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NMAI | © Catchpenny/Flickr
NMAI | © Catchpenny/Flickr
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How to Explore Native American Culture in Washington, DC

Picture of Aparna Krishnamoorthy
Updated: 7 July 2017
To experience the many different aspects of Native American culture, there are some useful resources housed in Washington, DC, where visitors can get started. Here, we take a look at the most popular way for getting to know more about the culture.

Visitors’ main port of call should be to pay a trip to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, a Smithsonian institution located along Independence Avenue SW, on the National Mall, which is free to the public.

The Building

Even before you enter the museum, the building will catch your attention. Entirely designed by Native American architects, the building, made of limestone material has been made to resemble rock formations affected by water and wind over thousands of years. Its curvilinear structure is visually striking. The building was specifically made to reflect and represent Native American values and beliefs – the east facing main entrance and dome that opens to the sky are celestial references, the museum is in harmony with nature, and is filled with details, colors and textures that reflect the Native American cultural universe.

National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian | © spatz_2011/Flickr

The collections

The museum houses one of the most extensive collections of Native American art and artifacts in the world. Its collections represent over 12,000 years of history across more than 1,200 indigenous cultures from the Americas. The 825,000 plus items range from historical to religious to cultural, a comprehensive catalog.

In addition to the object collections, the museum’s holdings also include four different components, the Object, Photo Archive, Media Archive, and Paper Archive collection. These discrete components are deeply connected – each contains items that relate to one another and serve as an excellent documentation of indigenous lives, beliefs, and perspectives.

The beautifully designed and researched exhibits are well laid out and informative, and are a great way to get a deeper understanding about Native American cultures.

Artifacts at NMAI
Artifacts at NMAI | ©YoTuT/Flickr

The imagiNATIONS Activity Center is a fantastic interactive experience for visitors of all ages. Visitors can explore the innovations made by Native tribes, from snowshoes and skateboards, to teepees and basket-weaving techniques. Native peoples have always used the natural environment around them to satisfy their needs, and many of their innovations are currently used by millions around the world.

The Food

One of the best ways to explore a culture is through their food. The Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the museum is a fantastic stop to try Native American inspired dishes – the fry bread and corn totopos are extremely popular and delicious! You can’t get this variety of food anywhere else in DC, so the highly regarded restaurant is a must-visit.

Mitsitam Cafe
Mitsitam Cafe | © Ted Eytan/Flickr

Make sure to keep an eye on the museum’s event calendar for details and schedules on events.

While the museum is the most popular way to learn about Native American culture in the area, the American Indian Society of Washington, DC is another worthy resource.

They conduct events ranging from fun and cultural get-togethers, to formal ceremonies and receptions for tribal delegates and other distinguished visitors to the Capitol.