This week marks an important milestone for the community of the National Museum of the American Indian —the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum in Washington, D.C. I’m proud to say NMAI has helped redefine the way our visitors understand the Native American experience and Native Peoples, thanks to the generous support of numerous Native Nations, members, trustees, and staff. More than 25,000 Native Americans gathered for the museum opening in 2004—the largest gathering of indigenous people in Washington, D.C., to date—and we look forward to greeting thousands more over the next decade.
This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the museum’s landmark founding legislation; the 20th anniversary of the opening of our first location, in New York City at the George Gustav Heye Center; and the 15th anniversary of the opening of our Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. These are fine accomplishments, and we are proud and grateful for what we all have done together.
There’s still important work to be done. Most Americans have been taught a limited—and often mistaken—version of Native American history. I still remember the stereotypes that defined my childhood: Indians were figures of the past, often pictured on a rocky hillside dressed in feathers and buckskin. It was images like these that made growing up as an Indian child harder than it had to be.
The true story of our heritage is so much more nuanced, complex, and fascinating. Understanding this complexity can help us understand our present and prepare for our future as a multicultural nation. This is where NMAI can play a vital role in the coming decades, and we are committed to taking on this role with greater focus and intensity.
Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on view at the museum in Washington from September 21, 2014, through fall 2018. A more detailed caption for these photographs appears below.
Over the next quarter century, we’re committed to telling the authentic history of the Western Hemisphere and Native Peoples to citizens, policymakers, and policy influencers nationwide. We’re embarking on this new effort in a number of ways, including through groundbreaking exhibitions such as Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, which is now open to the public. We’re also accelerating our efforts to work with educators, providing classroom materials designed to instill a richer understanding of our history as Americans. And we’ve launched an ambitious campaign to fund more than $75 million in projects that will sustain the next generation of our work.
We understand that this kind of change cannot happen overnight. It will take time and resources. But it’s my hope that our work over the next 25 years can begin to correct the deep-rooted stereotypes, inaccuracies, and omissions that defined my childhood and continue to contribute to the challenges faced by Tribal Nations.
Please join me as we retell America’s story and build understandings upon which the Indian Nations can achieve their highest aspirations.
Kevin Gover is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
Photo block above: Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on view at the museum in Washington from September 21, 2014, through fall 2018.
Top: Examples of early diplomacy between include (left) the 1682 Lenape Treaty with colonist William Penn and (right) the 1794 Treaty of Canandiagua between the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the United States. The Treaty of Canandiagua, one of eight original treaties that will rotate on exhibit to preserve fragile documents from light damage, can be seen now through February 2015.
Center: A display of pipe bags, represents both the importance of ceremony to diplomacy and the northern Plains Nations that were party to the Horse Creek Treaty (1861). From left to right: Tsitsistas/Shutai (Cheyenne) pipe bag, ca. 1851 (NMAI 8/8037); Sahnish (Arikara) pipe bag, ca. 1880 (NMAI 20/1400); Yankton pipe bag, ca. 1880 (NMAI 16/7255); AssiniIoine pipe bag, ca. 1880 (NMAI 12/7393); Numakiki (Mandan) pipe bag, ca. 1851 (NMAI 8/8088); Northern Inunaina (Arapaho) pipe bag, ca. 1885 (NMAI 23/1176); Apsáalooke (Crow/Absaroke) pipe bag, ca.1870 (NMAI 14/828); Minitari (Hidatsa) pipe bag, ca. 1880 (American Museum of Natural History 50.1/5350B); Shoshone pipe bag, ca. 1870 (NMAI 2/3294).
Bottom: From the mid-19th century unti the present day, generations of Indian leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C., to remind successive administrations of the United States' nation-to-nation treaty obligations.
All photos are by Paul Morigi/AP Images for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.