A guest post by Jefe:
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is a Smithsonian museum with two galleries, one in Washington, DC and one in New York. Items not on display are stored in a cultural resource centre in Suitland, Maryland (Prince George’s County), which includes the Vine Deloria, Jr. Library. Both museums showcase the history, culture, anthropology and archaeology of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, from Alaska to Patagonia. With over a million items, NMAI is the largest such collection in the world.
It was founded by an act of Congress in 1989, and draws its collection from the US government’s own archives and the private collection of George Gustav Heye, which had been on display since 1922 at the original NMAI in Audubon Terrace (at Broadway and West 155th Street in Manhattan). The Congressional Act required that the human remains in storage be considered for return to their tribes. So far, about 5,000 of the 12,000 to 18,000 remains have been returned.
The New York museum: Heye’s estate required that part of his collection remain in New York. Since 1994, it has been displayed on two levels of the U.S. Customs House at One Bowling Green near Battery Park. The main gallery is entitled “Infinity of Nations”, which showcases artifacts from indigenous Americans by region (eg, Eastern Woodlands, Patagonia, etc.). There is a classroom designed for students and a hall for performances and film screenings.
Oddly, it has nothing on the Lenape (Delaware) except for a brief introduction to wampum, a type of money common in eastern North America. Odd because the Lenape figure prominently as the “Indians” in Manhattan folklore. The website used to have an article on Manhattan in the 1500s.
The DC museum houses exhibits on five floors and, since 2004, is located on the National Mall between the National Air and Space Museum and the US National Botanical Garden. Native Americans have filled most of the leadership roles in the design and operation of the museum, aiming to create a different atmosphere and experience from the other Smithsonian museums. The museum includes a performance stage, a lecture hall for talks and screenings, an exhibit hall displaying treaties made with the US government and an exhibit hall for kids, as well as a café featuring various American Indian foods.
Unlike the NY museum, there is an exhibition on the local native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region, which includes the indigenous peoples of Washington, DC, the Nacochtank (Anacostans), a sub-tribe of the Piscataway chiefdom, as well as Pocahontas, who was a member of the Pamunkey tribe, part of the Powhatan confederacy.
The exhibits focus on artifacts representing individual tribes, and in general, is not a history museum. Apart from the Chesapeake Bay exhibit, there is little attempt to frame the exhibits in a historical context to help visitors understand the evolution of American Indian history. The ancient and the contemporary are often mixed together.
Vine Deloria Jr. became a board member in 1977, and was associated with the NMAI until his death in 2005.
- Welcome to Native American Heritage Month 2015
- Prince George’s County
- “Manhattan was sold for $24”
- Anacostia – homelands of the Nacochtank
- The Delaware – the Lenape tribe native to the Delaware and Hudson river valleys
- Tips on Visiting Washington, DC
- Vine Deloria Jr.
- The Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Bay Region
- National Museum of the American Indian (official website)