The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is located on Independence Avenue in DC, on the National Mall. It is a component of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. The museum boasts one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native American objects, photographs, archives and media and contains exhibition galleries along with spaces for performances and lectures. The NMAI is dedicated to bringing Native voices to all it presents, from publications to the Internet to on-site exhibitions. According to the Smithsonian Institution, the museum brings in more than one million visitors per year.
The NMAI’s collections represent over 12,000 years of history across more than 1,200 indigenous cultures from throughout the Americas. These objects range from the aesthetic to the religious to the historical, helping to form a comprehensive catalogue of Native American culture. In your quest to discover more about the historical, mystical and eye-opening original inhabitants of the Americas, make sure to take in the wide variety of exhibitions and artifacts on display.
Ongoing exhibitions at the museum include “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,” which examines how eight different Native communities live in the 21st century, focusing on preservation of identity within the culture, and the struggle that this venture entails. “Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake” allows you to meet the Native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay through maps, ceremonial objects, photographs and more. These details can help you have a deeper understanding of just how prevalent Native Americans were, and are, to the areas surrounding DC.
“Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World” focuses on Native cosmology and how annual ceremonies serve as a window to Native ancestral teachings. The practices and philosophies of this great culture will give you a better sense of their history, and will enlighten you as to how these teachings still affect the modern world. Indoor and outdoor sculptures are on view, along with “As We Grow: Traditions, Toys, Games,” which displays Native American toys from North, Central and South America. The museum also offers family programs, guided tours and live musical performances.
And when you find yourself getting hungry, head to Mitsitam Café for Native American-inspired fare, like its famous fry bread, Peruvian mashed-potato cakes and quahog clam chowder.
The NMAI is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily and is open every day of the year except Dec. 25. Admission is free and the building is accessible to visitors with disabilities. The museum does not have parking set aside, but metered parking is available on surrounding streets and in local paid parking garages. Parking is scarce in DC, however, so public transportation is recommended. If traveling by Metrorail, get off at the L’Enfant Plaza stop (on the Blue, Orange, Green and Yellow Lines) and use the Maryland/Smithsonian Museums exit. If traveling by Bus, take the 30, 32, 34 or 36 Metrobus lines.
The museum is located between the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol Building on the National Mall; both of those landmarks serve as attractions to be visited along the way. Many of the monuments and memorials along the National Mall are nearby, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
- The museum’s on-site eatery, Mitsitam Café, translates to “let’s eat!” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway Natives.
- The museum displays an organic light show from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. The south-facing crystal prisms catch sun rays and give a rainbow reflection through the interior of the entry hall.
- The cost of construction of the museum totaled $199 million, with half of that figure coming from private donors.
- The museum was designed entirely by Native architects to give it the most authentic Native American experience possible.
- More than 40 boulders can be found surrounding the museum. These are known as “grandfather rocks,” as they are considered the elders of the museum’s landscape. The rocks have been blessed by members of two different Indian tribes.