No More 'Imaginary Indians'! NMAI Director Seeks to Tell the Real Story


In the year 2014, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is celebrating a number of anniversaries, and museum director Kevin Gover, Pawnee, looks to use the media attention to separate fact from fiction.

Gover told Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post that American Indians lost control of their identity in popular culture due to their low population in the early 20th Century—their numbers had decreased to around 250,000 in 1900. “There were so few that the imaginary Indians became much more real than real Indians,” he said. 

On its website, the museum explains its four-fold anniversary thusly: "2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian by an act of Congress, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the museum in New York, the 15th anniversary of the museum’s Cultural Resources Center in Maryland, and the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C."

The anniversary exhibit, "Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations," is part of Gover's strategy. So much that is taught in schools still promotes the "imaginary" version of history—a series of disjointed vignettes about Pocahontas, Little Bighorn, and the Trail of Tears. At some points in the story, American Indians are friendly partners with European colonists; in other episodes, they are formidable adversaries worthy of defeat. The truth, that Natives were decimated by disease and betrayed by a government that broke treaty after treaty, is lost. 

"Nation to Nation," is a scholarly exhibition that Gover feels will influence how history is taught. “We know that teachers want to get it right,” he told Hiatt.  

The museum's focus in this anniversaty year is on more than history, though—it is also on the future. To that end, NMAI has created a special website to publicize itself and the people it serves as contemporary and, yes, forward-looking. Visit to see a video about the NMAI's commitment to tell "the bigger story."

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