Many Surprises Await at the National Museum of the American Indian (Part 2)

Go explore the history, art and culture of the Peoples of the Americas

Saturday, July 18 2009 15:22   OnTravel in the West / Paul Lasley
The Indian culture on view at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. isn't what many expect. Take the newest exhibit this summer, "Ramp It Up: Skateboard Culture in Native America" in the Sealaska Gallery. It has rare photographs and objects celebrating the skateboard in Native American life.

Bet you hadn't thought of that as an Indian sport.

But that's the whole point of the museum, located on the National Mall. The history and the art is there for those interested in taking the time to learn from the exhibits, but also on display is the contemporary culture of the peoples of the Americas.

Take the guns in one case, a collection of weapons from the earliest days of European settlement right through to the heavy armament of some of the cultural confrontations of the late 20th century. Somehow seeing the earliest muzzle loading guns at one end of the case and modern assault weapons at the other provides much greater impact than any others objects or photos ever could.

Another display is all about Inca gold and the role it played in why the Spanish conquistadores destroyed the civilization. Fabulous gold objects are on display that miraculously escaped the Spanish furnaces. They also remind us of how much was lost in those same furnaces. To the Inca, gold represented the light of the sun-not a monetary commodity.

There are also unexpected discoveries.

For me, one came in the form of a large sculpture. I recognized the figure of George Washington, but the others were a mystery. So was the story I found that I'd never read about in my school history classes. It's called Allies in War, Partners in Peace, by Edward Hlavka.

The large bronze work honors the bonds of friendship between the Oneida Indian Nation and the U.S. during the Revolution. In the winter of 1777-78 a group of Oneidas walked more than 400 miles from their territory in what is now Central New York to bring corn to the starving soldiers at Valley Forge.

Polly Cooper, the Oneida woman in the statue, taught the soldiers how to cook the corn. Beside Cooper and Washington, the other person in the group is Oskanondonha, who negotiated agreements with the colonists. It's history that adds a whole new dimension to the colonist's struggle to be free. They had help from many sides.

Forming a new perspective in our understanding of Native Peoples is what this museum is about. Bringing history and culture together in the context of today. There are lessons for us all in the displays.

"Be sure to eat there." I heard that from everyone in our nation's capitol whenever the museum was mentioned. "Best food on the mall."

So with high hopes I headed to Mitsitam Café, a modern space with large windows overlooking the rushing stream outside the building. Mitsitam means "let's eat" in Piscataway and Delaware language and after a couple of hours of museum going I was ready. I wasn't ready for the experience however.

This is no ordinary cafeteria. Different food stations offer meals and snacks from the different culinary traditions of the Americas.

I couldn't resist braised shank of javelina (think wild pig) from the Southwest. I never had anything like it before. Slow cooked and tender, it was packed with intense meaty flavor. Sort of like pork yet different. Buffalo Chili was another winner and then there was the roast duck with blueberry stuffing. You can eat your way through the Americas.

I didn't have room for the corn salsa or the fresh young ferns. And I had no room for the chocolate soup which as near as I could tell was something like a thick cormeal slush with chocolate. Something the Aztecs might have created.

It's a little expensive, but the quality is outstanding and you won't find these dishes in your local fast food joint. And even here is a place to learn about the cultures of the Indians. Food was an integral part of the lives of American Indians and had spiritual as well as practical significance. This is a chance to share in that tradition though trying different dishes and ingredients.

There are two excellent gift shops in the museum. So leave some time to browse.

Come with an open mind and you'll leave this museum with a whole new outlook on the history of Indians in the Americas.

The National Museum of the American Indian is located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol building. Admission is free. The Web site is 

Editor's note: For more of Paul's travel views and tips, visit his Web site blog at


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