American Indians and Museums

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1842 an entrepreneur named P.T. Barnum opened the American Museum on Broadway in New York to entertain the public with exotic and strange “curios”. Barnum and others considered these “curios” to be educational as well as entertaining. In addition to stuffed animals, the museum also contained Indian artifacts and presented exhibits of live Indians. The Indians were exhibited as public curiosities who re-enacted traditional ceremonies.  While the ceremonies were billed as “traditional,” they were modified to fit non-Indian tastes and to conform with non-Indian stereotypes about what Indians were, what they looked like, and what their ceremonies involved.

Barnum's Museum

While Barnum may have been one of the most flamboyant exhibitors of Indian “curios”, he was certainly not the only one. During the nineteenth century there was a growth in the number of museums – both public and private, both large and very small – which exhibited Indian artifacts and, sometimes, the Indians themselves.

Some Indian people bury their dead and they include in these burials many artifacts which were important to the individual. Many of these artifacts are well-made, beautiful, and strange to European eyes. For the museums in the nineteenth century and during much of the twentieth century, these grave goods made good exhibits. In fact, the remains of the Indians who were buried with the goods were often put on display as well. Non-Indians seemed to have a morbid curiosity about Indian skeletons.

During the nineteenth century, museums seemed to be convinced that Indians were a “dying race”, destined for extinction in the near future. Therefore, the large museums, such as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and the Peabody in Boston, sent out expeditions to Indian country to obtain artifacts. From the Pueblos in the Southwest, these expeditions shipped boxcars filled with pottery, blankets, carvings, and other objects. In other parts of Indian country, they looted graves. At times the amount of Indian material coming into the Smithsonian was overwhelming. It was not uncommon to have artifacts stacked outside until space inside could be found for them.

During the twentieth century, museums seemed to view Indian people as a “vanished race” and their exhibits spoke of Indians as though they no longer existed. It is no wonder that museum educated people where sometimes startled when they encountered or read about Indians who were still living.

The focus of many of the nineteenth century museum exhibits was to demonstrate the idea of cultural evolution. Non-Indian Americans and Europeans were seen as the most highly evolved members of the human species and it was felt that the different Indian cultures represented lower levels or stages in cultural evolution. At the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, the ethnological exhibits ranked the peoples of the world on an evolutionary scale which started with savagry and culminated with civilization (exemplified by contemporary American society. The exhibits made clear to the visitors that racial typologies were legitimate categories for understanding human evolution and that racial types could be arranged in categories of savage and civilized.

Museums, like Hollywood movies, have tended to show Indian people as living in the past. Thus tourists to Indian country are sometimes amazed to find Indians driving pickup trucks, living in houses (not tipis), speaking English without the word “ugh”, and earning a living in the “modern” professions.

In the past two decades, museums have been changing. There have been two important factors involved. The first of these is that the tribes themselves have been taking control of their own destiny. This means, in part, a greater effort to record, interpret, display, and describe their own history and culture. Tribal museums often incorporate their oral tradition into the development and interpretation of the displays.

One of the finest examples of tribal museums is the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, Washington. This center was founded in 1979 to help teach Makah children about their culture and history. Their mission statement:


1. To protect and preserve the linguistic, cultural and archeological resources of the Makah Indian Nation.

2. To provide policy direction in the area of linguistic and cultural management to the Makah Tribal Council and other interested organizations.

3. To educate Tribal members and the public in the cultural heritage, and language of the Makah Indian Nation.

4. To stimulate research which will benefit the Makah Nation and the academic community by providing a comprehensive center for the Makah-oriented research.

5. To promote economic development for the Makah Tribe of the Makah people.

The center also contains a very large collection of pre-contact artifacts from the Ozette archaeological site. Ozette was a Makah village which was partially covered by a mudslide before the arrival of the Europeans. While many people call this center a museum, some tribal members object to the term because they feel that the word “museum” carries an image of a “dead” culture rather than the living culture which is presented in the center.


Within the center, visitors can experience Makah life in a longhouse which is an exact reproduction of one found in Ozette. Explanations of Makah culture which accompany the exhibits show that this is a living culture, not just a tribe which is frozen in the past.

Another example of a tribal museum is the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Mashantucket, Connecticut. Funded in part by revenues from the tribal casino, the museum is one way for the Pequot to tell non-Indians “We are still here” in spite of the fact that many history books still speak of them as an extinct tribe. Using lifelike dioramas, the museum takes visitors into Pequot village life prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims. This museum is the largest Indian owned and operated museum in North America.

The second factor in the changes which are happening in museums was the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (commonly called NAGPRA) in 1990. This act requires a number of institutions, such as museums, federal agencies, and universities, to inventory certain categories of human remains and associated funerary objects. Culturally affiliated tribes are then to be notified of these remains and objects so that they can be reclaimed by the tribes.

NAGPRA jurisdiction includes Indian burials, burial artifacts, and sacred cultural objects whether they are found on federal, state, local, or private land. Items do not need to cross state lines to be subject to this law.

One of the implications of NAGPRA is that museums are now talking and consulting with the culture committees from the tribes. Exhibits are more sensitive to Indian concerns and attempt to explain Indian cultures and history from a perspective that takes Indian viewpoints into account.