National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), on 4th Street and Independence Avenue SW in the National Mall, opened on September 21, 2004, as one of three facilities featuring the history and culture of the Native American people of the Western Hemisphere. Operating under the Smithsonian Institute, the Museum was originally designed by Douglas Cardinal (a Blackfoot) and completed by the GBQC architects of Philadelphia, along with Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw) and other Native American design consultants. The interesting architecture of the 5-story, 250,000 square foot limestone building resembles the natural rock formations and outdoor surroundings associated with the Native American people. Situated on a 4-¼ acre site surrounded by marshy areas of wild rice, water lilies, marigolds, and willows, the North, South, East, and West sides are marked with four large stones from Maryland, Canada, Hawaii, and Chili. The unique, flowing landscaping around the Museum, in sharp contrast with the more rigid style of European architecture, was created by Donna House, a Navajo and Oneida botanist. The four main environments of the Native American people of this region, the hardwood forest, the meadow, the swamps, and the farmland, are featured. A waterfall cascades over the 40 Grandfather Rocks; buttercups and sunflowers grow in the meadow, and over 33,000 native plants of 150 different species and 25 native trees including sumac, red maple, and white oak complete the outdoor scene. Native American crops of corn, bean, and squash are grown in a special cropland area on the grounds of the Museum.

The entrance to the NMAI faces east and leads into the Potomac atrium, where the 120’ high space is often the scene of music and dance performances. The exterior and interior walls and ceilings, filled with symbols and images of nature and the universe, follow the curving lines of the outdoor landscaping. The Museum houses more than 800,000 objects and 125,000 photographs in a collection that spans more than 10,000 years of Native American heritage in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. From 1903 and for the next 54 years, George Gustav Heye traveled throughout North and South America collecting artifacts that include stone and woodcarvings from the Pacific Northwest, hides and clothing from the Plains, pottery and baskets from the Southwest, as well as materials and objects from the Great Lakes and the Southeast regions of the U.S. Other items of interest are ceramics from Costa Rica and Mexico, archaeological objects from the Caribbean, jade from the Mayans, textiles and gold from the Andean cultures, and featherwork from the people of Amazonia. The exhibitions and collections represent not only the history of the Native American people, but also the spiritual significance of their culture. Religious and ceremonial objects are held in high esteem, as are the ancestors and heritage of individual tribes, and as such, they can only be displayed with permission of the individual tribes with whom they are associated.

There are four long-running permanent exhibitions within the Museum including Our Universe, reflecting the cultural philosophies of the Native people in New Mexico, Manitoba, Peru, South Dakota, California, Chili, Guatemala, and Alaska and Our Peoples, stories from their history, their struggles, and survival. Our Lives is an exhibit from eight Native communities in the U.S. and Canada, depicting how they live and adjust, yet keep their identity, traditions, and beliefs in today’s world. The fourth exhibit, Return to a Native Place, highlights the Algonquin people, the Powhatan, Nanticoke, and Piscataway tribes, from the 1600’s to the present day.

Other attractions such as films in the Rasmussen and Lelawi Theaters, special events in the outdoor theater, education workshops, and panel discussions are sponsored by the Museum. In addition, it houses the Changing Exhibitions Gallery and the Windows on Collections, with displays and interactive touch screens of dolls, beadwork, peace medals, arrowheads, and other items from the Native American lifestyle. A special exhibit, Identify by Design, featuring clothing of Native women, is held on Family Program Days from 10:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., in the Isnati Activity Room. (Note: Isnati is a term used by the Lakota people for the period of development of a young girl into a responsible adult.)

In addition, the NMAI sponsors a Native Writers series of free monthly programs each year featuring well-known poets, authors, journalists, and playwrights. Programs begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Rasmussen Theater, followed by a reception and book signing. Special performances by noted jazz musicians and poets, plays, and festivals celebrating Asian Pacific and other Native American heritages are also held in the Rasmussen. The outdoor welcome plaza presents free summer concerts at 5:30 p.m., twice a month June — September, and visitors can enjoy other activities during the year such as music and dance instruction, the Cherry Blossom social dance, and the Mayan corn celebration in the outdoor theater or the Potomac atrium.

Hours: 10:00 a.m. — 5:30 p.m., Daily. Closed December 25.
One-Hour Tours: Monday — Friday, 1:30 and 3:00 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday — 11:00 a.m., 1:30, and 3:00 p.m.
Admission: Free. General entry line and earlier entry lines for NMAI members.

(Mitsitam Café and Museum store on premises; Handicap accessible and assistance available. Smithsonian Museum General Information: 202-633-1000)

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