The New National Museum of the American Indian Debuts on the Mall

Story and Photos by Dorothea S. Michelman

The building is stunning in itself. Its curving and sweeping walls suggesting some wind raked mesa in the American Southwest, the new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian proudly takes its place along the museums on the National Mall as if it were actually there long before any of its neighbors. ** see editors note below.

Upon reflection one realizes that this is probably as it should be, as indigenous peoples, the Piscataway, occupied this venerated part of Washington, D.C. long before the airplanes, inaugural gowns or Matisse’s found behind the doors of the other museums that proceeded the NMAI here on the National Mall. Regardless, it is a welcome addition.

My first view of the curvilinear building immediately evoked memories of my first visit to the rugged country of New Mexico’s Native Americans in the mid 1950s, a journey of discovery that led to subsequent journalistic adventures to numerous Indian communities in North America, Central America and South America since. I have been eagerly watching the development of this singular new museum–with growing anticipation since its establishment in 1989 through an Act of Congress–fifteen long years ago.

Located between the Smithsonian’s stolidly right-angled National Air and Space Museum and the formally classicist U.S. Botanic Gardens, the sensuous, almost feminine, lines of the “new kid on the block” are fashioned almost incongruously of rough Kasota limestone from Minnesota. Surrounded within its four-acre site by wetlands and extensive landscaping intended help transport visitors far, far away from the National Mall that it actually inhabits, the Museum invites visitors in through its eastern entrance into the great Potomac Hall.

You are drawn into this nearly 120-foot tall domed room almost instinctively. The impressive hall is crowned by a skylight that welcomes a beam of sunlight into the grand room much like the oculus in Rome’s Pantheon or…the smokeholes of the hogan’s and teepees of the Indians of the American southwest. More than a dramatic point of arrival this round room is a place for drama as well, as it is intended as a performance space for contemporary Native American demonstrations, and productions. During the first year of the Museum’s life, visitors will be able to watch, firsthand, as Native Americans construct several boats in the center of the Potomac Hall, including, during the museum’s inauguration, a Native Hawaiian boat and an Inuit kayak.

The building is resplendent with symbolism and allusions to the traditional bond between Native Americans and their environment. Some are grand, some gradually reveal themselves only to the observant. Forty boulders or “grandfather rocks” are vigilant companions to the museum around its perimeter. Allusions to the four seasons and cardinal points are also evident as are numerous reminders through the building’s architectural detailing of the universal importance of the sun and moon to Native cultures.

The new museum’s mission is the product of close cooperation with Native American communities from across the continent’s multi-varied regions. Furthering an understanding and appreciation of the lives, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native American people of the Western Hemisphere lies at its heart. That point is made immediately apparent by the electronic photo-montage that greets every visitor, welcoming them in the 150 Native American languages that predate English on these shores by many hundred years .

I started my visit with the 13-minute multi-media show “Who we are” at the Lelawi Theater which whisks viewers on a whirlwind tour of indigenous communities and from the Arctic to the high plateaus of Bolivia. It makes for a suitable introduction to the diverse and rich offerings of this museum as well as to the civilizations it chronicles. I was to discover with my journey to the various exhibits an ongoing tribute to the cultural legacy and diversity of Native people, painstakingly studied, reverently told.

Amazingly only an estimated 8000 objects (of the entire collection of 800,000 objects) are on view. Some items in the collection defy easy storage however and we are all the better for it. These comprise the collection of “Landmark objects” by Native American artists. Among them is a 20-foot totem pole by carver Nathan Jackson (Tlingit), a bronze sculpture by Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo) and an impressive Navajo weaving.

Fortunately there are opportunities to view some of the artifacts impossible to display under the admittedly enormous NMAI roof. Part of the museum’s collection is housed in the George Gustav Heye Center, a permanent museum in lower Manhattan, New York City, and still more is found in the Cultural Resources Center, a research and collections facility in Suitland, Maryland.

Here on the Mall, three permanent exhibits introduce visitors to the history and culture of the Native Americans; “Our Universes”, “Our Peoples”, and “Our Lives”.

“Our Universes” focuses on Native cosmology and the spiritual relationship between the native peoples and the natural world around them. “Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories” highlights historic events told from a Native point of view. One must see exhibit is the “World of Gold” which depicts 400 gold figurines, some dating back to 1490 C.E. “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities” examines the lives of Native Americans within the context of modern times and is illustrated by videos, wall labels, photos and some 300 objects. This exhibit also describes the stormy period of the 1960s and 1970s when within an environment of political self-awareness, the Red Power movement was born.

Over 3,500 objects from the permanent collection are on display in the “Window on Collections: Many Hands, Many Voices.” They are arranged in seven categories – animal-themed figures, beadwork, baskets, jars, dolls, peace medals, projectile points and qeros (drinking vessels).

Numerous individual objects recommend themselves for special attention. Among them are a painted wood paddle carved by Bill Martin (Makah) in 1991, an Absaroke (Crow) horse ornament, ca. 1880s, a Chimu mask, ca. 1200-1400 in gold and turquoise from Peru, a Hopi Kachina doll, ca. 1890 and a figure of Diablada: The triumph of God, from Bolivia (see photograph).

For those interested in taking more than memories home with them, the museum has provided a gift shop. Two museum stores – the Chesapeake Museum Store and the Roanoke Museum store – have a wide variety of Native arts and crafts, souvenirs, books, masks, pots, and recordings. Be advised. Bring your plastic. Though certainly not everything will set you back quite that much, some of the items for purchase are up to four figures.

Happily, the restaurant wasn’t quite as demanding. Patrons of the Mitsitam (“Let’s eat” in the language of the Piscataway and Delaware people) Native Cafe are richly rewarded. The cafe has two sections, one for Native North American food and a second section for South American food. The culinary arts available here make for a wonderful complement to the objects, skills, and stories described elsewhere in the museum. The indigenous cuisines of the Americas will provide patrons apt food for thought before they return to contemplate the museum’s less edible exhibits.

Featured are dishes from the Northern Woodlands (Samples: Maple Roasted Turkey and Ash Roasted Corn on the Cob); The Northwest Coast (Samples: Cedar Planked Juniper Salmon and Wild Watercress and Cucumber Salad); South America: (Samples: Chicken and Black Bean Tamales and Black Bean soup), Meso America (Samples: Pinto Bean and Corn Enchiladas, and Pueblo Tortilla soup; and the Great Plains (Samples: Indian Tacos and Buffalo Chili and Ash Roasted Chicken Sandwich, which I enjoyed).

Of current note is a traveling exhibit from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado at the conference center featuring “The Jewelry of Ben Nighthorse” through April 3, 2005. The work of two famous Native American artists, George Morrison (1919-2000), Grand Portage Band of the Chippewa) and Allen Houser (1914-1994), (Chiricahua Apache)will be presented through the Fall of 2005. More than 200 works of art, drawings, notes and sketch books from the artists comprise this exhibition.

The museum has been a long time in the making, but here it is. The Smithsonian expects to welcome four millions visitors a year. Make sure you’re one of them.

**Editors Note: The Smithsonian has refused to pay the world famous architect, Native American Douglas Cardinal, designer of this magnificent structure once again proving that Native Americans are second class citizens to governments of the Americas. See his website and read his story here: A Forgery for the Smithsonian.

* The National Museum of the American Indian is located between 4th Street S.W. and Independence Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20012-7012; Tel.202.357.3164. Visiting hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Timed passes are needed.
* online:
* or: 1-866-400-6624
* or: $1.75 per ticket plus $1.50 service charge per order.
* Same-day passes are free and timed passes are available in limited numbers on a first-come, first-served basis.
* Tickets are also available at the museum’s east entrance (limit of six passes per adult, per day) beginning at 10:00 a.m.
* Groups of 10 or more can arrange for an educational visit to the museum (Call for details. 202.633.6644).

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