The Museum of the American Indian (Washington DC)

In some ways, it’s a tragedy that a national museum wasn’t built until the 21st century. By all rights, after a brutal 19th century, it would have been a far better message to open this museum in the 20th century.

Instead, it follows on long-standing United States policy toward Native Americans where everything is pushed to the limit. Timing, answers, help, patients. The American Indian is never been more than an afterthought to the US government.

antiseptic view of native american cultureIt Would Be Spot On If Native Americans Had Lived in Corporate Offices

You will hear rave reviews about the National Museum of the American Indian from travel brochures, and I suppose it’s worth a visit if you’re in town and hoping to connect with your roots. But I went to this museum in its early days, and I found it to be an antiseptic treatment of Native American culture.

It’s as though the Smithsonian Institute decided that greenery and woods could make the building and authentic reminder of the world that was stolen by the relentlessly expansive white man. Even the placards at each display are written to sugarcoat the destruction we suffered at the hands of both settler and politician.

What upset me more than anything was to see the building staff full of non-native workers. It would have been far more encouraging to see Native faces in a position to guide visitors through the facility, or at least to offer a more balanced perspective as people experience the displays.

In fairness, I’ve not been back since that early 2005 visit. Perhaps they have heard enough of this type of input to make some change.

museum of american indian gift shop

I remember stepping into the gift shop near the end of my visit, and it was chock-full of cheap, plastic Chinese imports. What could’ve been an amazing opportunity to feature the work of true Native American artisans was lost at the hands of Smithsonian leadership. Everything looked to be selected to provide maximum profit at egregious prices.

If You’re Native, Be Prepared for Disappointment

In summary, this is probably a great place to visit if you are not of American Indian descent. It might make your blue-eyed, fair-haired self feel like the United States is finally honoring the people of the First Nations.

But if you claim any Indian blood, this commercial exploitation is probably enough to aggravate you like it did me. I’ll not say that I would never return, but it would only happen if I were presented with some evidence that museum leaders had restored some sensitivity around all the issues I’ve mentioned above.