The Museum of the American Indian is dedicated to preserving the history, culture, and arts of the Western Hemisphere’s indigenous peoples. To that end, the museum is housed in one of the most attractive buildings on the Mall - a curved, limestone four-story building designed to look like a natural rock formation.
We suggest starting your tour on the fourth floor, with the film Who We Are, in the Lelawi Theater. This 13-minute film introduces modern Native communities and is a good introduction to the style of the rest of the museum.
Next, see the Our Universes exhibition, also on the fourth floor. This is a large set of eight walk-through rooms, each focusing on one tribe’s religious and cultural views. The tribes span the Americas, from the Quechua in Peru, to the Kha’p’o of New Mexico, to the Yup’ik of Alaska. Within each room, handmade artifacts illustrate each group’s daily lives and religious beliefs.
The displays generally focus on two things: written text that describes the group’s religious and cultural practices, and large, glass cases filled with handmade items from everyday life. In that respect, many of those items are like what you’d see if you toured our house today: clothing, dinnerware, and a handful of decorative things.
What’s often more interesting, although harder to present visually, is the religious and cultural practices. For example, the Kha’p’o’ people of Santa Clara apparently switched governments at regular, six-month intervals depending on the season: the Summer Clan ruled from February through August, and the Winter Clan fromSeptember through January. It would be more interesting if the display explained what each clan was responsible for during its government, or how you became a member of one clan or the other. (Our research indicates that children inherited at birth a membership in one parent’s clan automatically. Also, an activity such as trading or agriculture was done only during one season, so the Clan ruling that season also governed that activity.)
Also on the fourth floor is Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and American Indian Nations. Since the U.S. was formed, its government has negotiated more than 350 treaties with the independent nations of indigenous Americans. Eight of those treaties are highlighted here, showing not only the end result (spoiler alert: the U.S. broke all of them), but how each side approached the negotiations with respect to ownership, representation, language, and the very concept of a treaty.
For example, while the U.S. typically sent a small group of representatives to negotiate a treaty, many native nations had no concept of that much power vested into a single individual, or even a small group of individuals – it just wasn’t how the culture operated. Yet the U.S. insisted that someone be appointed to negotiate on behalf of the tribes. That frequently led to the tribes pointing out (in later years) that the person doing the negotiations on their behalf didn’t have the authority to make a treaty.
Similarly, many native nations viewed written text as less trustworthy than speech,while the U.S. had the exact opposite view. Finally, many of the treaties’ terms were quickly modified after the fact by other U.S. government officials, without the tribes’ consent. But without the military capability to enforce the original terms, the tribes had little recourse.
One of the great things about the museum is that its definition of "American Indian" includes South America. In fact, there’s an excellent, large exhibit on the 3rd floor, titled The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire, that explores the Inka empire and its contemporaries. In a massive feat of early engineering, the Inkas built a 24,000-mile system of roads across mountains and jungles, linking together their civilization with others from Ecuador, to Argentina, to Chile.
Unofficial Tip: See an amazing woven bridge built along the Inka Road on YouTube.
Besides relating the history of the road, this 8,500-square foot exhibit also shows objects from everyday South American life, including clothing, tools, and jewelry. The highlight of this exhibit is the photographs, though, which show how difficult it must have been to put roads across these lands. Amazingly, much of the road is still in use today, as the primary transportation network for many people.
On your way out, check the performance schedule for the Rasmuson Theater on the first floor. Short programs of native music and dance are often performed throughout the day, and are entertaining and informative.
The museum’s Mitsitam Café serves tasty, interesting food based on Native recipes from North and South America, from buffalo burgers to smoked rhubarb turkey with house-made mustard. Check the latest menu on their website. The café’s proximity to the Air & Space museum (the café is one block east) means that it’s easy to head here for lunch, rather than stand in line for Air & Space’s fast food. It can be emotionally draining to schedule visits to the Holocaust and Native American museums on the same day.