporary Indian experience. Thus the Bomber, the centerpiece of the Saint-Laurent Metis exhibit (which also includes a small stage where visitors can practice the Red River Jig to video instruction). "Hardly anyone knows what it means to be Metis," says Lambert. "Fishing is a big part of our life, and we wanted to show people who we are now."
Museum curators and officials spent years consulting with representatives of Indian tribes from throughout the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America, and among the key recurring opinions, NMAI director W. Richard West Jr. says, "was the notion, a directive really, 'Don't you dare indicate that we are a historical relic.'" The museum's opening comes at a time of a Native American renaissance, says West, as a new generation fights to achieve …