Skip to main content

Tribal, Private, or Government? Museums and the Narrative of Native History

Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).

Native American museums have long held a place in the backroom of museums in American culture. While there are many of them, and each is varied in its representations, most people now view them as tourist traps to help fledgling tribal reservations who do not benefit from casinos and other stereotypical, modern Native American endeavors.

Historically, Native Americans have been portrayed in two types of museums: tribal museums and private or government collections.  However, in 2004, the federal government opened the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) as part of the Smithsonian.  It would prove to be the turning point in dominant American society that Native Americans had waited over 400 years for.

Tribal Museums

Tribal museums and accompanying cultural centers range from well-defined and finely stocked institutions to rarely opened storage spaces and are traditionally staffed by Native Americans.

The main desire in establishing such museums is to promote the tribe's own self. This acts as a way of teaching traditional culture and as a defense against the erosion of Native American's self-esteem in the larger American culture. It is also considered the most valid voice of a tribe, as it is free from government interference in the representations presented to the public.

However, these tribal museums are often failures in the public eye. While some have enjoyed success, such as the Cherokee of North Carolina or the Seminole in Florida, most have simply become storehouses for tribal artifacts and research by academics. This is mainly due to shoe-string budgets, especially for those tribes who do not have another primary source of income, like the Navajo in tourism out west or the Seminole with their casinos.

Private Collectors & Government Museums

Thus, the burden of archiving and preserving Native American history, as well as displaying it to the public, has largely fallen upon private collectors and government museums. However, this too is a failure as these museums typically treat Native Americans as "exotic curiosities" rather than as the first peoples of the Americas.

The idea of Native Americans as "curiosities" and as displays of their culture in "curiosity cabinets" came from the first museum on American Indians, opened in 1785 by Charles Wilson Peale. Most of the artifacts in his and subsequent museums of the kind were grave goods, human remains, and weapons collected from tribes by explorers (through trading or raiding). Living Native Americans would sometimes accompany these collections, being employed to provide living history demonstrations. However, this treatment often upset Native Americans and contributed substantially to the deterioration of their culture.

For example, Minik - a member of an Arctic tribe - thought he saw New York City's Museum of Natural History provide his father with a proper burial, only to learn several years later that his father's remains were on display in the museum. How would you feel if you found that your parents "burial" was really a means of gathering their remains for scientific inquiry or display to the public? Probably not very happy.

To many Native Americans, the display of grave goods and human remains of their ancestors is a gross violation of their tribal customs and taboos that required proper burial of the dead to avoid undesirable and evil-related consequences for both the person (in the afterlife) and for the living.

A solution, thankfully, came in 1990 with the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Under this legislation, many human remains and grave goods were inventoried and returned to their native tribes. However, due to the decimation of many tribes prior to the mid-twentieth century, many remains and goods were unable to be identified with any living tribes and thus controversy over their proper storage and care continues to this day.

Also in 1990, the Florida Museum of Natural History put on an exhibit - "First Encounters" - which allowed more concerns to be heard by the public. The exhibit was intended to celebrate Columbus and his initial encounters with Natives, but in reality it provided little insight into the contribution of Native Americans to early European endeavors.

Thus, in both private collections and traditional government-run museums, Native Americans are often shown as relics rather than as living beings with a vast and varied history tied to America. Luckily, in 2004, something happened that would begin to change all that.


National Museum of the American Indian

In 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was opened at the Mall in Washington, D.C. It houses one of the world's largest collections of Indian art and culture, funded in part by millions of dollars in casino and other revenues donated by tribes like the Pequot and Oneida.

The collection features over 8,000 artifacts and artworks, most of which were contributed from the personal collection of George Gustav Heye, who opened the original Museum of the American Indian in New York in 1922. Newer pieces have been donated by Native American tribes to represent both past and present ways of life. One such example is the Bomber from the Saint-Laurent Metis tribe, which survives through its fishing-industry-based economy.

Scroll to Continue

The difference between the NMAI collection and previous collections is the inherent respect given to the artifacts. The artifacts are not merely on display; rather, in collaboration with many tribes, the NMAI has ensured that the artifacts compose a living memorial to past and present tribes. Each day, staff workers perform tasks to maintain the living history of artifacts - such as allowing some artifacts to be kept in sunlight and open air or providing food and water as offerings to the artifacts, in accord with tribal customs and taboos. For example, many Pueblo pots in the collection are offered a pinch of cornmeal each day for a few hours, in order to feed them according to native views.

Additionally, the NMAI has also shifted its viewpoint in the creation of exhibits. Upon opening, the NMAI featured three exhibits created in collaboration with 24 Native American groups. "Our Universes" explored Native views of the world, both physical and spiritual. "Our Peoples" traced Native American history from the perspective of the tribes rather than Europeans. "Our Lives" addresses modern lifestyles of Native Americans.

Beyond the exhibits, the NMAI also shifted its viewpoint in the creation of the building itself. The NMAI building's construction was done in collaboration with many Native Americans. Indian elders performed a ceremony at the site which ultimately selected the center of Potomac hall (the entrance hall). The main design of the building building allowed the blurring of lines between the inside and outside. A stone pathway from inside to outside, large windows throughout the building, and other design features illustrate a common Native American belief that we are inherently connected with nature - "We are the trees, we are the rocks, we are the water." Ancient boulders and forty "grandfather rocks" were placed at the entrance of the museum and form the four cardinal directional compass points. The building itself is made of Kasota limestone from Minnesota and appears as an element-battered canyon wall.

Although these practices raise concerns with many preservationists regarding keeping the artifacts intact, the NMAI's practices demonstrate a significant shift in government treatment of Native Americans and their traditions. The practices also help to foster understanding by the general public of the unique and varied traditions of Native American cultures. Overall, this is our new willingness to embrace Native American culture and respect them as equals in our society.

Thus, the NMAI through its respect and acknowledgement of the living history and traditional culture and taboos of various tribes signifies one of the greatest turning points in American history. In regards to Native Americans, this change will profoundly affect their self-image and self-respect, as well as to help publicly preserve and educate others about their ways of life. Over the long-term, this will manifest itself in greater desire for language immersion programs, buffalo revival projects and other native aspect revivals, better funding for reservations and tribal museums, and an embracement of self-identity as American Indians for the 64 percent of Indians who have forsaken or hidden their identity for fear of discrimination while living in urban areas.

Most importantly, the recognition of American Indians as presented in the opening of NMAI signifies a willingness of the American populace to let American Indians define themselves, which is perhaps the most liberating feeling of all. By embracing connections with the natural world, taboos and ceremonies regarding objects and human remains, and positive portrayals of the American Indian story and their contributions, the U.S. has embraced the historic relic as a living being that is equal to dominant white culture, making American Indians an equal and respected force in American history, both past and present.

This content was accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge at the time of publication but may be out of date. The information contained in this article may not reflect current policies, laws, technology, or data.

© 2011 Tiffany Isselhardt


Mr Archer from Missouri on July 26, 2012:

Well done and informative. I would say that you have a tie in some manner to this subject. Great job! I too love history, and have long thought that Custer was a not too intelligent leader, but a recent read now led me to believe that the issues regarding Little Bighorn were beyond his control, and in fact others contributed more to his demise than he himself did. History does have a way of surprising us, even more than 100 years after the fact.

Ronnie Sowell from South Carolina on November 28, 2011:

Excellent hub that provides interesting and useful information. Voted up, etc!

Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on July 18, 2011:

That would be quite a surprise to find one's relative's body on display in a museum instead of having the requested burial! Rated Up.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on July 18, 2011:

This is great! The only Native American museum I've been to is the once in DC, but it is truly impressive! Great Hub- and wow.. the NMAI is fantastic!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on July 16, 2011:

A first-rate hub with incredible information. You have put in a lot of hard work and it certainly shows. I am eager to read more of your articles and will follow you.

Rating UP...useful...awesome...interesting.

carpesomediem on July 16, 2011:

Very well-written and researched hub!

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on July 16, 2011:

This is a wonderfully informative Hub, very well researched and laid out. I learned a lot and enjoyed the read. Regards, HB.

Related Articles