Editor’s Note: During this period of social distancing, Student Group Tour magazine will continue to provide ideas for planning educational travel. Many attractions and destinations are closed at this time; please contact them directly for updated information.

The Smithsonian Museums communicate a narrative of the American experience. The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., places a special focus on the rich tapestry of the diverse cultures that thrived in the pre-Columbian Americas and which continue to shape and color the American story today.

The National Museum of the American Indian houses one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of its kind. The museum’s sweeping architecture, landscaping and exhibitions, all designed in collaboration with tribes and communities from across the hemisphere, combine to give visitors the sense and spirit of Native America.

Credit: Courtesy of Smithsonian Institute

The Lelawi Theater is a great place for students to begin their visit. A dazzling multimedia experience prepares museumgoers for the themes and messages they will encounter during their visit. The semi-circular theater immerses viewers in the vibrancy and diversity of contemporary Native life and explores, from a Native perspective, the strength that different communities across the hemisphere derive from their connections to land, religion, traditional knowledge, self-government and self-expression.

Throughout the museum, tactile experiences encourage student inquiry. Students can listen to music and recordings of contemporary voices talking about their cultural heritage and how they live that reality today.

Students can further explore the themes highlighted in the museum’s exhibitions through hands-on and interactive mobile cart programs. Examples include an empathy building activity surrounding American Indian Removal and close looking exercises to critically examine American Indian imagery. Occasional cultural demonstrations — like dance, carving a canoe or weaving a loom — place students face-to-face with members of a specific nation or tribe and spur questions and conversation.

Ami Temarantz, the museum’s lead cultural interpreter, is eager to share the museum’s newest ongoing exhibition, “Americans,” with students. “This exhibit explores the pervasiveness of Native American imagery in American life. Images, names, and stories reveal how Indians have been embedded in American history, popular culture, and national identity,” Temarantz said.

Credit: Courtesy of Smithsonian Institute

American Indians make up less than one percent of the population, yet images and names of American Indians infuse American life. From place names and athletic team mascots to corporate branding, military technology and American idioms, the images are everywhere. The exhibit asks the powerful question, “How is it that Indians can be so present and so absent in American life?”

“Americans” surrounds visitors with images, dives deeply into several historical events and invites visitors to begin a conversation about why this phenomenon exists. Teachers can use the museum’s facilitated dialogue toolkit during their visit to tap into the “Americans” material and facilitate new conversations with and among students.

While groups can explore at a self-guided pace, Temarantz suggested educational groups consider a Guided Gallery program. Cultural interpreters trained in the content help students build bridges between the exhibits and their own lives. “Through facilitated dialogue, interpreters encourage students to share personal experiences, assumptions, and opinions while also receiving information, all for the purpose of personal and collective learning,” Temarantz said.

For more information call 202-633-1000 or go to americanindian.si.edu.

Article by Michael McLaughlin.