In Field Study Projects

Visiting the National Museum of the American Indian

The Great Plains of the northwestern United States and southern Canada occupy parts of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska, as well as parts of Canadian provinces Alberta and Saskatchewan. This area once comprised one of the largest prairie grassland ecosystems in the world. Despite habitat loss, species decline and human destruction, opportunities exist to conserve and restore large areas of this unique habitat and the cultural heritage it has contributed to western expansion of frontier America. says that currently less than 2% of this region’s millions of acres are preserved, making this area one of the least protected places on earth. It was here where great Indian wars were won and lost by Native Americans fighting for their heritage, their land which was sacred and their livelihood, the buffalo. Today the Black Hills and surrounding Badlands of southwestern South Dakota are testament to this iconic culture that is part of American Heritage. It is also testament to the history of how dominant cultures attempt to assimilate defeated cultures.
These cultural collisions led to the loss of human life that is still passed down as heritage today in stories of suffering, greed, desperation, loss of identity and wholesale removal of thousands of people from their ancestral homes.
As I get ready to depart Washington DC to head west to the Dakotas, I must start my journey at the National Museum of the American Indian. The NMAI is part of the wonderful world of the Smithsonian museums and located just south of the capitol in DC.


The NMAI, photo credit: Rae Rippy

In the amazing architectural building which is surrounded by a native American horticultural landscape, visitors are immediately enveloped in the history of the indigenous native cultures that lived, thrived and almost died on the North, Central and South American continents and were “discovered” by white skin European invaders only 500 years ago.
In our present day world of individualism, cultural clashes, environmental disasters, and nationalistic hate speech, it is important that everyone realize that Native American’s existed in the Americas for over 13000 years before immigrants from Europe landed their ships in the present day Bahamas, and thinking they were in India, named the indigenous people Indians.
I find that my new background in museology now effects all my museum visits. Thank you, Dr. Lena Stefano! I love to spend way too much time observing and analyzing every exhibit and thinking how I would do it differently, or perhaps how my perceptions of something could be exhibited differently.
I found the exhibits here very educational, but also very old-school. There is a great amount of large wall space devoted to lots of written material about many tribes’ cultures, their livelihood, their belief systems, their homes etc. There was a major part of the museum devoted to the many United States treaties negotiated and renegotiated and then ignored and changed over the past 300 years. There were many 2 dimensional models of these cultures and how they lived and certainly they were educational. There were a few short videos that explained many of these visual exhibits. I found the museum totally lacking any modern digital exhibits. There are lots of interactive activities that children and parents can take part and I found the real life canoes, totem poles, pottery, animal statues and buffalo leather clothes amazing.
Anyone that has not studied these cultures can learn from the NMAI that “the Native American indigenous cultures were in no way savages.” America’s history of manifest destiny led to the creation of the greatest culture and country that ever existed. Unfortunately, this so-called “destiny” lead to the almost complete extinction of the North American bison and the cultures that thrived and adapted for over 10000 years on the North American Great Plains.
It remains to be seen if this destiny will go down in history as the greatest and longest ever. America as an ideal has only existed for less than 400 years. This is much less than many ancient civilizations and certainly much less than the indigenous cultures it dispossessed. With the coming climate and environmental disasters looming in our near future, there is doubt that our present culture will survive without major cultural changes involving migrations, poverty and the associated hardships these create.
To learn more, it is worth checking out the National Museum of the American Indian and see the many “trails of tears” where indigenous people were forced into long migrations, poverty, disease and death. The Battan death march in WWII in the Pacific pales in my mind when compared with the horrible forced marches of children, elderly men and women, sick and pregnant Indians. Many left on the side of the road to die, either by bullet or slow death.
Yes, it’s all here to be experienced; the good and the bad! Heritage has no. Once again I must say, thank you Dr. Stefano. You opened my brain and allowed me to connect to my heart and I cherish all those days in your class.

Rae Rippy is Student Academic Officer for the HERMA class of 2015-16. With a background in business, journalism, and geology, he is interested in the preservation of heritage around the world, and the role of education as it pertains to that goal.

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