National Museum of the American Indian: Filled with Educational Opportunities

Rob Capriccioso
September 20, 2004

This week, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) – dubbed the “new kid on the block” of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. – officially opens its doors to the public after fifteen long years of fundraising, planning and building. From its main theater, designed to emphasize the importance of oral storytelling in Indian cultures, to its Potomac “river” rotunda that symbolizes connections among Indian people, there are many educational lessons for students at the museum.

The museum faces east. Indian tradition says it's desirable to face the rising sun.

“We are especially pleased to share the museum and its many meanings with America’s children,” NMAI’s founding Director Rick West (Southern Cheyenne) said during a press preview of the museum last week. “In fact, many schoolchildren sent in proceeds from recycling drives to help support the museum.” Private donations from tribes, children and other individuals raised about $80 million of the over $200 million it cost to create the NMAI.

The press preview provided a first glimpse at many features in the museum that are likely to be a hit with kids—and their parents. Museum organizers say that the Lelawi Theater is a good place to start a tour, since it continually screens a 13-minute video called “Who We Are.” The film is projected on four American Indian blankets, a rock sculpture and a 40-foot dome above. It shows a variety of Indian communities today—highlighting their strong forms of self-government and self-expression, while putting real faces on what Indians throughout the hemisphere actually look like.

Many other kid-friendly exhibitions lie outside the theater. “Our Universe,” for example, focuses on Native American cosmology through various cartoon vignettes based on Indian oral traditions. The vibrant cartoons depict such stories as the Lakota tale of how the Devil’s Tower rock formation in Wyoming came to be. Traditional Lakota storytelling says that the Great Spirit decided to help some maidens escape from a bear – so he made the tree stump the maidens were standing on grow to giant proportions so that the bear couldn’t reach them.

There’s also lots of opportunity to learn from contemporary American Indians. The NMAI incorporated the knowledge of “community curators” from tribes across the country to help explain their culture and history in various exhibitions. Paul John, for example, explains in written form the historical importance of his tribe’s men’s houses—spiritual places of worship—in the “Yup’ik Universe” display. After reading his words, museum visitors have the opportunity to enter a reproduction of a Yup’ik men’s house and see the types of clothes and objects that were used in the dwellings.

Making History Part of the Future

indian bear mask.
This bear mask was created by Rick Bartow (Yurok) in 1990.

Museum organizers believe that a lot of American Indian history is foreign to many adults. But they don’t want that to hold true for new generations. West expects millions of children to visit the museum and participate in lesson plans offered by the museum: “It is my hope that the museum will be a center for learning—a splendid place where young people will find a new understanding of the history and accomplishments of the indigenous people of the Americas.”

“Indians have always learned in a multitude of creative ways—through storytelling, observation, spiritual vision, and the sometimes rocky path of experience,” West explains in an official guide prepared by the NMAI. “And in recent centuries, we have even learned through books and classrooms. If experience has taught us one primal lesson, it is that our cultures can’t adapt and survive unless our children learn—by all methods available—the truths at the heart of Native life.”

Teachers can register for classroom visits to the NMAI by calling

Educational leaders with the NMAI, like Pam Woodis, are reaching out to teachers to help make that dream a reality. “Your students may have preconceived notions regarding Native Americans,” she explains to teachers on the museum’s official Web site. “Before visiting the museum, you may want to begin studying ‘fact versus fiction’ concerning indigenous cultures.”

To help teachers and parents counter stereotypical perceptions their children may have of Native Americans, museum educators have developed an online resource center that provides information about many Indian tribes and organizations. They also have suggested lesson plans for educators who are able to visit the museum with their students. For example, since the NMAI incorporates many Native voices and perspectives in exhibitions, they suggest exploring what Indians say about their history, and connecting those lessons with historical accounts from other perspectives.

Resources Outside the Beltway

The NMAI has compiled this Native American-focused list of "Cool Books for Kids."

Educators with the museum also offer "Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth," a guide that helps teachers create lessons about the first Thanksgiving.

Museum organizers also offer advice for teachers who can’t take their students to the museum in the nation’s capital. They suggest the following classroom and home activities to help kids learn more about American Indians:

· Try to incorporate contemporary issues concerning Native Americans into your curriculum.

· Emphasize the importance of oral tradition by incorporating storytelling into your classroom. Have students create a story about their class or family.

· Ask students to select a quote from one of the exhibitions, some of which are available in the online teacher’s guide. Then have students write about the quote telling why they selected it, what it means to them, and how it relates to their lives.

Additionally, the NMAI’s Public Programs Department has partnered with Scholastic Inc. to create a “A Native Place” teacher’s guide, which focuses on the many cultures and achievements of American Indian peoples. The guide includes activities that meet national standards in a number of disciplines.

Connect for Kids' Cradleboard Curricula article highlights another program that has had success teaching kids about American Indians.

For those who live closer to New York City, the NMAI operates the George Gustav Heye Center (GGHC) there. The online “Guide for Teachers” outlines the educational programs available at the GGHC, details museum guidelines regarding visits, and offers a variety of Web sites and books ideas that can help kids learn about Native Americans.

And the goal of all this learning? “It’s the notion of Native people as a part of contemporary culture that I want everybody to understand,” says West. “We have been ensured our place in history, if you will—as a part of the history of the present as well as the past.”


Robert Capriccioso is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians