I could spend weeks browsing the museums in Washington, D.C., both on the National Mall and off. But in late 2012 Todd and I had only part of a day. My first stop, the National Museum of the American Indian, was both grand and intimate. According to a brochure I picked up (nearly 18 months ago now), “The building is aligned to the cardinal directions and to the center point of the Capitol dome.” To me the design of the building evoked the flow of water and how it shapes land. Inside, it was spacious. This shot from an upper floor gives an idea of the scale of the place. One of my favorite exhibits there was the wall of tribal names. Here I zoomed in to find “Diné,” the Navajos’ name for themselves. I’ve been down to that reservation, the largest in the United States, a few times since 1999, to Black Mesa and, once, to Window Rock, the capital, to see Star Wars dubbed in Navajo. But it is only one among nearly 600 in the United States alone—in addition to the First Nations in Canada and all the indigenous tribes from Mexico to the tip of South America.
When I was growing up in Kansas City, I didn’t know about the Sac and Fox or Potawatomi reservations nearby, nor that Oklahoma was originally Indian territory. I thought there weren’t that many people in the Americas when Europeans arrived. I could excuse myself by saying I avoided history in high school or that American high schools teach a lot of misinformation about the original inhabitants of the Americas. But, really, I didn’t bother to find out until I had a work-study job in graduate school at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. The then-director of AISES, Norbert Hill, was Oneida, one of the nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
This statue commemorates the Oneidas who helped Revolutionary War soldiers survive the winter at Valley Forge. From left to right, George Washington; Polly Cooper, who taught the soldiers how to cook corn; and Oskanondonha, who helped to convince the Oneida to side with the colonists. I remember reading somewhere that one of the largest items in the U.S. budget during George Washington’s presidency was wars with the Indians. I wonder if he fought the Oneida, and if they ever regretted helping him.
Sacred Rain Arrow was selected by Senator Daniel Inouye, former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, at the invitation of sculptor Allan Houser to choose any piece from his collection of works. The sculpture was inspired by the story of an Apache who shot an arrow into the Spirit World that carried a prayer for rain. It used to be in display in the committee’s meeting room and is now on loan to the Smithsonian.
When I look at these pictures I think how inadequate they are to convey all the museum has to offer. I hope you’ll visit the National Museum of the American Indian in DC or New York yourself and see how magical it is.