December 11, 2017

For the holidays, six favorite picture books from imagiNATIONS Story & Discovery

Every month the staff of the Washington museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center highlights a different book during our Story & Discovery program. We choose books written by Native American authors or by non-Native authors who have consulted with Native communities. By choosing the books in our story program with care to showcase the diversity of Native cultures throughout the Western Hemisphere, we hope to break down stereotypes. Thinking critically about the characters and illustrations in these books is also a great way to help young children develop empathy and cultural sensitivity skills. This holiday season we are sharing six of our favorite books that we think would make great gifts for kids age 5 to 7.

Berry Magic cover W400
Berry Magic
written and illustrated by Teri Sloat and Betty Huffmon (Yup’ik)

Community focus: Yup’ik, Alaska

Why we love this book: Berry Magic is one of our tried and true program books; we have been using it for years! Yup’ik Elder Betty Huffmon shared this traditional story of how berries came to her people with author and illustrator Teri Sloat. Their collaboration produced a book with beautiful pictures, Yup’ik vocabulary words, a song to sing together, and even a recipe for akutaq, a traditional Yup’ik dish made with berries!




Hungy Johnny W500Hungry Johnny written by Cheryl Minnema (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe), illustrated by Wesley Ballinger (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe)

Community focus: Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota

Why we love this book: Johnny is a very relatable character who just wants to EAT, EAT, EAT! This book touches on some common holiday themes, such as food and community gatherings, while teaching the value of patience and the importance of respecting elders. Hungry Johnny is also full of Ojibwe imagery that inspires close looking, such as wild rice cooking on a stove and traditionally beaded jewelry and clothing.

Goat in the Rug W352

The Goat in the Rug written by Charles L. Blood and Martin Link, illustrated by Nancy Winslow Parker

Community focus: Navajo (Diné), Arizona

Why we love this book: This fun story is told by Geraldine, a goat whose wool is woven into a rug by her Navajo friend Glenmae. Based on a true story from Window Rock, Arizona, The Goat in the Rug teaches the complex process of creating Navajo rugs in a way children can understand and appreciate. Geraldine’s unique insight and sense of humor make this a book that adults and kids will enjoy reading together!





Thunder Boy Jr W500Thunder Boy Jr. written by Sherman Alexie (Spokane and Coeur d’Alene), illustrated by Yuyu Morales

Community focus: Spokane, Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

Why we love this book: The character of Thunder Boy Jr. is a great depiction of a contemporary Native child—he strums a guitar, rides his bike, plays (and fights) with his sister, and is a powwow grass dancer. He also hates his name. Read along as Thunder Boy Jr. learns to navigate his relationship with his father, Thunder Boy Sr., through love, respect, and understanding.


Gecko and Mosquito W579Gecko and Mosquito written and illustrated by Melissa DeSica

Community focus: Native Hawai’ian

Why we love this book: At the museum we strive to promote the preservation and use of indigenous languages. This book delightfully pairs Hawai’ian language with rhyming text that begs to be read aloud! A glossary in the back of the book provides translations and pronunciation for the Hawai’ian words. Bright and colorful illustrations complement this entertaining story about the harms of bullying.


When Turtle Grew Feathers W426When Turtle Grew Feathers by Tim Tingle (Choctaw), illustrated by Stacey Schuett

Community focus: Choctaw, Oklahoma

Why we love this book: Classic stories are told in many different ways throughout the world. The Choctaw version of the age-old race between the tortoise and the hare, for example, may be a little different from the one you know! This account features a turkey wearing a turtle shell, an adorable cheering squad of baby turtles, and lovely paintings of the High Plains. In the end, Rabbit still gets his comeuppance and Turtle learns the value of a helpful friend.




We hope our recommendations remind you of how wonderful it is to share a book, as a reader or listener. Join us at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall for imagiNATIONS Story & Discovery! Our current program times are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.

Recommended age: 3+

Please note: Groups (e.g., school or home school classes, daycare, camp, or scout groups, etc.) are required to schedule entry time to the imagiNATIONS Activity Center.

The Smithsonian museums are open every day of the year except December 25. Happy holidays!

—Leah Thomas

Leah Thomas is an educator at the National Museum of the American Indian’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center in Washington, D.C. Her work includes developing culturally appropriate family programs, creating partnerships with local organizations, and educating pre-k to 3rd grade school groups. In addition to having a background in museum education, she holds an M.A. in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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November 28, 2017

Long journey: A traditional kayak frame comes to New York

NY museum staff at kayak frame welcoming ceremony si
Members of the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York hold a welcoming ceremony for a kayak frame built in the traditional Yup'ik way at the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska. A testament to the ingenuity and innovation of the Native cultures of the Arctic, the kayak frame will become a teaching exhibit when the New York museum's imagiNATIONS Activity Center opens this May.

In May 2018, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York will unveil a brand-new exhibition space, the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, or iAC. The center will be geared towards a young audience, offering hands-on interaction with the origins and outcomes of Native innovation. One section of the iAC will highlight the kayak, an invention designed by the Inuit, Yup'ik, and Aleut people as long as 4,000 years ago. The focal point of this section will be a full-size traditional Yup’ik kayak frame—15 feet of historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales. Acquired by the museum from the Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok, Alaska, the frame was built by Troy and Ethan Wilkinson with the guidance of their father Bill, who studied for many years under the revered traditional Yup’ik kayak-maker Frank Andrew. In the iAC, the kayak frame will serve as a visually compelling example of Native craft and ingenuity that lives on today.

Duane Blue Spruce, public spaces planning coordinator for the museum in New York, spearheaded the effort to obtain the kayak, and was the main point of contact with Alaska during the months-long process. I had the pleasure of speaking both with Duane and with Bill Wilkinson, co-founder of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center in Kwigillingok (or Kwig, as the locals call it) about their perspectives on the experience.

Bill described to me the history of Qayanek, humbly crediting his knowledge and skill to his father-in-law, Frank Andrew, who was part of the last generation of Yup’ik people to be taught traditional kayak-building practices. Frank agreed to be Bill’s teacher, and Bill spent 19 years working with him and developing his knowledge. For the majority of the time it was just the two of them, but Frank spent his last six years teaching Bill, Noah Andrew Sr. (Frank’s son), Ethan Wilkinson and Troy Wilkinson to use traditional materials, such as driftwood and sealskin, to construct the kayaks. Bill said he “tried to learn how to build them how they would have built them 100 years ago or more.” They used their teeth to bend wood, caulked the joints with seal oil and moss, and colored the wood with traditional natural pigments. In Bill’s words, they were “always pushing the envelope.”

Kayak frame close-up
Made using historically correct white spruce driftwood, with yellow cedar added for stringers and gunwales, the frame is lashed with sealskin and dyed with natural pigments.

In New York, Duane expressed his fascination with kayak hunting, pointing out that each item a Yup’ik hunter uses is essential. On display in the exhibition Infinity of Nations is a Yup’ik hunting hat, part of the hunter’s efficient and balanced system. Duane explained that the hat not only shields the hunter’s face from the sun, but its conical shape amplifies the subtle echoes of the sounds made by seals and fish under the surface of the water. Bill emphasized that the tools of a Yup’ik hunter kept him alive, and since his kayak was custom-made for his body, it became an extension of his being.

For 13 years, Bill was the only apprentice to Frank Andrew and his vast knowledge of kayak-making. Many family members helped to translate countless questions from Bill to the ever patient Yup’ik elder, and Bill shared much of what he learned with his sons Troy and Ethan. From the time the new Qayak Center was built in 2000 until he passed away in 2006, Frank, with Bill's urging, expanded his training to a deeply authentic level for all four of his students. Bill recalled watching Frank Andrew speak with his son in Yup’ik, joking that the “DSL connection" between the two led Noah to perfect his skill in about a quarter of the time it took him. “I think we’ve been successful in creating a small but new generation of traditional kayak builders. And they can choose to go to schools or build them or pass them on, or not. But I’m off the hook now.

“I don’t want to be the last guy,” Bill explained. “This knowledge should be back in some Native hands. And we’ve done that, so I consider that kind of successful.”

Noah Andrew
Frank Andrew’s son, Noah Andrew, poses with what Bill calls a “loon kayak.” The boat's skin is covered in seal oil and soot, traditional Yup’ik kayak-making materials. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

For Duane, from the first call to Kwigillingok in October 2015 to the arrival of the frame in February 2016, the experience was a complete adventure. The museum’s Mary Ahenakew and Gaetana DeGennaro happened upon the Qayanek website, and fate had it that Bill was willing to sell the frame. The four-hour time difference, mounds of paperwork, and 4,000 miles of distance pushed everything up to the wire, and a December 31 New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant deadline loomed at the horizon. Duane maintained weekly contact with Bill, sometimes even reaching him between classes he teaches at the local school in Kwig.

The request to buy from Bill was processed in Washington on December 23, eight days before the NYSCA grant deadline. People working on the project here in New York couldn’t help but be giddy. They regarded the last-minute victory as a “Christmas miracle,” a few even suggesting that none other than Santa Claus himself had agreed to ship the frame.

But what to do without Santa’s sleigh? “OK,” Duane remembered thinking to himself, “we’ve bought this thing. How are we gonna get it from Alaska to New York?” Bill’s experience finding a way to ship the enormous frame from tiny Kwig to New York was a true testament to the ambition and hard work of his family and the Kwigillingok community. The process he described echoed the sense of adventure that Duane felt on his end, yet was wrapped up in the difficulties of life in the Alaskan bush. Bill built an 18-foot, 700-pound custom shipping crate in the back aisle of their grocery store, which was the only indoor place it would fit. He and his son Ethan then had to disassemble it to get it out the door, reassemble it in a blizzard, and haul it a quarter of a mile through the same blizzard to the school. There, it was stored until the kayak was carefully secured and ready to begin its journey to the museum.

The final transport plan included movement on land, water, and sky. Bill stressed the danger associated with landing planes in the tiny Kwig airport, lightheartedly mentioning that “it’s very skinny, and it’s very short. . . . One pilot came out and landed on this airport, went back to Bethel, and said ‘I quit.’” The frame was flown from Kwigillingok to Bethel, and from Bethel to Anchorage. Then it was transferred to a steamship and rode the waves from Anchorage to Seattle, where it was picked up by a truck and driven to New York.

Kayak and plane
A plane prepares to take off with the kayak frame from the airport in tiny
Kwigillingok, Alaska. Making the frame's custom shipping crate is a story in itself. Courtesy of Qayanek Qayak Preservation Center

The frame arrived at the museum on Wednesday, February 3. Duane recounted that he had happened to call Bill to check in on the shipping status the day before and was astonished to hear that not only had the frame been shipped, it was set to be delivered the next day. With less than 24 hours to prepare for the arrival, the project team figured out all the logistics just in the nick of time. It was obvious that Bill took great care in packing the frame. He wrote detailed instructions on the wooden crate, complete with miniature drawings and little black circles that indicated which screws should be taken out first, as well as a playfully blunt warning: “Lid is very heavy! Do not drop lid into crate and crush contents.”

Bill's instructions
Bill Wilkinson’s instructions for unpacking the frame left nothing to chance.

The breathtaking craftsmanship and simple beauty of the piece were obvious as soon as it was unpackaged. Duane held a blessing ceremony to welcome the frame into the space, acknowledging the time and hard work that went into the project and making sure to snap a picture for Bill to assure him that the frame arrived safely and in one piece.

NY staff unpacking the frame
Unpacked! Beautiful and functional, the kayak frame represents Yup'ik knowledge and experience preserved for generations.  

I asked Duane about the importance of obtaining authentic Native objects for the exhibit. He replied that putting pieces like the kayak on display shows that “traditional methods and knowledge are still valid in the contemporary world.” Since the exhibition will focus on both the history and current use of Native innovations, it speaks to the integrity of the museum that so much time, effort, and stress were put into assuring that the kayak was not only culturally accurate, but produced in a Native environment, with traditional materials. Duane noted that, remarkably, commercial kayaks are still designed in an extremely similar way. “It still works!” he said. “The technology still works.”

The singular history of this kayak frame adds to a much larger conversation. Not only does the existence of the frame rely upon the ingenuity of the Native people who first designed it, it also hinges on the dedication of Frank Andrew, his family, and a new generation of builders who keep Frank's legacy alive and believe in the value of tradition and learning through experience. The story of this kayak adds to a broader narrative of cultural exchange and conservation, and the importance of institutions like the museum that work to preserve the memory of Native innovation, as well as support its modern reality. Ultimately, the kayak will serve as a jumping off point for young people who will leave the museum with a deeper and more personal understanding of the lasting impact of Native knowledge and design, and an interest in learning more.

As a middle school teacher, Bill has hands-on experience with the impact that Native history and knowledge have on today’s younger generations. Since the kayak frame will eventually be housed in the iAC here in New York, I asked Bill for his view on the importance of displaying Native objects in educational settings. “Here’s why I think it’s important to young people,” he said with obvious passion. “When they see the genius of kayak building, they realize that they are a part of a culture that is just as smart, just as brilliant, just as innovative, as any other society. Everybody needs to know their own self-worth, their own cultural self-worth. We all have a place in the existence of humanity, and we should all be considered with equal respect and dignity and knowledge. And I think that that’s a really important aspect of teaching people, Native and non-Native, about the brilliance of kayak-building.”

—Althea Meer

Althea Meer spent the summer working as an intern with the Office of Public Affairs at the museum in New York. This fall she begins her junior year at New York University, where she's studying English, Spanish, and web programming.

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February 24, 2017

Porfirio Gutiérrez sees young Zapotec weavers embracing their traditions

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was created to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. The program's goals have included recognizing and promoting indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program has sought to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through workshops in the artists' communities. Here, weaver Porfirio Gutiérrez shares the impact of his experience.

Before he left Washington, D.C., Porfirio Gutiérrez gave this brief, informal talk on his research in the museum's collections and his plans for the community workshop he describes here.

My name is Porfirio Gutiérrez and I am a Zapotec weaver from Teotitlán del Valle located near Oaxaca, Mexico. I took part in the Artist Leadership Program in Washington during December 2015. My project upon returning to Teotitlán del Valle was to revive traditional Zapotec dyeing in the community.

Teotitlán del Valle is a very old Zapotec town, known for more than a thousand years for its fine weaving. The majority of the people are still involved in weaving in some way, but mine is one of only a few families who still have the knowledge of working with fine handspun yarn and with dyes made from plants, minerals, and insects. 

The greatest challenge in organizing a community workshop for young weavers was that we didn’t have enough space available for everyone who wanted to take part. Young people asked me to put them on a waiting list, just in case someone didn’t show up. 

The students were very excited to learn about their ancient natural dyes and the sources and techniques for making and using them. The community was also very impressed and proud to have the Smithsonian supporting this project. The villagers now know that there is someone raising awareness about the modern challenges we are facing, and this gives them hope! That is especially true for the families holding on to our ancient traditions.

I deeply appreciate the institution for giving me and my community this opportunity. It changed my life! As artist I gained knowledge and confidence; working with the Smithsonian brought validation to my work. The research I did at the museum and the things I learned in the program reassured me and gave me freedom to express myself. 

Most importantly, this experience is rekindling pride in Zapotec artisanship and craftsmanship, and in the community overall. One weaver who took part in the workshop said that she was very appreciative to me and to my family because we didn't keep this knowledge to ourselves and instead we were sharing it with our community.

I poured my heart out in the workshop, because the young people who took part will carry on with this tradition. Tomorrow they will open their hearts to the next generation, so that our culture is not lost.

—Porfirio Gutiérrez (Zapotec)

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November 03, 2016

Artist Anita Paillamil empowers other Mapuche women by reconnecting them with their culture

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) aims to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. The ALP's goal is to recognize and promote indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program seeks to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through community art workshops in the artists' communities. Selection for the program is based on the artists’ proposed research, proposed workshops or public art projects, digital portfolios, resumes, artist statements, and letters of community support. Here, artist Anita Paillamil shares some of the important things she gained from the program.

Anita Paillamil at the Museo Regional de la AraucaníaTextile artist Anita Paillamil (Mapuche) outside the Museo Regional de La Araucanía in Temuco, Chile.

My name is Anita Paillamil, and I am Mapuche. I live in the town of Nueva Imperial, in the rural area of Lliuco in the Araucanía Region in southern Chile. My main job is to create and reproduce Mapuche traditional textiles, made with sheep's wool and dyed with natural elements such as leaves, mud, flowers, and fruits. Also I dedicate myself to teach this art to Indigenous women who for many reasons have been left with no knowledge of textiles and who today feel a need to reconnect with their ancestors through textile art.

261561 + 176668
Mapuche woman's ligchamall (dress) and trariwe (belt). Dress: ca. 1910; central Chile; wool. Belt: 2000; purchased from Fundación Chol-Chol, a non-profit organization focused on economic development for Mapuche people, Temuco, Araucanía Region, Chile; wool yarn, dyes. 17/6668 & 26/1561. NMAI Photo Services.

I applied to the National Museum of the American Indian to take part in the Artist Leadership Program because tangible and intangible Mapuche culture is losing its impact due to young people's lack of motivation to learn it. Our parents belong to the generation that encouraged their children to stop practicing their culture because of shame. As a result so much knowledge and so many stories were lost. I was fortunate—everything I know I learned from my mother. So for me as a Mapuche woman and instructor of this art, it is very important to reconnect with our culture. Only then will I be able to transmit it to the different generations of Mapuche and non-Mapuche people, ensuring that the traditions will not be lost.

When I started my research at the museum's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, my main goal was to examine the collection of trariwes, or women's traditional belts, identifying iconographic patterns that were lost in the textiles that are produced today. My goal was to be able to reproduce the patterns, working together with the women of the group Wallontu Witral to which I belong and of which I am president. The trariwe is one of the most sacred pieces for us as a people, and I thought that during the trip to Washington, I would only get to see trariwes. When I got to the Cultural Resources Center, however, and started my project, I was impressed by the number of objects in the collections and the care with which they are treated. That was something I did not expect, because here in rural communities we see very old textiles thrown on the floor or hung on a fence. Also I do not speak English, and I was a little worried that I might not be able to communicate and work independently. I thought it would be difficult, but it was not, because the museum's whole team was very willing to help me at all times.

ALP artists 2014–15 at the CRC
Individuals artists who took part in the Artist Leadership Program for 2014–15 (left to right): Keevin Lewis (Navajo), the museum's outreach program coordinator; Lisa Rutherford (Cherokee Nation), Anita Paillamil Antiqueo (Mapuche), Jacob Butler (Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community), and Irma Alvarez Ccoscco (Quechua). National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center, Suitland, Maryland.

To all the artists who are applying, especially those who do not speak English, do not to be afraid of the language. The feeling of being there with some of your own living culture is invaluable, and the team is always looking for ways in which you're right! Do not be frustrated if you cannot be selected immediately. Do try again, because you can always count on the support and guidance of Keevin Lewis, the Artist Leadership Program's outreach coordinator and now a very good friend. It is also a unique opportunity to re-meet your own people.

Many moments I experienced during my stay in Washington were very significant, but what I think I remember most was my visit to the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks. I was not able to finish that visit because I felt very bad—not physically, but of the spirit. Looking at the objects and feeling the energy that was in that place it was as if there was part of me there and perhaps something that belonged to my family, my direct ancestors.

White wool black dye
Anita's community workshops explored traditional Mapuche dyeing, among other techniques. To create black, white wool is first boiled with maqui tree leaves, which turn the wool yellow. Oily mud from a local swamp is then added to turn the yellow wool black.

This made me think that this time I am living is something unique, something very important, and that reconnecting with our culture is a task that must continue. One of the ways to assure that is through my community art project. My goal is to share that experience with all who feel this attachment to nature and the land that gives us life, because it is important to preserve and disseminate the knowledge of our grandmothers.

Thanks to my trip to the museum, from February 16 to 20, 2015, I conducted many activities in different communities in my area, retransmitting my experience in Washington, much of what I could see in the museum's collections, as well as my own feelings as a Mapuche woman. About 200 people were involved in this project, mostly Mapuche women who have been my students. Now they’re continuing to develop traditional textiles in their own communities. Among the most important activities was the rescue of natural dyeing to give white wool a black color—important knowledge for Mapuche culture because black represents security. Also during the week of my community art project we had very important discussions about the protection of our textile iconography, as it is part of us as a people and belongs to and is characteristic of our culture.

I think the most important aspect of my experience in the program is that I have gained more confidence in my work, and more appreciation for it at different levels. I feel my role within my culture is to continue working so that knowledge is not lost—teaching women, children, young people, and all those who are interested in learning. When I was in Washington, I realized that this is part of my purpose in life—to preserve traditions, spread awareness, and support Mapuche women who are somehow reconnecting with all this ancestral knowledge.

—Anita Paillamil (Mapuche)

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February 29, 2016

We’re looking for a special teacher, and it might be YOU

The National Museum of the American Indian is looking for a special teacher to play an important part in Native Knowledge 360°, the museum’s national education initiative to inspire and promote the improvement of teaching and learning about American Indians. If you're currently teaching in grades 5 through 12, that teacher might well be you.

What is Native Knowledge 360°? 

Teachers studying winter count
Teachers taking part in a workshop at the museum study a winter count. Some Native nations used winter counts to record an event for each year—from first snowfall to first snowfall—as a historical reminder.

Native Knowledge 360° (NK360°) provides educators and students with new perspectives about Native American history and cultures. Most Americans have only been exposed to part of the story, as told from a single perspective through the lenses of popular media and textbooks. NK360° provides educational materials and teacher training that incorporate Native narratives, more comprehensive histories, and accurate information to enlighten and inform teaching and learning about Native America. NK360° challenges common assumptions about Native people—their cultures, their roles in United States and world history, and their contributions to the arts, sciences, and literature. Native Knowledge 360° offers a view that includes not only the past, but also the richness and vibrancy of Native peoples and cultures today.

Teacher-in-Residence and Summer Teacher-in-Residence programs

The museum invites teachers to apply to its Teacher-in-Residence (TIR) and Summer Teacher-in-Residence (STIR) programs. These programs support the NK360° effort to provide educators and students with new perspectives about American Indian history, culture, and contemporary lives.

One teacher each will be selected to hold a ten-month residency (school year) and a six-to-eight-week residency (summer) at National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Residents will work with staff and participating American Indian communities to create dynamic online lessons using the museum’s extensive resources. Additionally, the resident teacher will serve as an advisor to and tester of online lessons currently under development. As a culmination of the residency, the selected teacher will create a unique project, activity, digital app, or lesson for national classroom use.

Want to know more?

Click here for a description of the program, eligibility, and application.

Apply now. Applications are due by April 1, 2016. We invite you to participate in this exciting new program!

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