It can be hard sometimes to take a long look at oneself in the mirror and to admit fault. It can be harder still for an institution to do so, and yet even more difficult for a nation. But that is exactly why it is so important.
Washington, DC has no shortage of world-class museums to visit. But this one is different. It holds a mirror up to us as a country, acknowledging that we have routinely failed in living up to the ideals of our founding. It reminds us that whether through the best of intentions or the worst, we have at times chosen not to meet our obligations as a country or as people, and instead taken darker paths. Here at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, we are faced with some of the worst chapters in our national history, ones we can learn from in an effort to – hopefully – do better.
In the scheme of the Smithsonian and the National Mall, this is a relatively new museum. While established as an institution in 1989, the museum itself only opened here in 2004. Architecturally, it stands in sharp contrast to the classical revival buildings around it, instead a series of graceful curves in soft light brown stone. The inside is more open space than exhibit hall, with a huge atrium extending to a skylight overhead.
The collection holds some 800,000 items, though few are on display at any time. During my visit in March 2023, two main exhibits fill roughly one floor apiece. One, called Nation to Nation, discusses treaties between the US government and native tribes. The other focuses on Native Americans in pop culture.
If you come for anything, Nation to Nation should be your focus. It is a hard exhibit to work through, discussing numerous treaties dating back to the 1613 Two Row Wampum Treaty between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (commonly called the Iroquois) and representatives of the Dutch crown in what is now upstate New York. Rather than being a written treaty, this twin row belt symbolizes Europeans and the tribes, and is the basis for future treaties with the United States, though it is unknown exactly what the terms were at the original exchange.
The exhibit discusses numerous treaties, even spanning to modern-day court battles over native fishing rights in Washington. It presents each side’s rationale for wanting a treaty, as well as who was the chief negotiator. It then also talks about the aftermath, and if the treaty was honored. (Spoiler: if it wasn’t, it was typically broken by the United States and not by the tribe.)
I was pleasantly surprised to find out the some treaties remain in force today. Navajo tribes, for instance, still receive yearly required deliveries of cloth as part of an 1868 treaty. Other obligations have not been lived up to, such as the recent debate over the promise of a non-voting congressional representative from the Cherokee as part of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. (While the tribe did not appoint anyone until 2019, that delegate was not seated by Congress, and still has not been.)
Perhaps the darkest period for the United States with regard to native tribes is the 1830 Indian Removal Act. (President Andrew Jackson’s pushing for this is the largest reason for his being removed from the US $20 note in favor of Harriet Tubman.) This law allowed the US to exchange any native lands east of the Mississippi River – even those guaranteed by prior treaties – with new reservations in the west, without consent of the tribes, and to remove those tribes by force if necessary. The Cherokee removal from Georgia is known as the Trail of Tears, and resulted in more than 60,000 deaths from that tribe and others. (That removal in 1838 was due to gold being found on tribal lands.)
Nation to Nation is a difficult exhibit to experience, but one absolutely necessary for a country that would have a national conscience, and to learn from its sometimes hard-to-swallow past. But it is important to face.
Likewise, the exhibit on Native American imagery in pop culture is a bit of a shock. It is a room with more than a hundred images of products, services, and locations using often overly-caricatured symbols for things ranging from food items to transportation services. Part of this can be seen as a positive; while European and US colonial expansion was devastating for native populations, their cultures infused that of the new nation. However, I am more upset than pleased at seeing stereotypes being used to sell things. (It is worth noting that most of these are old, and are not currently in use, although some like sports franchises or Indian motorcycles seem to be hanging on a bit too long, let alone car models (Jeep Cherokee, etc…) or even military equipment like the Apache helicopter.)
Side rooms hold other small galleries, ranging from cases of pottery, baskets, or musical instruments to discussions of the true story of Pocahontas.
Downstairs, past a display of tribal flags from all over the country, Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe offers some authentic-adjacent nourishment. I opt for a tostada (they call it a taco) made of Navajo fry bread and topped with chili.
One other part of the National Museum of the American Indian is worth attention. Outside the museum itself is the National Native American Veterans Memorial. Despite centuries of being largely mistreated by the United States, native tribes have one of the largest per capita enlistment rates in the military, and this small memorial pays homage to those who gave their lives defending a country whose military had forced them off their own lands not too long ago.
When traveling, it is important to not only do the “fun” stuff. Part of having an authentic experience is to confront things that may bring up feelings of pain, sadness, or anger. Here in Washington, DC, the National Museum of the American Indian offers just a small glimpse into an often rocky past. It is the hope that learning about it will lead to a better future.
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