NMAI: A Landmark Institution Working for Indian Country

By Tara Backhouse, Museum Collections Manager

Right here in South Florida, the Ah-Tah-Thi Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation works hard to share the Seminole story and to represent the Tribe’s interests in all our work.  We are able to work with many museums and other institutions in Florida, and we help them tell the Seminole story to all their visitors.  But did you know there’s another museum that strives to do that for all of Indian Country?  It’s the National Museum of the American Indian, commonly known as NMAI, and you may not know that there’s been a connection between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and that institution for over two decades.

Figure1
The striking National Museum of the American Indian sits prominently among other Smithsonian Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC (ATTK Catalog No. xxxx)

Although NMAI opened the doors of its newest Washington DC facility in 2004, it has a much longer history.  Its first facility in New York City became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.  Coincidentally, this was also when the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was chartered and began building its collection.  At the time the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki opened in 1997, we had an extensive working relationship with NMAI.  The Tribe consulted with their professionals about how to build the world-class facility we now have on Big Cypress.  And when it came time to build our permanent exhibits, NMAI loaned us pieces from their collection in order to help us tell the Seminole story.

Figure2
Early 20th Century silver jewelry borrowed from NMAI is on display in our exhibit about traditional Seminole camp life.

Figure3

 

Figure4
A silversmith can be seen working with a silver above the display of an early 20th century silverworker’s kit, also on loan from NMAI’s collection.

When they opened in Washington, DC, many tribes were very excited.  People from the Seminole Tribe joined others at the opening ceremonies to lead a procession on the National Mall to show their support.  The Seminole Tribe had a strong presence that included the Seminole Color Guard and Tribal government officials.

Figure5
Helene Buster and Michelle Thomas carried the banner that led the Seminole contingent of the procession celebrating NMAI’s opening in 2004.  The Seminole color guard follows closely behind.

 

Figure6
Connie Whidden and Michelle Thomas smile in a colorful crowd during the 2004 opening.  The Washington Monument can be seen behind them.

If you go to NMAI, you might be surprised that the Seminole Tribe is only represented in a small way.  Remember that NMAI has the responsibility of advocating for all the indigenous people represented in their collection.  That’s a big job.  Come to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki for a total Seminole focus.  Go to NMAI to broaden your horizons and see the connections that spring to life when you do that.

One of the most important ways that NMAI fights for native rights is in the area of repatriation.  Museums had long collected the remains of Native people without permission from their Tribes and in violation of their cultural traditions for caring for those who have passed on. Native peoples wanted and are still fighting for all Museums to return the remains of their people. Responding to outrage over the state of national repatriation efforts, the National Museum of the American Indian Act was enacted in 1989.  Under this law, the National Museum of the American Indian was established along with protocols for repatriating ancestors who had been wrongfully taken.  NMAI has led repatriation efforts within the Smithsonian Institution and has returned over 5000 ancestors to their homes, getting them out of the hands of the non-native institutions that have allowed research and other culturally insensitive treatment of those remains for many years.

But repatriation is a work in progress and many Seminole ancestors have still not been returned home.  NMAI does a great job with repatriation, but all the museums within the Smithsonian Institution are managed differently.  This is why the Seminole Tribe’s Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office have initiated the #NoMoreStolenAncestors campaign.  Join us in our fight to advocate for the return of Seminole ancestors at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.  Our work and your voice will not only help to address historic and current offenses to the Seminole Tribe but also those committed against our fellow tribes across Indian country.  Thank you for your support!

Author: Collections Division

The Collections Division manages the Museum's collections, produces and maintains exhibits, conducts the oral history program, and staffs the Museum's village.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s