January 2, 2002

National Museum of the American Indian


AUTHOR: Smithsonian Institution Press Release

This article presents an overview of the National Museum of the American Indian.

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The National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to the preservation, study and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history and arts of the Native People of the Western Hemisphere.


  • Oct. 30, 1994—George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian opened in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green in New York City.
  • 1998—Construction of the Cultural Resources Center was completed in Suitland, Md. The center houses the museum’s collection and serves as a research, conservation, and support facility.

    Polshek and Partners of New York City; SmithGroup of Reston, Va.; and the Native American Design Collaborative, headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., provided architectural and engineering services for the center.

    (The Native American Design Collaborative is an association of 20 Native American-owned architectural and engineering firms and allied professionals from all over the United States but located primarily in the west.)

  • 1999—Staffing and operations at the Cultural Resources Center began in 1999. A move of the museum’s collections from NMAI’s Research Branch in the Bronx is currently underway (more than 40,000 objects have been moved). It is estimated that the move will take five years.

  • 2004—National Museum of the American Indian is scheduled to open on the National Mall in Washington near the U.S. Capital.

    The architectural firm of GBQC Architects of Philadelphia with associated architect Douglas Cardinal provided the concept and original design for the museum on the Mall.

    Heye Center–The Museum’s Heye Center occupies two floors of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan.

    The Beaux Arts-style building, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, was completed in 1907. It is a designated National Historic Landmark and a New York City landmark.

    The center’s exhibition and public access areas total about 20,000 square feet.

    Open to the public free-of-charge every day except Christmas, the Heye Center has been visited by nearly 2.5 million people since its opening in 1994.

    It offers a range of exhibitions, film and video screenings, school group programs, and living culture presentations throughout the year.

    The Heye Center currently has on display one of its original exhibitions, as well as temporary exhibitions and an orientation exhibition. Two of the exhibitions now on display are:

    “Beauty, Honor, and Tradition: The Legacy of Plains Indian Shirts” features 48 visually stunning and spiritually powerful Plains Indian shirts from the permanent collection that explores the beauty and power, history, iconography, and construction and materials of Plains Indian shirts from the 19th and 20th centuries.

    “All Roads Are Good: Native Voices of Life and Culture” represent the world view of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere as reflected in more than 300 objects chosen by 23 Native Americans.


The National Museum of the American Indian is home to the collection of the former Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. The collection is one of the finest and the most comprehensive collections of Indian cultural materials in the world.

The collection, which became part of the Smithsonian in June 1990, was assembled over a 54-year period, beginning in 1903 by George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), who traveled throughout North and South America accumulating the collection.

Heye was the founder of New York’s Museum of the American Indian from its beginning until 1957. The Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian opened to the public in New York City in 1922.

The collection has more than 800,000 objects as well as a photographic archive of about 86,000 images.

Among the objects are fine wood, horn, and stone carving from the Northwest Coast of North America; Navajo weavings and blankets; archaeological objects from the Caribbean; textiles from Peru and Mexico; basketry from the southwest; gold work from Columbia, Mexico, and Peru; jade from the Olmec and Maya; Aztec mosaics and painted hides and garments from the North American Plains Indians.

Approximately 70 percent of the collection comes from North America (about 67 percent from the United States and 3 percent from Canada), and about 30 percent is from Central and South America.


Repatriation is one aspect of collections management. The museum’s repatriation policy, which was adopted by the board of trustees in 1991, calls for the return, upon request, of human remains, funerary objects, communally owned Native property, ceremonial and religious objects and objects transferred or acquired by the museum illegally to Indian tribes or individuals with trial or cultural affiliation.


The legislation establishing the museum called for the Smithsonian to raise one third for the construction costs and the Congress would appropriate two-thirds.

To raise the necessary funds, the Smithsonian created the National Campaign of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The museum is raising funds for construction and the mall museum’s inaugural exhibitions and programs as well as creating an endowment for ongoing education and outreach activities.

The National Campaign offers charter memberships for $20 each, which provides a number of benefits, among them a subscription to American Indian, the museum’s new publication; discounts in Smithsonian museum shops; advance notice of special events; and opportunities to join Smithsonian tours and attend informative seminars.

In September 1999, there were more than 53,000 charter members.

The campaign also has a 36-member Honorary Committee—national and international leaders who have agreed to lend their names and personal support to the National Museum of the American Indian fundraising effort.

Chaired by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne; R-Colo.), the honorary committee includes President Bill Clinton and all living former US Presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush), as well as Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (Osage); actors Kevin Costner, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford; Octavio Paz, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize in literature, and golf pro Arnold Palmer.


W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne) was named founding director of the museum in 1990.

The museum’s senior management group includes Douglas E. Evelyn, deputy director; Helen Scheirbeck (Cherokee), assistant director for public programs; John Haworth (Cherokee), director of the George Gustav Heye Center; Bruce Bernstein, assistant director for cultural resources; George Horse Capture (Gros Ventre), deputy assistant director for cultural resources; Nicolasa Sandoval (Chumash), assistant director for community services; Donna Scott, assistant director for administration; Jim Volkert, assistant director for exhibition and public spaces; and Elizabeth Duggal, director of the National Campaign.


The Smithsonian’s American Indian Museum Studies Program organizes courses, internships, and residencies in museum practices for American Indians.

Courses are held at the Smithsonian and at tribal facilities around the country.

These courses focus on organization and management of tribal museums, archives, and cultural facilities. Internships and residencies take place in Washington and offer training in museum operations.

Scholarships are available.


The museum staff is seeking the views of Indian communities by conducting regional meetings or consultations.

In the past two years alone, the museum has worked with more than 500 Native people from approximately 300 communities in the United States, Canada and Latin America.

The results of these collaborations have been used for various purposes such as determining the design of the Mall museum and the Cultural Resources Center, planning for the Mall Museum’s inaugural exhibitions and wide range of other purposes.


The museum is governed by a 25-member board of trustees, which meets three times a year. The chairman of the board is Billy L. Cypress (Seminole) of Hollywood, Fla.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small is on the board as an ex-officio member.

The legislation that established the museum—Public Law 101-185 (Nov. 28, 1989)—called for an initial board of trustees consisting of eight individuals appointed by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and 15 individuals who had served on the Heye Foundation board.

Fourteen of the current 25 members are American Indian.


PO Box 23473
Washington, DC 20026-3473

Telephone: (202)357-3164

Fax: (202)357-3369

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