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National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC

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Visitor Information

The National Museum of the American Indian is a great place for families to spend their morning or afternoon.

This museum is part of the Smithsonian institution, the largest museum complex in the world.

The National Museum of the American Indian is located centrally next to many other museums (National Art Gallery, Air and Space Museum etc.) Unlike some other museums, it is usually much less crowded. No need to book tickets in advance. The exhibition is not overly extensive, which makes it perfect for attending with young kids. 

The National Museum of the American Indian is open from 10:00 am till 5:30 pm. 

There are several public transportation options available for getting there. The closest metro station is L’Enfant Plaza. There are also several bus lines which one can use (30, 32, 34, and 36 with service to Friendship Heights).

Keep in mind that there is no museum parking. It is possible to park in the metered parking spaces in the area. However, these are rather scarce, so public transportation is advisable.

Key Exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian

The exhibitions at the National Museum of the American Indian display a number of important events in the Native American history. Some of these are quite heartbreaking.

You will be able to see a rich collection of Native objects, photographs, media and archives which cover the entire Western Hemisphere.

In addition, the museum has a wonderful gift shop, which is an exhibition in itself. There are plenty of extraordinary arts and crafts which will appeal to both adults and children. Make sure you spend some time browsing through.

The Road of Tears

A lot of attention is devoted to the Road of Tears and the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

The Indian Removal Act is a very sad part of American history. This piece of legislation authorized the Indian removal, as part of which members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were removed from the places of their residence in the South East of the United States. The authorities required them to relocate to the newly designated Indian Territory in the West of the Mississippi River. 

The reason for this removal was the significant increase in the demand for land by American settlers. By removing the native Americans, the government tried to increase the availability of land for the settlers.

All together, about 60,000 people were affected by the act. While some of the indigenous people agreed to move to the new territories voluntarily, many resisted. Force needed to be exercised to move them.

The consequences were devastating. The Indian removal resulted in death of about 15,000 people. The journey was very hard, and many people fell sick or died from starvation.

The U.S. Congress approved this act by a narrow majority. The museum displays portraits of key persons involved in this decision: those who supported it and those who were against.

The main supporters were President Andrew Jackson (who signed this act), the settlers, and some states, especially Georgia. President Jackson actually believed that the removal of indigenous tribes from their homes was a “wise and humane policy” and regarded it as an act of mercy. Many Christian missionaries opposed the act, as well as a number of congressmen and senators.

The Twenty Dollar Bill Saga

There has been a lot of discussion on the need to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill. This is due to both the Indian Removal Act described above and the fact that the president had owned slaves. He owned hundreds of slaves and also tried to censor anti-slavery mailings from abolitionists.

The president’s views clearly do not align with the democratic values which America projects today. The latest decision is to replace him in the front of the bill by a famous abolitionist Harriet Tubman who worked restlessly during her whole life to liberate slaves in America.

Looks like, however, that this change will need to wait all the way till 2030. On top of that, Andrew Jackson will remain on the back of the bill, which is obviously not what a lot of people hoped for (they’d want to remove him entirely). For now, Harriet Tubman will be featured on three commemorative coins in 2024.

The Incredible Story of Pocahontas 

The National Museum of the American Indian prominently displays the story of the American Indian named Pocahontas and showcases both historical facts and presentation in popular culture (e.g., Disney).

Pocahontas is the most famous American Indian in the world. However, not everyone is able to distinguish historical facts from fiction.

Well, the true story is that Pocahontas was the daughter of the Indian Chief Powhatan. She was born around 1596. Pocahontas eventually married an Englishman named John Rolfe and they had a son together.

Pocahontas and the English settlers

It is believed that at one point, Pocahontas saved the life of the famous colonist John Smith. He established a colony at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America on May 14, 1607. The colony faced a lot of problems, including bad weather, lack of food and attacks from native tribes living close by. One day, while exploring the Chickahominy river, John Smith was captured by Pocahontas’ close relatives. He almost lost his life from the hand of her father.

According to John Smith’s letter to Queen Anne of Denmark, the brave young lady rushed to his rescue with disregard to her personal safety. Historians also note that Pocahontas supported the colonists with food provision when food was scarce, which saved them from hunger.

Some years later, Pocahontas was captured and held in the English settlement for ransom, demanding the release of English prisoners held by her father. During that time, Pocahontas learned about Christianity and subsequently was baptized. She received the name Rebecca.

Around that time, Pocahontas met John Rolfe. He was an Englishman who established a plantation where he cultivated tobacco. He was a very good and religious man. John’s wife and daughter had died during a shipwreck on the way from England, so he was looking for a new wife.

Pocahontas married John in 1614. Their son Thomas was born a year later.

Pocahontas’ trip to England

In 1616, the Rolfes arrived in England and received very good treatment there, including attending various social gatherings and even meeting King James. The story of Pocahontas was paraded as the story of a “civilized savage” and success of the Virginia colony.

Unfortunately, Pocahontas did not live a long life.

When she and her husband were sailing back to Virginia, she fell gravely ill and passed away. She was only 20-21 years old at that time. The cause of death is unknown, and it could have been anything from smallpox to poisoning.

She was buried at the St. George’s church in Gravesend, England, but her grave’s exact location is unknown: the church was rebuilt after it was destroyed by fire.

The ImagiNATIONS Activity Center

The National Museum of the American Indian has a wonderful children’s area, ImagiNATIONS Activity Center, on L3. It offers kids an opportunity to learn about native people and play various games to enhance their understanding. 

This play area will be of interest to kids of all ages, as activities are very diverse. I’m sure the adults will also learn something new there!

Some of the exhibits at the activity center include the following ones:

  • The secret of snowshoes (how the native people were making snowshoes which enabled them to walk on top of snow)
  • Arts and crafts center. The activities here vary from day to day. The instructions will tell you what the activity of the day is. For example, a popular activity is how to make a Lakota star quilt pattern (kids pick out paper diamond shapes which they like and arrange them in a pretty star outline)
  • Come inside my home (learn about a tipi- the dwelling used by Native American tribes living in the Great Plains of the US; these were simple to take down and put back up; 2 women could build a tipi in less than an hour and take it down in less than 15 minutes!)
  • Climb inside a kayak (2,000 years ago native people of arctic invented a boat for hunting in the icy waters, fast and light; today, lots of people use kayaks for transportation or recreation).
  • Practice your balance – how long can you stay up in a wooden boat?
  • Building a house of snow – kids can learn about igloos and try their skills by adding blocks till there igloo is complete
  • Explore the wetlands
  • Toddler area
  • Infant area
  • Library

The final word

The National Museum of the American Indian is one of the hidden gems in Washington DC. It offers a lot of fascinating historical information and excellent activities for kids. Yet, it does not attract big crowds like some other museums.

If you are looking for some activity to do on a cold, hot or rainy day, or you just want to learn something new in American history, the National Museum of American Indian is a perfect choice.

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