Broken Treaties, Grass Bridges and Headdresses Everywhere

This past Sunday was the chillier of the two days of my family visit, so we decided to go into D.C. and check out one of the many wonderful free museums—the National Museum of the American Indian. As we were walking from the parking garage to the museum, we noticed long lines outside some of the more well-known museums and hoped that wouldn’t be the case at our destination. It wasn’t; there was only a quick line to get through security. However, now having been there I can say that there should have been a longer line, because this museum was truly wonderful.


The outside of the museum.

It’s no secret that the relationship between the Native Americans and the Europeans who came and settled here is an incredibly problematic one, and this museum does not shy away from that. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that many of the exhibits were based on the recognition of this premise. The first one we went into, which focused on all the treaties made between the Indians and the settlers, and in virtually all cases broken by the settlers, certainly leaned into it. It did seem as though both groups made an effort to understand the deal-making practices of the other—in the Indians’ case, exchanging wampum belts, and in the Europeans’ case, putting things down in writing—but it basically stopped there. The Indians expected the Europeans to honor the treaties, and they didn’t. In that sense, this exhibit was rather depressing. One high point, though, was the presence of one authentic treaty, that was written on simple lined paper. Seeing things like that really transport you to the time and place when the document was being written and signed, as opposed to the observational nature of a re-creation or something like that.

This statue was outside the treaty exhibit; it was meant to signify the mutually beneficial relationship between the Indians and the settlers. It was beautiful, but it’s a shame the relationship didn’t quite work out that way.


After the treaties, we went into an exhibit called Americans. This exhibit was incredibly interesting. Here are a couple photos and you can try to guess what it was about:



If you guessed it was about how, despite a history of pushing the Indians off their own land and out of American culture, we have maintained a fascination and obsession with their imagery and using it ourselves, you would be correct. Take the sign for the Arrow Motel in the first photo. This motel was neither run by Native Americans nor had any connection to them whatsoever; the proprietor just thought the image of an Indian wearing a headdress with a bow and arrow would be eye-catching for tourists driving by. And this is everywhere—professional sports teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, mainstream brands like Land ‘O Lakes, and countless forms of pop culture. This exhibit really drove home how our relationship with the Indians is one driven by contradiction and greed.

There is an exhibit called Our Universes, which focuses on the worldviews of different indigenous groups across North and South America. I suppose that this was the exhibit you would expect when you think of this type of museum, filled with cultural artifacts. My main takeaway here was about what a powerful connection these people have to the earth and the spiritual world, and how little of that we have today. It makes me wonder how our society would be different—if there would be less conflict, for example—if we maintained more of these humbling beliefs. There was also an exhibit called The Great Inka Road, about the Inka’s achievements in engineering and how many of their centuries-old technologies still hold up today. There was a lot of information about the grass bridges they built—you know, the precarious-looking bridges over massive gorges and rivers that movie protagonists have to cross to get away from the bad guy, which they do, right before the bridge breaks and the villain plunges to his death below. Turns out, these bridges are actually incredibly strong, and there is one village in Peru with a strong connection to its Inkan ancestry that rebuilds the same grass bridge every year using the same techniques their ancestors did. There’s a video about it here on the museum’s website.

Some final thoughts: The gift shop was like an exhibit in and of itself. There was so much beautiful pottery and artwork that we needed just as much time to see it all as we did in other parts of the museum. The cafe also had a lot of interesting food from all the different regions represented in the museum, which I thought was a cool way to create a total experience for visitors. If you’re visiting D.C., I understand that Natural History and Air and Space might be higher on your list, but I urge you to visit the Museum of the American Indian as well!

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