Continuance of culture at the National Museum of the American Indian

Matt and I recently had the privilege of spending a few days with the amazing staff of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) at the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington, DC and in the Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Maryland. It is inspiring to spend time with people so passionate and collectively focused on a mission.

The staff is clear that unlike most other museums under the Smithsonian umbrella, NMAI is not a science museum. It does not exist to study Native culture or peoples. The museum is committed to advancing the understanding of Native cultures through partnership with Native people and others.

It is about supporting the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.

In a sense, NMAI operates like a vast cultural center. There were some tremendous examples of this mission in action.  

We learned about three contemporary fish skin artists who were struggling to understand certain complex traditional stitching. These artists requested to examine a number of fish skin pieces from the NMAI collections and two wonderful things happened:

  1. First, they were able to figure out the stitch that had been eluding them; and,
  2. Secondly, they were validated to find the stitches they had figured out intuitively were, in fact, traditionally accurate.

We learned about a dance skirt that was requested on loan and very carefully couriered to the community of its origin. The skirt was worn and brought back to life during a traditional dance. The community was able to experience the skirt being home for a period.

The National Museum of the American Indian is an incredible place, with inspired leadership, doing unbelievably important work.