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National Museum of the American Indian

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National Museum of the American Indian
Tania Anderson

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened its doors September 2004 and holds one of the world’s largest collections of Native artifacts, including objects, photographs, archives, and media covering the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego. You can’t miss the five-story, 250,000 square foot curvilinear building that was built on the last open space on the National Mall.

WHAT YOU SEE: With five stories of exhibits, there’s lots to see and do. The best strategy for seeing the museum is to take the elevator to the top floor and see the Who We Are film in the Lelawi Theater. It’s a beautiful 120-seat circular theater with amazing multimedia images. The 13-minute film will give a good intro to the museum and the history and culture of American Indians.

On each floor are exhibits of various historical events and tribes in the American Indian community. You’ll see lots of artifacts including pottery from the late 1800s, ceremonial clothing, and beautiful artwork. Exhibits will teach you about the Mayan calendar and the huge role that corn played in the lives of Indians. There are displays of how plants like wild cinnamon are used for medicinal purposes and how certain types of jewelry represented objects of wealth and authority.

There’s a large children’s center that features lots of hands-on displays for children to learn everything from basket weaving to what it’s like to sit in a kayak. A large tipi in the middle of the children’s center gives visitors a nice way to see the inside of an Indian home and to see how families lived. A small reading area has some great books on American Indians. A music room is coming soon that will give kids a chance to play instruments and hear native American music.

The museum is not all about the history of American Indians. On one floor is a large “Our Lives” exhibit that tells visitors about the life and influence of American Indians living today. There are ceremonies and rituals that are still carried out like the “star gathering” and the “peon game.”

This exhibit also features a large bombardier that was used by commercial ice fishers to travel on frozen lakes.

GOOD FOR KIDS: The museum is very visual and extensive, so it’s great for kids. They’ll probably want to spend a good amount of time in the children’s center. Depending on the age of the child, they might be overwhelmed by the size of the museum.

GIFT SHOP: The gift shop is one of the better museum gift shops in Washington. It has lots of great items for children and adults, including hand-held music rattles that range from $16 to $72 depending on size; dream catchers for $26; matted prints for $60; beaded eggs as Christmas ornaments for $15; and Peruvian gourds that were used for food storage for $25.

WHERE: Fourth St., and Independence Ave, SW, on the National Mall between the National Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol Building.

HOURS OF OPERATION: Open daily from 10 AM to 5:15 PM except for December 25.

COST: Free

PARKING: The museum does not have parking and there is limited meter parking on the surrounding streets and in paid parking garages. 
 PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION: The best way to get to the museum is via Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station (exit Maryland Avenue/Smithsonian Museums).

WEBSITE/TELEPHONE NUMBER: http://nmai.si.edu/home/; 202-633-1000

FOOD: The museum has the Mitsitam Cafe, which offers food from the indigenous cuisines of the Americas. There are five food stations that depict regional life related to cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors. You’ll find things like traditional fry bread and corn totopos. There’s also the Mitsitam Espresso Coffee Bar with pastries and organic, fair-trade coffee grown by indigenous farmers.

WHAT’S CLOSE BY: Many of the Smithsonian’s collection of museums, along with the U.S. Capitol and the U.S. Botanic Garden.

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