Lyle Jacobs
It’s clear where to buy Native jewelry at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., but many other things are not clear at all.

Analysis: Commerce Trumps Native Culture at National Museum of the American Indian

Lyle Jacobs

First-time visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. may not find exactly what they are looking for. The museum’s mission statement assures museumgoers that it is “committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere.” But visitors say the museum can make it confusing to do just that.

“The layout of the museum is very confusing—so far all I’ve seen is a bunch of gift shops,” says Preston Jones, a Navajo visiting from New Mexico.

Indeed, upon entering the museum, visitors immediately see a booth selling what appears to be indigenous jewelry and relics. The majority of the first floor is devoted to a large “marketplace” area where visitors can buy various souvenirs. “Frustrating—a bunch of t-shirts and patterns—I see nothing of culture; what are they going to do, give a tour of the gift shop?” says Jones.

One of the first informational displays a visitor sees is a large pillar inviting people to learn about treaties. However, a small display with the question “are treaties bad or good for American Indians?” features two large cartoons poking fun at the subject. While there is nothing wrong with a little humor, the fact that this is one of the first displays a visitor will see combined with the gift shops may suggest to visitors that the museum is putting merchandise sales first, and making light of a serious and often misunderstood topic.

Several people of all backgrounds near an exhibit on the Dakota War of 1862 agree that the museum can be confused in the stories it attempts to tell. “It’s unclear why all this happened, all the brutality,” says Detlef Reineke, visiting from Germany. His wife, Heidi, who is originally from Minnesota, echoes his statement.

“I’m skeptical if we are getting both sides of the story. My question, are both sides being portrayed accurately?”

Patrick Kipepassah, a Taos Pueblo member visiting the museum from New Mexico with his wife and young son, wonders the same. “It’s definitely not telling the whole story, but I see that everywhere, which can make me feel very upset and emotional,” said Kipepassah.

The museum would indeed benefit from better explanations of these important events. Jack Shuler, an English professor at Denison University who was visiting with his young family from Ohio, agrees that “there should be much more ‘hand-holding’ in these presentations because people often don’t understand what happened to the Native Americans.”

Many sections of the museum have this problem of being unclear in what they are trying to accomplish. In a theater shaped like a Sweat Lodge, complete with hi-def sweat rocks, a 13-minute film on the “contemporary life of the modern Native American” was particularly foggy; the film would introduce tribes with no explanation of them or their culture, spend a minute or so on them, and move on.

Different native languages were heard throughout the film, speaking about different cultural practices, but viewers did not hear any translations or explanations. Nearly a dozen young children in attendance were heard continually asking “what’s that?” or “what does this mean?” This youthful inquisition is reflective of the museum’s general inability to paint an accurate and clear portrayal of 567 federally recognized American Indian cultures.

Lyle Jacobs, Oglala Lakota, wrote this piece for the newsroom immersion program for student journalists at the Native American Journalists Association’s annual conference in Alexandria, Virginia. Lyle is a senior studying sociology at Duke University.

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shotwell77's picture
Submitted by shotwell77 on
If you are going to write a scathing critique, make sure your facts are into order. First paragraph, the quoted excerpt of NMAI's mission statement is incorrect. It should read, "committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere." Covering the entire hemisphere is no small task—including the 567, not 566, tribes in the United States.