January 22, 2016

One Hundred Years of History: Going Digital

A question I'm often asked as an archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian is, “How do I find what I’m looking for, and once I find it, how do I access it?” The Smithsonian is one of the world’s largest repositories of primary sources, with archival holdings measuring somewhere in the area of 137,000 cubic feet, spread across 14 museums and other research centers within the institution. These amazing resources include letters, journals, scrapbooks, photo albums, and sound and video recordings, with subjects ranging from art and culture to science and technology. The scope can make searching for specific information a daunting task. Luckily, Smithsonian archivists have been hard at work making it easier to find the material you are looking for, and making it increasingly possible to view a digital version of the letter, field notebook, or photograph in question.

In October 2015 the Smithsonian launched the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). This online interface provides access to archival finding aids—inventory lists that provide context and detail to the many pieces that can make up a collection. Currently the NMAI Archive Center has 101 archival collection records, including photographic, paper, and media collections, available via the SOVA. Of these 101 records, 28 collections have full finding aids.

You can browse the SOVA by Smithsonian unit, making it easier to focus your search on NMAI’s archival holdings specifically.

SOVA homepage


If there is digitized content available within a collection, a symbol will appear in your search results next to the collection name.

Tibbles screen shot


The papers of the journalist Thomas Henry Tibbles (1840–1928)—the husband of Indian rights writer and orator Susette Bright Eyes LaFlesche (Omaha) and a progressive figure in his own right—are one example of a fully digitized collection now available online. You can browse the full collection here.

One of the museum’s largest archival collections is the records of our predecessor institution, the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation (MAI) in New York City. The MAI records include collectors' field notebooks, catalog lists, and expedition records, as well as exhibition and organizational files. (For a more in-depth look into what this massive collection holds, take a peek at the earlier blog post Finding Treasure in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Records.)

As many of you may know, in 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the MAI. As a part of a year-long anniversary celebration, every month the Archive Center is putting new digitized content from the MAI records up on the SOVA. These records will be accompanied by stories from the 100-year history of the MAI. As our first offering the Archive Center has made available the MAI’s annual reports from 1917 to 1989. These annual reports give a keen insight into the activities of the museum from its earliest days up until it became a part of the Smithsonian Institution.

The MAI annual reports offer an great opportunity to learn about conducting research using the SOVA. For instance, say you want to know what expeditions the museum funded in 1924. You can easily find this information by following the digitized content boxes in the MAI finding aid to the Publications Series: 

MAI screen shot


You can then select the annual report folder you're interested in. If you're looking for 1924, you’ll want to click on Folder 2.

MAI screen shot3


You can then browse through the annual reports until you find 1924.

MAI screen shot2


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The annual reports are just one of the many treasures among the MAI records. Make sure to check back with us every month for new and exciting stories from the archives!

—Rachel Menyuk, archives technician, NMAI Archive Center

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October 27, 2014

Glittering World: Case (Almost) Closed . . . .

By Joshua Stevens

The National Museum of the American Indian in New York is abuzz as the debut of Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family comes closer. A little less than three weeks before the exhibition opens to the public November 13, people behind the scenes are putting the final elements in place, bringing life to the sketches, blueprints, and mock-ups that designers worked tirelessly to perfect.

A visit to the museum’s East Gallery right now gives a vivid sense of just how stunning the exhibition will be. Vibrant colors of crimson and turquoise give a new personality to the space, almost as if visitors will walk into a life-sized piece of Navajo jewelry. It is also apparent that much more remains to be done as prep work continues in every corner of the gallery.

Standing out among all the work in progress is casework that will eventually hold hundreds of pieces of jewelry made by the Yazzies. It’s easy to be amazed by how much planning it takes for every single case. Each case is inscribed with numbers that categorize it and map what it will contain. The exhibition team—led by Peter Brill, assistant director for exhibitions and programs at the museum in New York—allowed a sneak peek at the construction of the exhibition environment. A few snapshots give a sense of things to come.

Encasements Waiting Encasement Application Wall Section

Left: Display cases sit below panels where they will eventually be hung. Top right: Peter Brill shows how a case front will be fitted to one of the wall panels. Above: Within the recesses of a panel, numbers encode a case's location and contents. 

RetailCase LightingExample

Top left: This unfinished panel will hold several of Lee Yazzie’s best-known expertly designed rings. Above: Cases have been designed to strike the perfect balance of controlled lighting and ambient light, bringing out the brilliance of the jewelry in the exhibition. Right: This case will showcase pieces in the Glittering World Gallery Store, where visitors will have the opportunity to purchase unique jewelry inspired by Navajo designs, as well as work by fine jewelers from other Native nations.

Glittering World
opens Thursday, November 13, at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and will run until January 2016. The NMAI blog will continue to post exclusive behind-the-scenes content as the opening nears. You can also view the exhibition trailer and join the conversation with the museum on Facebook and Twitter, #GlitteringWorld. Let us know if there’s something you want to know! 

Photos by Joshua Stevens, NMAI.

Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

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September 22, 2014

Let’s Begin a New Chapter in NMAI History

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.

Director Gover NMAI-0283
Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the America Indian.

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. 

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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


For more information on ways you can support NMAI, visit http://nmai.si.edu/support or email NMAImember@si.edu

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.

October 07, 2009

Mary G. Ross blazed a trail in the sky as a woman engineer in the space race, celebrated museum

Mary Golda Ross 
 Photos courtesy of Mary McCarthy

When she was 96 years old, Mary Golda Ross asked her niece to make her something very special: the first traditional Cherokee dress that Ross, the great-great-granddaughter of renowned Chief John Ross, would ever own.

Because Ross, after a lifetime of high-flying achievement as one of the nation's most prominent women scientists of the space age, wanted to wear her ancestral dress to the opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian. Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of 25,000 Native peoples that opened the museum five years ago.  

Mary G. Ross—whose Cherokee lineage includes leaders and teachers and who herself now figures in the lineage as the Cherokee rocket scientist—spent her century of life looking mostly into the future.   

She passed away in 2008 just three months shy of her 100th birthday. Born in 1908 on her parents' allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which her ancestor Chief John Ross was involved in founding.  She taught science and math during the Great Depression in rural Oklahoma. By 1937 she was teaching at a school for American Indian artists in Santa Fe that would later become the Institute of American Indian Art. She pursued a master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado, where she took every astronomy class they had.

In 1942 she was hired as a mathematician at Lockheed Corporation, and assigned to work with the engineers who were doing the pioneering research that would launch the space race.  Later Lockheed trained her to become one of the 40 engineers in known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. It was the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to NASA based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Ross was 45, the only woman and the only Native American. 

Mary Golda Ross Her Lockheed team's top-secret project?

"Preliminary design concepts for interplanetary space travel, manned and unmanned earth-orbiting flights, the earliest studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes," columnist Leigh Weimers wrote in the San Jose Mercury News in 1994.

"Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.," Ross recalled in the article. "I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer."

Most of the theories and papers that emerged from the group, including those by Ross, are still classified. As she told her alma mater's newspaper in the 1990s, "We were taking the theoretical and making it real." One of Ross' seminal roles was as one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, about space travel to Mars and Venus.

Four years before she passed away, as the National Museum of the American Indian opened, Ross knew that this was an occasion of historic importance. This forward thinking Cherokee woman who helped put an American man on the moon said, "The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story."

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Great Post, I love reading this stuff. I can only imagine the wealth of information this woman has for us. :)

This story is a great one indeed.

I look forward to researching more about the contributions to space engineering from people from different ethnic backgrounds! Great achievement.

Gerry Mats

Really a great women and god gave her a very long life.

I wish the major news networks paid attention to stories like this. What an amazing testament to what is possible in America, to what is possible for women, to what is possible for American Indians.

To the question "if you could have lunch with anyone in the world who would it be?", I now believe my answer would be Mary Golda Ross.

I can't imagine the amazing stories she could tell.

Dan Morris

Mary Ross was truly a "Legend in her own Time." This is an amazing article that I hope to do more research on.


Mary Ross was not only a woman before her time, she made amazing contributions to the space age.

Kathy P.

Mary Ross was a very inspiring person. Why does the news focus on such negative things when positive stories like this exist?

You would think they would want to cover great stories like this!


Very interesting article

I look forward to researching more about the contributions to space engineering from people from different ethnic backgrounds! Great achievement.

Very inspirational woman indeed. We could do with a few more of them around to get things going in the right direction again.

This post needs more press, it's a heartwarming story about how far we've come in America. It's a testament to the fact that the U. S. is truly the land of opportunity and here's proof that one can achieve anything they truly aspire to.

I never thought there is a woman in the group, she has done a great contribution to our world, amazing! So brilliant.

Hello. I wish the major news networks paid attention to stories like this. What an amazing testament to what is possible in America, to what is possible for women, to what is possible for American Indians.

Really a great woman!


With all of the bad news that is constantly in our faces these days, it is great to read a heartwarming story like this.

Outstanding article! It is really refreshing to read about a strong great person who happens to be a minority and a woman. It is shocking how rare these types of stories are in the mainstream media.

Adam - Author
Barracuda Pool Cleaner

This woman is cool and to think that she lived in an old school way. 1908? Nearly 100? Man, that is really awesome.


It is great to read about pioneers especially those who were once looked down upon. Great things happen to those who believe in themselves.

My wife and I love reading everything we can find on Mary Ross. We love reading truly inspiration stories such as these.

In fact, I wish the news would cover more of them!

Very good post!

Thanks for posting this wonderful article about Mary Ross!
worth reading.


It's amazing how much new technologies move on in space engineering.

I have been involved in ion propulsion for several years and got the great experience of having hardware fly in space.

(You can see here http://corvosastroengineering.com/articles/electric-propulsion-how-it-works-in-4-easy-steps/)

I'm sure Mary Ross liked that feeling that what she did was out there working!

This woman is a inspiration. To be at that position at that time. America was really smart to use all the people with brains they had. That's why the war was won. Amazing story, really of this woman.


It's so tricky to get priceless info on the web. Thank god, I've identified your webpage. I loved reading your story. I think you supply helpful info. Congratulations, and constantly posting to us.

Unquestionably a great inspiring woman. I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for sharing it with us.

That is just an amazing story.

I wish we all come to that age—100 almost.

Thank you.

It’s indeed a great story, after reading this it motivates me to do more researching about space engineering. She is truly a Legend in her own Time! God bless her.

great post..
try to visit Hawaii

I would really like to give her a credit, since her acheivments are really appreciable.

Well said! The standing ovation came as a surprise, however.

The post is very useful,it helps me a lot, this is the thing that people really want to know, thanks for sharing.


nice post, thank you.

What an incredible engineer.

So the museum opened in 2002?

Kepler 22 Fan: The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington opened on September 21, 2004. The museum's George Gustav Heye Center, a gallery and program space in New York City, opened in 1994.

I was in DC when the museum opened. Wow! What an event. I am so glad we took the time to honor and pay tribute to these great americans!

Congrats to Mary G Ross for her achievements. It's really a big step forward for women.


In my eyes Mary Ross was a very inspiring person!

Great item to read, thanks for publishing it!

Can't believe she is now 96. How wonderful and great she is, a briliant woman scientist.

With all of the bad news that is constantly in our faces these days, it is great to read a heartwarming story like this.

September 25, 2009

Reflections on a living memorial


On warm afternoons and early evenings outside the National Museum of the American Indian, people gather. Some sit on the low walls built around the museum’s Welcome Plaza talking, while children play. Some read books. Others examine the boulders gathered from the four corners of the Western Hemisphere for this landscape.


Who are they? Travelers most likely, making what for many will be a once in a life time trip to the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. People of all backgrounds congregate, shaded by native shrubbery and tall trees. A fountain and a wetland cool the air.


Five years ago when the National Museum of the American Indian opened its building in Washington, D.C., most of the young plantings were too small to provide much shade. The marvel that sunny day was the Native peoples who came by planes, trains and even old pick up trucks to the opening. Some 80,000 joined in a procession on the National Mall that morning of Sept. 21, 2004.


Another anniversary comes to mind when speaking of people and the American Indian museum.


It is the 1989 Congressional act which established the museum. Public Law 101-185 states, “There is established, within the Smithsonian Institution, a living memorial to Native Americans and their traditions which shall be known as the ‘National Museum of the America Indian.’” 


In a city filled with memorials for fallen heroes and founding fathers, the idea of memorializing the living is startling. But if books and exhibitions once routinely treated living Indian nations as historic, maybe memorial is the right word. But a memorial turned on its head. Instead of a memorial for the past, a memorial for the living.


In five years since the museum on the mall opened, and 15 since the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City opened, Indian peoples are alive in this museum. They are alive in the steady stream of artists, performers, writers, curators, language keepers, cultural interpreters, thinkers, researchers, visitors and school children who enter the doors. They are alive in the arts and materials in the collection, whether the artists are contemporary or ancient. 


Hospitality, a value across indigenous cultures, is abundantly on display among visitors who start up conversations inside the grand Potomac Atrium or families who find rest outdoors as they sit side by side, listening to the wild birds which inhabit the landscape.    

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This is a place where I often go to reflect.

veryyy gooooooood

great information thank you

hmm good deal

This is a place where I often go to reflect.

Very interesting stuff!


Great! very interesting and informative. Please keep it up.

This is a place where I often go to reflect.

Keep up the good work!