A colorful Native Nations procession heralded the opening Tuesday of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of the American Indian (search), the newest addition to the historical treasure-trove dotting the National Mall.

A group of five White Mountain Appache Indians (search) from White River, Ariz., drew a crowd with their exotic dress. Four had their chests painted black with white lettering while the fifth was painted white with black lettering. Pine needles were wrapped around their arms and waists, and wooden headgear reached two feet above their heads, which were covered in masks. As they danced, metal balls around their shoes added to the sounds of an accompanying drummer.

Nearby, Aztec Indians from San Francisco danced with headfeathers that reached as high as six feet above their heads.

Crowds gathered in crisp weather under a brilliant sun to witness the spectacle in advance of an opening ceremony featuring speeches by Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (search), R-Colo., and Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo Manrique and others.

In the afternoon, the museum was to open to the public, and musicians, dancers and storytellers were to begin the First Americans Festival, which will last the rest of the week.

Deanette Ives, vice chairman of the Port Sklallam Gamble Tribe (search) near Kingston, Wash., said she took her 14-year-old daughter out of school to attend the ceremony. "I thought it was important to share this historic moment," said Ives, wearing a black and red shall embroidered with the tribe's logo, a killer whale. "This is a time she'll remember for the rest of her life."

On Monday, hundreds of people already were milling about the museum to get an early peek. "At last we're getting some kind of recognition as Indian people," said Lawrence Orcutt, from the Yurok tribe in northern California.

Dave Anderson, who heads the Bureau of Indian Affairs (search), said the museum will allow Indians to open a new chapter in the United States.

"I look at this whole museum opening as an opportunity for healing, for optimism," he said.

Missing from the opening festivities, however, was the architect who designed the stunning tan building, layered in swooping levels of Minnesota limestone rounded to depict the curves of the Earth, sun and moon.

Douglas J. Cardinal, a Canadian, was hired as architect in 1993, but he wound up in a dispute with the architectural firm that he subcontracted for, GBQC of Philadelphia, claiming he was losing money.

The Smithsonian failed to settle the differences between the two parties and fired both in 1998. Another architectural team finished the work.

Two months ago, museum director Richard West wrote Cardinal a three-page letter, asking him to attend Tuesday's opening ceremonies and offering to pay for Cardinal's travel and accommodations.

"There I would like to recognize and thank you publicly for the gift of your work and artistic inspiration to the National Museum of the American Indian in the form of its signature building in the monumental core of America's capital," West wrote.

He called Cardinal's design a "a principal physical and, indeed, spiritual marker for the native peoples of this hemisphere long beyond the lives of either of us."

But Cardinal, a Blackfeet (search) Indian, turned down the offer after consulting with family members and tribal elders.

"It was not a gift but professional work for which I should be reimbursed," wrote Cardinal, who claims he is owed $1 million for the work he did on the museum.

Responded Smithsonian spokesman Thomas Sweeney: "The Smithsonian Institution paid Mr. Cardinal up to the time of the termination."

Cardinal's design is unlike any other structure in Washington's wealth of monuments and museum. Built at a cost of $214 million, the sweeping lines represent a communing with nature as the country's tribal peoples did. It houses 8,000 objects from across the Western Hemisphere. Four million visitors a year are expected for the museum's movies and music; paintings, photographs and sculptures; masks, weapons and animals; jewelry and medals; even food and plants.

Cardinal, who said he's considering a lawsuit, allowed that it won't be easy for him to skip the ceremonies.

"It's very difficult. I put so much of my life into it," Cardinal said in a telephone interview from Ottawa, Ontario, where his firm is based. "But I have every faith in the American public and the American system. I just hoped the story would have come out sooner."

Cardinal, 70, said he's seen photos of the museum and that the "broad strokes" are consistent with his original design.

"I would have wanted every note to carry the detail," he added. "The play between the glass and the stone. I usually recess the glass into stone so you can't see the frames."

Cardinal, who also designed the Canadian Museum of Civilization (search), said work has been hard to come by since he was fired.

"We haven't had any major commissions since," he said. "It's been a real challenge to survive. We're hoping that when the story gets out, people will want us to make a contribution again."