Whenever I visit Washington D.C I try to visit some it’s wonderful museums. Usually, I am showing first tlme visitors around the city and wind up going to the same museums over and over again– Air & Space, Natural History etc. This time I was on my own and , at my daughter’s suggestion , decided to visit the National Museum of the American Indian ( NMAI). It was a good choice. Initially, my niece and I had thought of starting out with the NMAI and then squeezing in a visit to another museum but we liked the NMAI so much that we spent our entire afternoon there.
The museum is unique in it’s construction particularly for Washington D.C which is noted for it’s monumental , functional, severely rectangular, gray buildings. Constructed of buff colored sandstone it’s flowing lines are intended to evoke the cliff dwellings of the Indians of the SouthWest and they do. Visitors are directed to start their tour at the fourth ( and top) floor where the main exhibits are and work their way down. On the first floor is the Mitsitam Cafe , a pleasant place to repair to when one feels hungry. But more of that later.
The fourth floor is devoted to Native History (“Our Peoples”) and Native Beliefs ( Our History”) and the Lelawi theater which offers a 13 minute film of Indian Life. Exhibits consist of photographs, short videos, maps etc. and every visitor will find something to interest him. I was particularly taken with the converted Bombardier schoolbus used by Indians for icefishing on the St. Lawrence River. A short video showed the whole process of icefishing from boring the holes to hauling in the net and it was amazing to see the size of the fish that were harvested. The third floor featured designs and artifacts of the Native Americans, dresses,weapons, jewelry, tools etc. One dress was adorned with a hundred elk teeth which doesnt sound like much until you read that each elk has only two teeth ( I didn’t know that ; did you?).
One criticism of the museum is that it tries to cover too much and thus spreads itself too thin. In addition to the hundreds of Indian tribes in North America such as the Sioux, the Apache , the Kiowas etc, NMAI also attempts to cover the Indians of Central and South America. It is an impossible task. Their experiences and history and customs are widely varied. The only thing that they have in common is that they were the inhabitants of the land that Columbus mistakenly thought was India. The exhibition lacks a sense of perspective and could be characterized as being ” a mile wide and an inch deep”.
This is not to say that it is a failure. The exhibition left me with two lasting impressions. One was the shameful way in which Indians were treated , cheated, lied to and betrayed by the U.S in one of the sorriest episodes of our history. The other was the reverence that the Indians had for Nature and her bounty. One exhibit told of what happened when the salmon were running and the Indians in the Northwest were catching them and preserving them for winter. It was the job of one old Indian woman to keep track of how many had been caught. When she judged that enough had been caught to tide them over the winter she would call an end to the fishing. How different from modern day fishermen and hunters who are never satisfied wih their haul.
The exhibitions at NMAI may not be comprehensive but they give us some idea of what Native American lives were like and create in us the desire to learn more.
In mid – afternoon, we took a break and lunched in the Mitsitam Cafetaria on the first floor. Mitsitam means ” Let’s eat” in one of the Indian tongues and eat we did__ very well.There were separate counters for Native American foods from different regions, South American, Meso -American, NorthWest Coast, Great Plains etc. The Indian tribes lived a nomadic life and their fare was plain ; to our modern tastes, it would scarcely be palatable. The dishes on the menu were made from ingredients that were available to the Indian tribes though the dishes themselves were not ” authentic. Among them; Pulled buffalo BBQ sandwiches, Glazed salmon flavored with juniper and sage., tamales, cornbread made from blue corn, and salsas.My niece and I made the rounds of the various counters before we made our choices. We shared each other’s dishes so I don’t quite remember who ordered what ; nor do I remember everything we ordered . Some of our choices… glazed salmon ( Very good), Beef Shortribs Wrapped in Banana Leaves ( Not as good as it sounds), Quinoa ; A salad of Jicama, Yucca and Pineapple ( excellent ) ; three different salsas. She had a Coconut- Guava drink which she liked very much; I had a Pumpkin -Strawberry Drink which was interesting. Well…. actually, it was pretty bad ! The desserts were both excellent : SouthWestern FryBread drizzled with Honey and dusted with Sugar ( $ 2.75 ) and Pine Nut – Rosemary Tart ( $ 4.50) Depending on what you choose, lunch will set you back about $ 20- $25. It’s well worth it because the food is unique and you will not be able to get such food anywhere else. By the same token, because it is so unfamiliar, you would be well advised to take your time selecting your dishes. For children, there is also an array of fast foods to choose from.
To know more about the Museum , click on www.nmai.si,edu .