The National Museum of the American Indian

Opened in 2004, The National Museum of the American Indian, is the eighteenth museum of the Smithsonian Institution and the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. The organic flow we enjoyed in the Hirschhorn was carried further here, reflecting a natural landscape of soft curves, earth tones, and textures: truly the most organic architecture in the Smithsonian collection.

exterior

Our experience began in the fourth floor theater, a gently-domed round room, like a native hogan, with tiered seating surrounding a central, timbered cube, from which hung white ‘blankets’ on each side, above a 6’hemispherical ‘stone’ on the floor. (Photography not permitted.)

Simultaneous projections swept across the dome, the ‘blankets’, and the ‘stone’, the skies, the earth, the waters, and the story began: of the profound interrelationship between the many native peoples and their natural environments. Following the Lakota Sioux phrase, ‘All my relations’, this was/is a sustainable relationship of reverent respect, gratitude, stewardship: a way of life lived in balance for thousands of years.

From this introduction, we flowed from large curved spaces into smaller curved spaces, like cultural fractals. Each presented specific individual cultures, regions, tribes with their own stories told in wonderful animations, detailed tableaux, antiquities, artifacts, and their present day contributing curators, artisans and leaders.

 

atrium ceiling

The current changing show is ‘A Song for the Horse Nation’, the epic story of the horse’s influence on American Indian tribes from the 1600s to the present, showing how horses shaped the social, economic, cultural, and spiritual foundations of American Indian life, particularly on the Great Plains. Highlights included historical ledger drawings, beaded bags, hide robes, and paintings, including new works by contemporary Native artists.  The meticulously wrought artifacts here truly showed how deeply treasured horses were to the past and present cultures.

 

canoe of woven reeds

This is a very dense, handsomely designed museum; even the elevators are thoughtful works of art. It expresses a present-time vitality, rather than collections of a long-dead past. Yes, the displays of exquisite pre-Columbian gold, worked in lavish celebration of nature, then later melted into Spanish coin, tell a heart-breaking story. So does the wall of European religiosity that presumed to ‘save, or improve’ the native cosmologies it had ‘discovered’, but the spirit of a strengthening cultural awareness and its renewed celebration is the over-riding energy here taking its rightful place in the national story.

gold and ceramic objects

As we ate our buffalo-burgers, in the Mitsitam (‘Let’s Eat’) Café on the ground floor, this sense of a living, ongoing culture was further shown in videos of dances, gatherings, craft festivals, and workshops that made us wish we lived near-by to share through-out the year.

 

 

 

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