November is American Indian Heritage Month, so a great way to learn more about these peoples is to visit the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC.
This is the 18th of the Smithsonian’s famous museums and opened on the National Mall in 2004. It features the lifeways, history and art of Native Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere (North America, Canada, Mexico, and some from South America, such as Quechua), partly as a major exhibition space, and partly as a center for performances, films, events, and educational activities.
First, walk all around the outside of this museum to look at the interesting architecture—warm, honey-colored and cream sandstone blocks built to resemble a cliff, with gardens on three sides, demonstrating the types of plant environments many of the Indians had in their lives and what natural resources they had to work with, such as marshes, ponds, hardwood forests. There’s a small area of cultivated crops—corn, cotton, beans, and rows of bright green leaves that museum staff were picking.
They looked a little like kale, but the color was more emerald green than blue-green. I stopped to ask and it turns out that they are mustard greens, which have done very well this year, and the leaves are going to the café’s kitchen to be prepared as some dish tomorrow. What fun. The Mitsitam Café has foods from different regions, served at different stations, for example Great Plains and Meso-America. The food looked very good and interesting, but some were a little pricey for the serving size, I thought. I had a cup of wild fowl and rice soup, which was delicious.
The entrance to the museum is a huge, roughly-circular atrium bedecked with strings of flags from various Indian tribes. The displays are on three levels around the entrance level, and the exhibition and display spaces seem to continue largely with the circular theme: in the main exhibition, each Indian tribe that’s featured has a circular space that’s mostly self-contained, that then flows to another similar space. It’s nicely done and seems a good way of fitting a lot into a given area, probably much more efficient than the traditional square or rectangular open space.
On the 4th level you find permanent exhibits, “Our Universe” and “Our Peoples”, which aim to tell about the lives, culture, and history of the different tribes and groups. Part of this history includes how these people were affected by the arrival of those from Europe and what these people brought with them, such as guns, diseases and horses. On the 3rd level is “Our Lives”, which focuses on contemporary Indian life and how it’s affected by other cultures and ideas. The 2nd level has a smaller permanent exhibit on the local Indians from the Chesapeake area.
The museum also has changing exhibitions, the larger one on the 3rd level. When I was there, it was the works of Brian Jungen, whose father was Swiss and his mother a Canadian Indian. He makes objects that look almost traditional Indian, but are made from modern items; for example, a totem pole made of backpacks and a mask made of sports mitts. Some are interesting, some a little strange but all have a story to tell.
The other, smaller, exhibition when I was there was called “Indivisible”, on those people of African-Indian mix. It consists mostly of informational boards, with lots of quotes and pictures, but was amazingly well-attended and was generating quite a buzz, especially among the largely dark-skinned visitors. It makes me wonder how many of these people of this mix there are, and just how isolated they have been and felt. Is this country finally starting to come to terms with some of its racial issues? At least an exhibit like this does bring the subject up for discussion, does open up new areas of thinking, which can only be good. I, for one, had never really thought about an Africa-Indian mix, but now I will. I can only imagine some of the isolation and discrimination they must have been through, and the feelings of “being different” they must have had, because this country hasn’t had a good track record on racial issues (still doesn’t in some ways—but let’s not go there!). Anyway, this exhibit was interesting and thought-provoking, so has achieved something.
All the displays show plenty of movies and videos, and have interactive features. Many school groups visit, so hopefully multi-cultural awareness will slowly grow. All in all, it’s a great museum and a wonderful addition to the already wonderful assortment of museums in the city. Situated between the National Botanic Garden and the Air and Space Museum, it is free and open daily (except December 25).