Preserving and Honoring Heritage: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

By NAT Staff

The museum's architect and project designer were Canadian Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot). Its design architects were GBQC Architects of Philadelphia and architect Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw). (Photo Credit: Indianz.com)

The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)  is a diverse and multifaceted cultural and educational enterprise and a visible component of the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum complex. The NMAI represents the world's most expansive collections, 825,000 in all, including Native artifacts, objects, photographs, archives, and media covering the entire Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego.

The museum operates three facilities -- the National Mall location offers exhibition galleries and spaces for performances, lectures and symposia, research, and education. The George Gustav Heye Center in New York City houses exhibitions, research, educational activities, and performing arts programs. The Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, houses various collections and administers the conservation, repatriation, and digital imaging programs. The NMAI's off-site outreach efforts, often referred to as the "fourth museum," include websites, traveling exhibitions, and community programs.

Origins and Background


George Gustav Heye (1874-1957) Photo Credit: Photographer Unknown

The NMAI’s holdings have their foundation in the collections of the former Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation of New York City, assembled largely by George Gustav Heye. From his first acquisition, the 1897 purchase of a Navajo hide shirt in Arizona, Heye’s collecting quickly expanded into archaeological material. By 1903, he was buying large archaeological pieces from around the hemisphere, and by 1906, he had accumulated more than 10,000 objects. Based in New York, Heye bought collections and documentary photographs, sponsored exhibitions, and journeyed on expeditions collecting items himself. In 1904, he initiated a collections catalog on 3- by 5-inch cards, marking the beginnings of his dream to create his museum.

With his mother’s support, Heye funded excavations and by 1908, his New York apartment and a nearby warehouse were filled to the brim.

In 1916, with the collection totaling 58,000 objects, Heye was offered a building site at 155th and Broadway in a new complex of cultural organizations. Sponsored by affluent friends, the first, private Museum of the American Indian was built. Heye deeded his entire collection to it, endowed the museum, and was named Director for Life. The museum’s opening—delayed by WWI—occurred in 1922 and was described by Heye as, “a museum for the collection, preservation, study, and exhibition of all things connected with the anthropology of the aboriginal people of the North, Central, and South Americas, and containing objects of artistic, historic, literary, and scientific interest.”


Heye on expedition, circa 1905 (Photo Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian)

After the museum’s opening, Heye built a professional staff and continued collecting aggressively, and by 1929, he had accumulated over 163,000 objects. Heye continued to build the collections, albeit more slowly, until his death in 1957, at which point they numbered over 225,000 catalog numbers representing 700,000 individual items. These represent approximately 85 percent of the NMAI’s current object holdings.

Beyond the importance of any single part of the collection, the NMAI collections as a whole have their own significance and relevance to diverse constituencies. George Heye’s original collection, created between 1897 and 1957, still stands as a remarkable testament: his collecting proclivities and attitudes toward Native peoples, represented by one of the largest personal collections ever amassed.

Samples of George Heye Collections


Buffalo Dance, Circa. 1930


Sacred Arrow for Offerings, Circa. 1935


Boy holding a very large Kwakiutl mask, Museum of the American Indian, circa 1920


Shaman’s Drum, Circa. 1930


Man’s Moccasins, Circa: 1880

Heye collected extensively from 1910 to 1930, after most museums’ collecting from American Indians had slowed. He was not a trained anthropologist, art historian, or academician of any type and, beyond his interest in anthropology, had few disciplinary inclinations. However, one of his primary motives was to amass the most complete and encompassing collection possible, including what has been described as both “the mundane and the supreme.” The hemispheric depth and diversity of the collections, and their lack of any strong disciplinary focus, make them—perhaps ironically—a notable resource for the study of Native life and material culture for scholars in anthropology, archaeology, history, and art history.

Three years after Heye’s death, in 1960, Fredrick J. Dockstader, who had joined the staff in 1955, became the Museum of the American Indian’s Executive Director. Following trends begun during Heye’s lifetime, Dockstader acquired significant materials that represented the blending of Native and non-Native worlds, including works made for sale but still representing traditional cultural values. Through purchases and exchanges, Dockstader also acquired important ethnographic and archaeological pieces, reorganized the exhibits, and published a series of books on the collections.

The Transition

When Heyes’ Museum of the American Indian, in 1989, was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution and the newly-created National Museum of the American Indian, it was met with criticism. Following a Cheyenne Chief’s tour of the exhibits, there were letters of complaint about the amount of human remains (totaling 35,000 persons) and sacred burial artifacts being held for public display. The Native American community argued that the bones were taken by grave robbers as prizes and showpieces for private collectors, and should be returned to tribes for reburial on sacred lands or reservations. In late 1989, the Smithsonian signed an agreement with tribes to return the skeletal remains to the home tribe’s elders to be resettled in new burials. Following that spirit, Congress passed the legendary Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990.

Late Senator Daniel Inouye, who helped sponsor NAGPRA, saw the Repatriation Act as a win for many. In turn, he lobbied Congress to create a “monument to Native peoples” and expressed, “…it was sad reality that in a Washington, D.C., there was never established a monument to Native peoples.”


Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) was credited in rallying legislators to establish the museum.

Inouye sought to change this by introducing a bill in September of 1988 that allowed the Smithsonian to share the resources of New York's Museum of the American Indian, as well as make space for a “National Museum of the American Indian”. Patricia Zell, Senator Inouye’s staff director and chief counsel, remembered: “When it came time…to really focus on a ‘place’ for the museum [Inouye] literally looked down from his hideaway office balcony in the U.S. Capitol, saying, ‘What’s that blank spot down there?’ And we said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘The one between the U.S. Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.’

By Public Law 101-185 established on November 28, 1989 by the 101st Congress, Inouye’s bill was passed to establish the National Museum of the American Indian within the Smithsonian. Total funding was $199 million, with an additional $20 million reserved for special exhibits, public programs, and opening events.

On September 21, 2004, twenty-five thousand Native Americans representing over five hundred Indigenous nations gathered in Washington D.C. for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. It was celebrated with a six-day festival of music, dance, and storytelling.


Andrew Old Elk, Crow, passes in front of the museum at the grand opening. The building was constructed of golden-colored Kasota limestone in a curvilinear shape designed to evoke natural rock formations shaped by wind and water over thousands of years. (Photo Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)


Cheyenne chiefs gather with thousands on the National Mall. (Photo Credit: National Museum of the American Indian)


Members from the White Mountain Apache Tribe dance in celebration. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Brian Boisvert, U.S. Public Domain Archives.)

NMAI’s achievements include the opening of the George Gustav Heye Center in New York in 1994 and the NMAI building on the National Mall in 2004; construction of the NMAI’s Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, in 1999; and the subsequent move of the collections from the “Research Branch” in the Bronx, which gave them the home they deserved.


George Gustav Heye Center, New York City


The Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. The CRC serves as a hub for the museum's technology, information resources, and Web development.

The national museum was designed with Native input and cultural considerations. As a public institution that holds part of the Smithsonian’s National Collections, the NMAI takes its role seriously, especially in terms of providing stewardship—dutiful care of what essentially belongs to others—for objects that represent collective Native heritage. In preparation for the collections’ move from New York, tribal representatives reviewed regional collections to provide guidance on appropriate preparation of the collections, their transport, and segregation of sensitive materials and special handling.

Ten Pieces Showcased at the National Mall Location


Photo Courtesy of the Conciliotto Family


The enhanced exhibit features a video surround, immersing visitors in the history of the Oneida Indian Nation. Photo Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Exhibit from northwest Coast of North America (Photo Credit: USA Today)

Teepees at the National Museum of the American Indian, SW, Washington, D.C. (Photo Credit: Unknown)

Photo Courtesy of the Conciliotto Family

A canoe on display

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Flickr

Artist: Preston Singletary, Tlingit (Photo Credit: Mr. Singletary)

NMAI is deeply committed to Native American research as new discoveries can happen any time. To achieve this end, the museum’s curators, researchers, and scholars engage in dialogues with and solicit the expertise of cultural authorities and academic specialists. Focal points for the museum’s research and scholarship program include: giving greater breadth and perspective to themes that guide the museum’s exhibitions, publications, and public programs; increasing and making widely available knowledge about the museum’s collections; providing electronic access for researchers, teachers, and the public via networked technologies and other online tools; and addressing important historical and contemporary issues affecting Native Americans.

The NMAI publishes a quarterly full-color publication, American Indian, to members. Educators and students also have access to an online portal of information and lessons through the Native Knowledge 360° website.

NMAI is also involved in repatriation, where human remains and cultural items are returned to lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Law requires the Smithsonian to return, upon request, Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to culturally affiliated federally recognized Indian tribes.

By sharing the wealth of Native American history and heritage, the work of the National Museum of the American Indian will continue. And, the cultural contributions and impassioned commitment of George Gustav Heye will positively impact millions for generations to come.

Homepage Photo Credit: Andrew Weiss

(Editor’s Note)

To continue the mission and growth of NMAI, funding is necessary. Sales of memberships for persons/groups and scheduled monthly donations can be donated through the Wellspring Society, or directly through the museum.