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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June 23, 2017

Bayonne Bridge Steel Rope, Making History in Lower Manhattan

By Neal Buccino, special to Portfolio, photographs by the Port Authority’s Mike Dombrowski

Bayonne Bridge cable imagiNATIONS
The museum’s exhibition designer Gerard Breen showing the Port Authority’s Roger Prince a model of the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, where the steel suspender rope will be displayed.

Six centuries ago, engineers in the Inka Empire designed cable bridges long enough to span Peru’s mountain gorges and durable enough to withstand earthquakes.

They wove these bridges out of grass and made them remarkably strong, using principles of physics that today support modern-day marvels such as the George Washington Bridge and Bayonne Bridge.

Next year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York—located in the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Lower Manhattan—will help students learn about these technological achievements, with a little help from the Port Authority. The agency recently donated to the museum a five-foot length of steel suspender rope from the Bayonne Bridge, one of the 152 original steel ropes that held up its 9,800-ton roadway for 85 years.

Made of more than 200 tightly wrapped steel wires, the suspender rope was removed as part of the Port Authority’s Raise the Roadway project, which will permit ultra-large container ships to navigate the Kill van Kull.

Bayonne Bridge cable 1
Roger Prince and the Smithsonian's Kevin Gover with the five-foot section of donated Bayonne Bridge suspender rope.

The cable will live on in the museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center, expected to debut next April. There, the steel rope (tensile strength: 950,000 pounds) will be displayed next to a grass rope with a tensile strength of 4,000 pounds, of the kind still used in Peru’s last remaining rope bridge, the Q’eswachaka.

Nearby, suspended from the ceiling, visitors will see a 26-foot section of an actual rope bridge built by the modern-day keepers of the Q’eswachaka Bridge. The 4,500-square-foot imagiNATIONS Activity Center will include interactive exhibits on Native American innovations across fields as varied as engineering and architecture, medicine, and nutrition. 

Bayonne Bridge cable 2 The Bayonne Bridge suspender rope had to be tested for lead and other contaminants before donation. This swab test was performed by Mike Hunt, Office of Safety Health & Environmental Management, Smithsonian.

The exhibit will help visiting students understand how, with flexible strands of any material twisted and braided together, a rope much stronger than its component parts can be created.

“Showcasing a section of Bayonne Bridge steel cable alongside an Inka bridge rope made of ichu grass highlights the continuity in engineering concepts the Inka and their descendants have used for millennia,” said Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “Native innovation is everywhere in modern life, and this is one instance where we can directly point to it and provide that a-ha moment.”

“This steel rope carries all the history of the Bayonne Bridge, which in its day was the longest steel arch bridge in the world,” said Roger Prince, the Port Authority’s deputy director of Tunnels, Bridges, and Terminals. “We hope it provides an educational experience for everyone who visits the imagiNATIONS Center.”

Q'eswachaka small

This story originally appeared on Portfolio, the official blog of the Port Authority of New York. Used with permission. The imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York is scheduled to open in spring 2018.

To learn more about Inka technology, visit the exhibition "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire" online or at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. You can see neighboring communities work together as they do every year to rebuild the rope bridge at Q’eswachaka—including making the grass cables that support it—in the exhibition video here.

Q'eswachaka suspension bridge, 2014. Q'eswachaka, Apurimac River, Canas Province, Cusco, Peru. Photo by NMAI Media Initiatives, Smithsonian

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September 08, 2015

Interning at the Museum: Safak Tezer, Exhibition Design

The blog series Interning at the Museum highlights the projects and accomplishments of the National Museum of the American Indian's interns. Each intern completes a 10-week internship in a department at one of the museum's three facilities—the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland; or George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. The museum’s Internship Program offers sessions in the spring, summer, and fall. The next deadline for applications—for the spring 2016 session—is November 20, 2015. These interviews feature members of this year's recently completed summer session. —Sarah Frost 

Safak Tezer brought design skills and experience to her intern position at the museum in New York.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

My name is Safak Tezer, I just received my MA in exhibition design from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, and I’m from Istanbul, Turkey.

What department did you intern in, and what projects did you work on?

My internship was with the Exhibit Design staff at the museum's Heye Center in New York. Projects I worked on include the Infinity of Nations exhibition and the imagiNations Activity Center, which is especially for children. For the imagiNATIONS project, I created 3D designs for an activity called Many Kinds of Rope, drew illustrations for mock-ups, and did sketches for scaling purposes for Day in Your Life panels.

Why did you decide to intern at NMAI?

I wanted to experience designing exhibits within a museum setting versus a corporate trade show environment. The NMAI internship has allowed me to utilize my experience in interior architecture, along with the recent skill set I obtained in the Master of Arts program at FIT. Furthermore, learning about Native Americans has been an exciting experience for a person who is from a different part of the world. 

What is your favorite aspect of your internship?

I enjoyed being able to work on different projects in a variety of ways. This has helped me to improve my design skills. I met amazing people, learned from them, and benefitted from their experiences. In my opinion, human relationships are more valuable than anything!   

What have you learned, and what do you hope to achieve because of this internship?

Interning at NMAI has been a wonderful opportunity and has given me hands-on experience working in a museum setting. I have learned a lot about how a museum operates—the day-to-day workings and programming. My expectations have been exceeded. My NMAI experience will no doubt help me along my career path both nationally and internationally.

How has interning helped you understand your own cultural interests?

Native Americans’ philosophy of life has always been of interest to me. I come from a different background as a Turkish person. Even though globalization has lessened unique cultural differences between people, we continue to have distinct sensibilities. It has been nice to be influenced by my new surroundings, which have contributed to my philosophy of life.

Do you have advice for aspiring interns?

Don’t be afraid to try new things. It is important to remain open to new and different experiences. Everything can teach you something. You never know what you will gain through your internship. 

Interviewer Sarah Frost spent her summer internship at the museum as a member of the Web staff, helping launch the Inka Road website and other new projects online and in social media. She will continue to work on the museum's digital projects this fall.

Photo courtesy of Safak Tezer; used with permission. 

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July 31, 2015

Museum Interns Take New York: A Photo Journal

On July 10, 12 NMAI interns and fellows visited the National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. We arrived at the museum as thousands of fans poured into lower Manhattan to shower us with cheers and admiration, or was that for the U.S. women’s soccer team?

As the crowds dispersed we headed into the museum, but not before taking a picture with a U.S. marshal (below).

Interns & US marshal

We were greeted by Duane Blue Spruce , public spaces planning coordinator (below, wearing a red shirt). After a round of introductions, he told us about his involvement with the Heye Center. His experience began when the museum was the Museum of the American Indian at West 155th and Broadway, before it became part of the Smithsonian and moved downtown. Duane showed us two books he created to illustrate the experiences of Native peoples in the New York City area—Mother Earth, Father Skyline: The Native American Experience in New York City and Concrete Tipi. “It’s fun to come and work here every day,” he said, “because the things we produce represent Native people and educate the public. We’re doing good stuff.”

John Haworth and GGHC staff speaking with interns

We were joined by John Haworth, NMAI assistant director for Museum Programs (above, far right), who told us about the imagiNATIONS project being developed in New York. This new hands-on learning space will be geared towards pre-teens and will demonstrate the ingenuity of Native peoples, including their contributions in food, medicine, and architecture. Connor Bliss, an intern in the Exhibits Department, explained that “being able to witness the progress that is being made on . . . the imagiNATIONS Activity Center has further increased the understanding of the exhibitions process I’ve learned here during my time at the Smithsonian.” 

Peter BrillLater, Peter Brill, deputy assistant director of the museum in New York (right), walked us through the exhibit design process. His enthusiasm for the museum was infectious, and he encouraged us to speak up and present our ideas: “In these projects, you have a voice, and it’s important to think and be responsive to each other, bring your ideas forward, and try not to be fearful of making a silly suggestion.”

Charlotte Basch, an intern in Community and Constituent Services, told me she was impressed by how encouraging the New York staff is: “It was a great opportunity to see that each individual plays an important role in the NMAI and Smithsonian network. . . . Peter and Duane and everyone else were obviously excited about the work they do for both tribal communities and their fellow New Yorkers.”

Carrie Gonzalez 1 Carrie Gonzalez 2
Carrie Gonzalez 3

Carrie Gonzalez, a cultural interpreter on the Heye Center staff, then guided us on a wonderful tour of the museum (above and right). She also led us through three major exhibitions: Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family, Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum of the American, and Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, as well as Circle of Dance.  

Carrie told us that she leads school groups on tours during the school year, sometimes with over 50 kids! I think we were slightly easier to manage.  

We also got the chance to explore the museum’s activity center (below). Some interns tried their hand at a Yup'ik yo-yo a game that requires the player to take two sealskin balls attached by a caribou-sinew string and swing them around in opposite directions. I ventured into a tipi with Sara Morales, a Collections intern, and spent some time looking at the artwork on the interior. 

Yoyo 1 Yoyo 2 Tipi interior

After the tour was over, the interns scattered across the city—some uptown to see friends, some to Brooklyn. We all left the Heye Center with an appreciation for how the museum is changing understandings of Native lives in New York City.


—Sarah Frost

Sarah Frost spent her summer internship at the museum in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Web staff, working on the Inka Road website and new projects online and in social media. 

Photos: Tipi interior courtesy of Conservation intern Rachel Mochon. View of Manhattan courtesy of Applications intern Abby Malkin. All other photos courtesy of Sarah Frost.

The National Museum of the American Indian's Internship Program offers sessions in the spring, summer, and fall. The next deadline for applications—for the spring 2016 session—is November 20, 2015.

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