Native American history is a rich, though undeniably complex subject, spanning several millennia and encompassing hundreds of geographically and culturally diverse groups and peoples. It stretches from the arrival of the first Americans several thousand years ago to the present day, via the tumultuous years of European settlement.
The arrival of European settlers in North America gave rise to conflict and upheaval, and led to the violent displacement of many Native American groups. But despite these historic attempts to suppress Native American culture, the heritage of North America’s Indigenous peoples has been preserved in insightful museums across the country.
Here are 10 unmissable Native American museums to visit in the US.
1. First Americans Museum, Oklahoma
Formerly known as the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, the First Americans Museum (FAM) is a museum in Oklahoma City, United States. Its mission is to share the cultural diversity, history and contributions of the 39 distinct First American Nations in Oklahoma today.
At 175,000 square feet, the museum is home to a wealth of state-of-the-art exhibitions that cover First American culture, art and history. Importantly, the exhibitions within the museum are constantly developed in close collaboration with the tribal nations of Oklahoma as well as Native scholars and researchers. Don’t miss the Okla Homma exhibition, which conveys the history of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma through sound, sight and touch.
2. National Museum of the American Indian – Washington
When the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened in 2004, it became the first national museum in the US dedicated exclusively to Native American history and culture. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum boasts a collection of more than 800,000 objects, as well as a photographic library of some 125,000 images.
The NMAI in Washington DC is divided into sections covering different geographic areas and biomes. Concerted efforts are made to treat the exhibits according to certain Native American customs; for example, the human remains vault is smudged once a week with tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar.
3. National Museum of the American Indian – New York
A sister site to the Washington DC institution, the NMAI in New York is equally dedicated to the preservation of Indigenous American history. At the ‘Infinity of Nations’ exhibit, visitors can witness objects representing an array of different regional cultures, from an Apsáalooke Crow robe to a detailed Mayan limestone relief.
The ‘Ancestral Connections’ exhibit, meanwhile, explores how 10 contemporary artists draw on their heritage to create new artwork.
4. The Heard Museum, Arizona
The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, is dedicated to preserving and sharing Native American history, with a particular focus on the southwest states of the USA. The Heard Museum typically cycles through an array of different temporary exhibits throughout the year, with past one showcasing everything from Native American ceramics to artistic murals.
The Heard Museum’s substantial collections include historic jewelry, clothing and stonework, with artefacts from the prehistoric period right up to the present day.
5. Journey Museum, South Dakota
The Journey Museum in South Dakota chronicles the history of the Black Hills region and the cultures that have existed there, including the Native American Lakota people and the pioneers. Its collections include 5,500 pieces of Sioux art – such as beaded and ceremonial items – as well as traditional Native American clothing, hide paintings, instruments, saddles and tipis. There’s also a hologram of a Native American elder who narrates stories and oral histories.
The Journey Museum also contains a gallery documenting the lives of early European settlers in the Black Hills and an archaeological section featuring pieces dating back to 7,500 BC.
6. Abbe Museum, Maine
The Abbe Museum in Maine focuses on Native American history and heritage, particularly that of the Wabanaki, Maine’s Indigenous people. The Abbe Museum actually has two venues in Maine: one in Bar Harbour and another on Mount Desert Island.
The museum, through its roster of exhibits, artefacts, workshops and events, introduces visitors to the Wabanaki universe, as well as their culture and history. Don’t miss the Abbe’s core exhibit, ‘People of the First Light’, or its spectacular collection of Wabanaki craft goods and basketry.
7. Wounded Knee Museum, South Dakota
The Wounded Knee Museum in South Dakota both memorialises and tells the story of the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which up to 300 Lakota men, women and children were shot and killed by the US 7th Cavalry. 20 members of the US Cavalry were awarded medals for their participation in the massacre.
The Wounded Knee Museum uses a series of photographs and artefacts to explore the events of the massacre and its aftermath. It offers a tour map and scale model of the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, over 30 exhibits, a remembrance room, free peace feathers and a museum store.
8. Dickson Mounds Museum, Illinois
The Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, Illinois, is an archaeological museum offering an insight into the history and culture of Native Americans in the Illinois River Valley. Part of the Illinois State Museum, the Dickson Mounds Museum was founded by chiropractor Don Dickson, who discovered and excavated Native American burial mounds on his family farm from 1927 onwards.
Today, visitors to the Dickson Mounds Museum can explore a variety of interpretive exhibits, archaeological sites and seasonal special events. At the Eveland Village, visitors can view the excavated remains of three early Native American buildings. There is also an outdoor stage, picnic grounds and a restored prairie.
9. Gilcrease Museum, Oklahoma
The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa exhibits a comprehensive collection of works of art and historic artefacts relating to the history of the American West. Its founder, the Tulsa oilman Thomas Gilcrease, was especially interested in Indigenous American history, an as such its collections now total more than 350,00 items representing hundreds of indigenous cultures from across America.
The Enduring Spirit exhibit documents the distinct cultures of many Indigenous American groups with an emphasis on Oklahoma’s Native American history. The museum’s artefacts date from 12,000 BC to the 21st century.
10. Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, New York
The Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota, NY, is a family-run heritage site focused on the history and culture of North American Indigenous groups. It pays specific attention to the Six Iroquois Nations Confederacy, comprising Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks and Tuscaroras.
The museum building itself is adorned with glorious Haudenosaunee decorations, while the artefacts housed within offer a thorough introduction to each tribe’s cultural heritage.