This striking building, located at the Capitol end of the National Mall, stands out for the architectural contrast it makes with neighboring Smithsonian and government structures. It is the first national museum in the country dedicated exclusively to Native Americans, and Native Americans consulted on its design, both inside and out; the main architect was a Blackfoot Indian. The museum’s rippled exterior is clad in golden sand-colored Kasota limestone, the building standing five stories high within a landscape of wetland grasses, water features, and 40 large uncarved rocks and boulders known as “grandfather rocks.”
Although the interior design is breathtaking (you enter into a 120-ft. high domed “Potomac,” or rotunda, a place for performances and ceremonies), the experience of visiting here can be bewildering, thanks to the vast number of artifacts and the variety of tribes and tribal traditions portrayed. Perhaps this dizzying effect is intentional, but I’ve found that going through on one of the highlights tours is far superior to navigating the museum on your own.
But if a tour isn’t starting when you arrive, or you prefer exploring on your own, begin with the 13-minute Who We Are orientation film that plays throughout the day in the Lelawi Theater on the fourth level. It offers a good introduction to the variety of lifestyles that the museum covers. Then descend to tour the main galleries on the third and second floors. Approximately 8,000 objects are on display in five exhibits. “Our Universes” focuses on Native cosmologies and the spiritual connection between man and nature. “Our Peoples” relates historical events from a Native point of view. “Our Lives,” to my mind the most revealing exhibit, explores the identities and choices of Native peoples in the 21st century. “Window on the Collections” is for art lovers, showcasing 3,500 objects arranged in seven categories, including animal-themed figurines and objects, beadwork, dolls, and peace medals. “Return to a Native Place” tells the story of the Algonquian peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region, which is now Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Also look for displays of totem poles and other landmark objects and art throughout the museum.
When you return to the first floor, consider stopping by the museum’s restaurant, Mitsitam, which is a popular lunch spot for nearby office workers, or at the smaller Mitsitam Espresso Coffee Bar, which serves fair-trade coffee brewed from beans that have been imported and roasted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee of North Carolina.
- Elise Hartman Ford