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Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
Bask in every aspect of the Native American experience at this Smithsonian landmark.
What is the National Museum of the American Indian and where is it?
The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is located on Independence Avenue SW in Washington, DC, on the National Mall. The museum boasts one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native American objects, photographs, artifacts and media. The NMAI is dedicated to bringing Native voices to life throughout its contemplative exhibitions and colorful activities.
The museum is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. daily, except for Dec. 25 (the museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center and Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe close at 5 p.m., while exhibition spaces and the museum store begin closing at 5:15 p.m.). The museum is handicap-accessible.
The easiest way to get there is via public transportation. If traveling by Metrorail, get off at the L’Enfant Plaza stop on the Blue, Orange, Silver, Green and Yellow lines and use the Maryland Avenue/Smithsonian Museums exit. If traveling by bus, take the DC Circulator’s National Mall route or the 30, 32, 34 or 36 Metrobus lines.
The NMAI provides its first “wow!” moment before you even walk in the door. The building (designed entirely by Native architects) is one of DC’s most visually striking, with its curvilinear structure and limestone material designed to resemble rock formations affected by wind and water over thousands of years.
The museum’s collections represent more than 12,000 years of history across 1,200-plus indigenous cultures from the Americas. These objects range from the aesthetic to the religious to the historical, helping to form a comprehensive catalogue of Native American culture.
Ongoing exhibitions at the museum include Return to a Native Place: Algonquian Peoples of the Chesapeake, which allows you to meet the Native peoples of the Chesapeake Bay through maps, ceremonial objects, photographs and interactive displays. 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 eight different tribes are detailed, giving visitors a better sense of their history, and how each tribe’s teachings still affect the modern world. Of course, the museum regularly features new exhibits, so check its website to see what’s on display before you go.
The imagiNATIONS Activity Center is a fantastic interactive experience for families, as visitors can explore genius innovations made by Native tribes, from transportation solutions (snowshoes, skateboards) to tipi-building and basket-weaving.
A reason to visit during lunch
When you find yourself getting hungry, head to Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe (which translates to “Let’s eat!” in the language of Delaware and Piscataway Natives) for Native American-inspired fare, like its famous fry bread and corn totopos. The restaurant is highly regarded and is frequented.