Fragments of Memories: The National Museum of the American Indian

My first memorable introductions to the world of the American Indians came via an adapted children’s storybook “Hiawatha”, based on the poem “Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  No matter there is controversy about the poem but the evocative verses brought to life a wondrous world of the noble American Indians where I could roam with my imagination. I didn’t understand the significance of the “Pale Face’s” long poem then. Nevertheless, the poignancy of Hiawatha’s departure still remains a favourite piece of poetry.

An exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington DC. Photo Chulie de Silva.

An exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington DC. Photo Chulie de Silva.

By the shore of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
At the doorway of his wigwam,
In the pleasant Summer morning,
Hiawatha stood and waited.
All the air was full of freshness,
All the earth was bright and joyous,
And before him, through the sunshine,
Westward toward the neighboring forest
Passed in golden swarms the Ahmo,
Passed the bees, the honey-makers,
Burning, singing In the sunshine.

Bright above him shone the heavens,
Level spread the lake before him;
From its bosom leaped the sturgeon,
Sparkling, flashing in the sunshine;
On its margin the great forest
Stood reflected in the water,
Every tree-top had its shadow,
Motionless beneath the water.

So through the beautiful doors of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), my partner in crime for the Museum sojourns, Delores and I walked in. It was warm spring day in 2007, and the first stop was at the 120-seat circular Lelawi theater. Here we were immersed in a dazzling multimedia experience titled Who We Are.  We sat docilely as we were transported to a wooded natural forest area with sunlight streaming through the trees and was introduced to the vibrancy and diversity of the American Indian world, imbibing the strength that different communities across the hemisphere derive from their connections to land, religion, traditional knowledge, self-government, and self-expression.

Aymara Totora-Reed Boat of the indegenous people of Bolivia and Peru. Photo Chulie de Silva

Aymara Totora-Reed Boat of the indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru. Photo Chulie de Silva

Side view of the long Aymara Totora-Reed Boat of the indegenous people og Bolivia and Peru. Photo Chulie de Silva

Side view of the long Aymara Totora-Reed Boat of the indegenous people og Bolivia and Peru. Photo Chulie de Silva

First to catch my attention were the boats displayed in a central circular area. The NMAI says the “Aymara Totora-Reed Boats are made on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Fishing boats and ritual  boats have been made since ancient times. Totora reeds are tied together with specially braided twine to create these unique boats.”

A beautifully crafted boat with an outrigger. -- Photo Chulie de Silva.

A beautifully crafted boat with an outrigger very similar to the outrigger fishing boats of Lanka — Photo Chulie de Silva.

Costing US$ 219 million to build initially it now has one of the most extensive collections of Native American arts and artifacts in the world—approximately 266,000 catalog records (825,000 items) representing over 12,000 years of history and more than 1,200 indigenous cultures throughout the Americas. It was mind boggling and awesome. There were so many things to see and we realized we needed to be selective. There had to be time for the famed American Indian food at the Museum’s cafe too.

Sioux  two hide patterned dress with beaded yoke. Photo Chulie de Silva

Sioux two hide patterned dress with beaded yoke. Photo Chulie de Silva

Sioux artists are well known for their fully beaded yokes which are made of hide, seed beads sinew.. Historically NMAI says this dress shows the background colour is light blue representing a lake.  The designs on the yoke are reflections of clouds and the narrow white band is the shore. In the centre, a beaded u shaped design represents a turtle. The Sioux believed that turtles had the power to protect a woman. On the side of the dress are displaced the moccasins, a belt etc. Ca 1900, South Dakota.

Some of the dresses displayed had yokes which were extensively decorated with cowrie shells as beads.

A dress adorned with cowries shells. Photo Chulie de Silva

A dress adorned with cowries shells. Photo Chulie de Silva

The Kiowa battle dress. Photo Chulie de Silva

The Kiowa battle dress. Photo Chulie de Silva

The Kiowa battle dress is worn exclusively by the female relatives of the elite warriors Ton-Kon-Ga (the Kiowa black leggings society) , which is an old military society.  The battle dress uses the colour black to announce and celebrate a great victory over an important enemy. Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa) says “by wearing the dress I recognize and honour the sacrifices of our warriors. There was a large payment in blood for our freedom in our culture. It is not proper for a man to brag about his war deeds. It is the woman’s responsibility to dress dance and honour him.”

Beautifully embroidered papoose (baby carriers and children's’ clothes. Photo Chulie de Silva

Beautifully embroidered papoose (baby carriers) and children’s’ clothes. Photo Chulie de Silva

The NMAI’s educational info for school children says “Indians of the northern Plains wore buffalo hides for both practical and ceremonial purposes. They wore buffalo hides in winter, with the fur on the inside for warmth. When people were sick, they often wore a hide painted with symbols to hasten healing. Women sometimes wore painted hides to promote childbearing. Political and spiritual leaders wore special hides. These hides might depict a warrior’s heroism or record important events in the history of the tribe.”

Buffalo hide etchings. Photo Chulie de Silva

Buffalo hide etchings. Photo Chulie de Silva

Some tribes used hide paintings to record their history. Tribal leaders chose the single most important event of each year, and added one picture representing that event to the hide painting. Members of the tribe often identified the year they were born by referring to the event depicted on these “winter count” hides.”

NMAI states that their collection ranges from ancient Paleo-Indian points to contemporary fine arts, and this include works of aesthetic, religious, and historical significance as well as articles produced for everyday use. Current holdings include all major culture areas of the Western Hemisphere, representing virtually all tribes in the United States, most of those of Canada, and a significant number of cultures from Middle and South America and the Caribbean.


The photograph above—which was given the museum catalog number P23360_143—was taken at the Santa Fe Indian School circa 1904. It is captioned in the margin, “Just arrived—Navajo Indian girls.” Then, “Several of these girls had never seen a white man until they met the clerk of the agency who brought them to the school.” Read more by clicking the link below:

Digitizing the Museum’s Photo Archives: 75,000 Images and Counting

By Will Greene

In addition to the object collections, the museum’s holdings also include the Photographic Archive (approximately 324,000 images from the 1860s to the present); the Media Archive (approximately 12,000 items) including film and audiovisual collections such as wax cylinders, phonograph discs, 16mm and 35mm motion picture film, magnetic media of many varieties, and optical and digital media recorded from the late 1800s through the present; and the Paper Archive (approximately 1500 linear feet) comprised of records dating from the 1860s to the present that preserve the documentary history of the NMAI, its predecessor, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation, and their collections, as well as other documentary and archival materials. Each of these four permanent collections components is defined by its individual scope and described in detail below. NMAI also maintains unaccessioned collections, including educational teaching collections and non-Native works of art depicting American Indian subjects, as well as poorly documented materials currently being researched for their value to the overall collection or potential disposition.

Although maintained as four discrete components, the Object, Photo Archive, Media Archive, and Paper Archive collections are deeply intertwined since each contains items that relate to one another: Photo and Media Archives include images of objects in use in Native communities or excavation contexts and the Paper Archive includes fieldnotes and documentation for all aspects of the combined collections. Through implementation of its Collecting Plan, NMAI hopes to expand the scope of the collections and continue its historically significant work in documenting indigenous lives and perspectives—through objects, diverse media, and other means—while simultaneously increasing the integration of the collections with one another and making them more applicable to museum programs and accessible to external users.

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