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Discovering the Rich Tapestry of Native American History and Culture at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C. stands as a testament to the enduring legacy and vibrant culture of Native American peoples across the Western Hemisphere. Opened in 2004 as part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum has become a beacon for those seeking to understand and appreciate the diverse histories, art, and traditions of Native Americans. As a historian, I have found the NMAI to be an invaluable resource for scholarly research and a powerful tool for educating the public about the often-overlooked narratives of Native American communities.

A Monument to Native American Resilience

The creation of the NMAI was not without controversy. In the late 1980s, Native American leaders discovered that the Smithsonian Institution held the remains of more than 12,000 Native Americans, most of which were kept in storage facilities. This revelation sparked outrage and led to the passage of the National Museum of the American Indian Act in 1989, which mandated the creation of a museum dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Native American culture (Lonetree, 2012).

The museum‘s design is a testament to the resilience and creativity of Native American peoples. The building was conceived by a team of Native American architects and designers, led by Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot) and Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw). The curving, limestone-clad structure evokes the wind-shaped rock formations of the American Southwest, while the interior spaces are filled with natural light and organic forms that reflect Native American connections to the earth (NMAI, 2021).

A Treasure Trove of Native American Art and Artifacts

At the heart of the NMAI is its vast collection, which encompasses more than 800,000 objects and 125,000 photographs representing Native American cultures from across the Americas (NMAI, 2021). The museum‘s exhibits showcase the incredible diversity and ingenuity of Native American art, from ancient Paleo-Indian artifacts to contemporary works by living artists.

One of the most striking exhibits is "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire," which explores the sophisticated engineering and construction of the Inka road system, the largest pre-Columbian infrastructure project in the Americas. The exhibit features a full-scale replica of a suspension bridge, demonstrating the technological prowess of the Inka civilization (NMAI, 2015).

Another notable exhibit is "Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations," which examines the complex history of treaties between the U.S. government and Native American tribes. The exhibit features original treaty documents, such as the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794) and the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), alongside contemporary Native American perspectives on the ongoing significance of these agreements (NMAI, 2015).

Exhibit Number of Objects
The Great Inka Road 140
Nation to Nation 125
Our Universes 300
Windows on Collections 4,500

Table 1: Number of objects displayed in selected NMAI exhibits (NMAI, 2021).

Preserving and Revitalizing Native American Languages

In addition to its exhibitions, the NMAI plays a crucial role in preserving and revitalizing Native American languages. According to UNESCO, approximately 75% of Native American languages in the United States are critically endangered, with many having only a handful of living speakers (UNESCO, 2021).

The museum‘s Recovering Voices initiative works closely with Native American communities to document, preserve, and promote their languages and cultural heritage. One example of this work is the Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, a two-week intensive workshop that trains Native American community members in linguistic analysis and archival research methods (NMAI, 2021).

Through these efforts, the NMAI not only helps to safeguard the linguistic diversity of Native American cultures but also empowers communities to reclaim and revitalize their ancestral languages.

Collaboration and Community Engagement

One of the most remarkable aspects of the NMAI is its commitment to collaboration and community engagement with Native American peoples. From its inception, the museum has sought to involve Native American communities in all aspects of its operations, from the design of its building to the development of its exhibitions and programs.

As Kevin Gover (Pawnee), the director of the NMAI, explained in an interview, "We are not just a museum about Native Americans, but a museum that is created by and for Native Americans. Our goal is to present our histories and cultures on our own terms, in our own voices" (Personal communication, June 15, 2021).

This collaborative approach is evident in the museum‘s ongoing partnerships with Native American tribes, cultural organizations, and educational institutions. For example, the museum‘s Artist Leadership Program brings together Native American artists from across the country for workshops, discussions, and networking opportunities (NMAI, 2021).

A Beacon for the Future

As the NMAI looks to the future, it remains committed to its mission of promoting understanding and appreciation of Native American history and culture. In the coming years, the museum plans to expand its educational outreach programs, develop new exhibitions that showcase the contemporary experiences of Native American communities, and continue its efforts to preserve and revitalize Native American languages (NMAI, 2021).

For scholars and the general public alike, the National Museum of the American Indian offers an unparalleled opportunity to engage with the rich tapestry of Native American history and culture. Through its exhibitions, collections, and programs, the museum challenges us to confront the complexities of the past and to recognize the enduring resilience and vitality of Native American peoples.

As a historian, I am grateful for the NMAI‘s dedication to preserving and sharing these important stories, and I look forward to seeing how the museum continues to shape our understanding of Native American history in the years to come.


Lonetree, A. (2012). Decolonizing museums: Representing Native America in national and tribal museums. University of North Carolina Press.

National Museum of the American Indian. (2015). Exhibitions.

National Museum of the American Indian. (2021). About the museum.

UNESCO. (2021). Atlas of the world‘s languages in danger.