National Museum Honors American Indian History

By Diane Haddad Premium

Through Their Eyes

A one-of-a-kind museum tells history from American Indians’ perspectives.
By Diane Haddad

Some 20,000 North and South American Indians, many in traditional dress, paraded along the National Mall Sept. 21, 2005, to celebrate the opening of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) <> in Washington, DC.

NMAI offers a unique view of history: Staff at the $219 million museum say it’s the first dedicated exclusively to American Indians that presents the past from Indians’ own perspective. People with American Indian ancestors will find the insight into their world particularly valuable.

Three main exhibits cover history, the stories of eight contemporary American Indian communities and spiritual worldviews of indigenous cultures. Nearly 800,000 artifacts — clothing, tools, masks and pottery — are on display, covering 10,000 years and 1,000-plus native cultures. Through its innovative policies, NMAI manages to avoid some of the animosity such collections have inspired in American Indians who view the objects as tribal property. For example, tribal elders may “feed” cornmeal to some masks, showing spirits that the objects are being cared for. Sacred artifacts are displayed with the approval of the tribes that created them, and the museum lends some items for tribal ceremonies. NMAI has promised that it will return human remains, sacred objects or items that were acquired illegally to groups that can prove a claim to them.

The museum building reflects American Indian values and aesthetics, with an east-facing main entrance, orientation to the cardinal directions, curved shape and natural textures. Four habitats — forest, meadow, wetlands and cropland (cultivated using traditional techniques) — surround the building. Inside the entrance, a Welcome Wall greets visitors in hundreds of native languages. Master Indian boat builders construct canoes, reed boats and dugouts, displaying an ancestral craft that’s become the centerpiece for many native communities’ cultural revivals. Visitors can snack on Indian-inspired treats, such as quahog clam chowder, Peruvian mashed-potato cakes, smoked seafood and bison chili, at the Mitsitam Café. (That’s “let’s eat” in the Piscataway and Delaware languages.)

Located just south of the US Capitol, NMAI is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, but you’ll need an entry pass to get in. A limited number of same-day passes are available at the museum right after it opens each day, or you can reserve passes by calling toll-free (866) 400-6624 or visiting <> (you’ll pay a $1.75 service charge per pass).
From the February 2005 Family Tree Magazine