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 stands 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 a 120-ft.-high domed rotunda called “Potomac,” the Piscataway word for “Where the goods are brought in”), the experience here can be bewildering, thanks to the sheer number of artifacts (some 8,500) and the variety of tribes and tribal traditions portrayed. The best way to take it all in is by joining a tour—check at the welcome desk to see if any are available during your visit.
If you’re exploring on your own, begin by visiting the fourth floor: where you’ll find Nation to Nation, an exhibit exploring the history of treaty-making between the United States and American Indian nations, using more than 125 objects, such as wampum belts and peace medals, three videos, and four interactive touch-based media stations, on view until 2025.
The second floor’s Return to a Native Place tells the more local story of the Algonquian peoples of the Chesapeake Bay region (today’s Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware). Window on the Collections (found on both the third and fourth levels) is for art and history lovers, showcasing hundreds of objects arranged by categories, including animal-themed figurines and objects, beadwork, dolls, and peace medals.
A special ongoing exhibit worth visiting: “Americans” highlights the ways in which American Indian images, names, and stories infuse American history and contemporary life, and it sets the record straight about historical figures, like Pocahontas, and historical events, such as the Battle of Little Big Horn.
The recently unveiled National Native American Veterans Memorial honors the contributions of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians who have served in the military. The large upright stainless-steel circle sits atop a stone drum. Take a seat on any one of the benches and reflect while listening to the sounds of water, a symbol of sacred Native Indian ceremonies.