By Alaska Native leader David Katzeek's count there were millions of American Indians in Washington this week when the National Museum of the American Indian opened - not just the 30,000-40,000 reported.
"We believe that we represent our ancestors," Katzeek, a traditional leader of the Shangukeid Thunderbird Clan, said Friday after returning from the Smithsonian Institution's newest museum. "There were hundreds of thousands if not millions there in D.C. because of our ancestry that goes down from generation to generation."
Katzeek, 62, of Juneau, was one of about 150 Alaska Natives who attended the pageant. He said the event was a powerful opportunity for healing among Native American people who have suffered centuries of injustice.
The 250,000-square-foot museum displays the traditional artifacts of American Indians from across the country, with the goal of recognizing "not only a cultural legacy tens of thousands of years old, but also today's diversity of Native peoples, their thoughts and wisdom, arts and knowledge."
It is the first national museum in the United States dedicated solely to Native Americans.
"The nation needs to heal right now," Katzeek said. "Those are the traditional values of the Tlingit people. That doesnt mean that the inequities are OK, that injustice is all right."
Donald Gregory, 38, a Web site designer at the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, attended the ceremony and procession along the National Mall on Tuesday. He called it a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Gregory said the gathering reminded him of Celebration, a Native festival that occurs in Juneau once every two years.
"It was like tenfold of that," he said. "To see them all on the mall there they must have felt like the people of Juneau do during Celebration - like they're being invaded by Natives."
Gregory, from the Deisheetaan Raven Bear Clan of Angoon, acted as caretaker of the Chilkat Robes and regalia worn by the Alaska Natives during the event. He said some of the robes were more than 100 years old. Katzeek said the regalia included four Chilkat blankets, a Chilkat tunic and a tribal leader hat and headdress. It also was the first display of a Thunderbird feather staff carved by his brothers Jim Katzeek and Ross Sheakley.
"It received a lot of attention because it is a fairly unique staff," he said.
Gregory said the Alaska Natives marched at the end of the Tuesday procession, noting that they were one of the few groups performing a traditional dance.
"We were getting mobbed (by photographers)," he said. "Every time we would take a little turn people would just come flooding at us. The park police had to move them so we could continue marching."