WASHINGTON - William Warwick bent over slightly and spread his elbows as if they were wings. With a shield in one hand and a spear topped with an eagle's claw in the other, he began to stamp his feet rhythmically, his head swinging back and forth. Faster and faster he went, twirling to the beat of the drums, his face intense.
How could Warwick not dance, surrounded by a procession of more than 11,000 Native Americans representing more than 100 tribes? How could he not dance when the sky was the shade of the turquoise jewelry worn by his adopted sisters and aunts? How could he help celebrating yesterday - in the most devout way that he knows - the grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian?
The $199 million, 250,000-square-foot structure is the first national museum devoted exclusively to Native American culture and history.
The opening culminates a 15-year battle that involved the firing of the building's principal architect, Douglas Cardinal, and, at times, opposition from some Native Americans. Their tradition frowns on public displays of their private rites and ceremonial objects.
"I dance for my Creator, for the elders and for the veterans," said Warwick, 24, as the Native Nations Procession made its way from the Smithsonian castle to the stretch of Mall near the museum. "I dance for my father, who died a few years ago, and I dance for my buddies who are fighting overseas."
The dedication ceremony, which began with a pounding drum and a Hopi honor guard, celebrated the museum as a powerful reminder of the contributions of native peoples.
It drew thousands of visitors from around the world to the National Mall, including President Alejandro Toledo of Peru, a member of the Quechua tribe, and U.S. Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell a Colorado Republican representing the Northern Cheyenne tribe, and Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat whose 1989 Senate bill authorized the museum.
"Only 400 years after the old world collided with their world, the native people of this land became America's first endangered species," said Campbell, wearing a long, feathered headdress made by his relatives. "To all our Native American friends here today, I say, `The sacred hoop has been restored. The circle is complete. And the Hopi prophecy of the re-emergence of the native people has come true."
Among the festival's participants were 53 joyful though sleep-deprived members of the Baltimore American Indian Center. Many, including the 24-year-old Warwick, were in full regalia. They took the day off from work and school and gathered at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday to board a Washington-bound bus.
Tina Morgan, the center's executive assistant, estimates that there are about 6,000 Native Americans in the Baltimore area. Most belong to the Lumbee tribe, based in North Carolina. Morgan asked the Annie E. Casey Foundation to pay $500 for the bus so that as many of her friends and neighbors as possible could attend the festivities.
As the bus swung down Independence Avenue, 10-year-old Leah Dial caught her first glimpse of the curving five-story building, a sheath of water splashing down one side. "Look, cool," she said.
The museum, clad in sand-colored Minnesota limestone, has drawn comparisons to a structure carved from a butte, or mesa. The building's design, with its sinuous curves and idiosyncratic distribution of weight - the top stories are larger and heavier than the bottom ones - also suggests a buffalo, its huge head resting on powerful shoulders.
Yesterday afternoon, as visitors crossed the museum's cool stone floors, Hawaiian widow May Au wiped tears from her eyes after delivering a prayer over a handmade canoe that her late husband helped craft. It will sit in the museum's atrium.
"For everyone to see this beautiful work, it's very powerful," said Au, 74, who wore a traditional Polynesian wrap and a kukui-nut lei around her neck. "These canoe carvers put their love and spirit into the canoe. With every cut, their soul goes into it."
Norbert Hill of New Mexico toured the museum in a traditional shirt fashioned from the American flag that draped the coffin of his father, a World War II veteran.
"I wear this shirt to walk for my father today. He taught me to dance; he taught me so many things," said Hill, an Oneida who runs an American Indian scholarship center in Albuquerque. "This museum brings the past and present and future together for me. It's home, a safe place where we're around the things we know and love."
"I was raised to be embarrassed of who I was," said Tina Hunt, 40, another member of the Baltimore American Indian Center. "I didn't even know how important my heritage was to me until I grew up and met my husband," a fellow Native American.