Special attention has been paid to the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian. The landscape has been designed to show a close connection to nature and features many native plants, a water feature, and some very important rocks. The museum asked Native communities to choose rocks that had special meaning to them to become a welcoming and culturally important feature of the museum landscape.
Grandfather Rocks surround the National Museum of the American Indian.
Many American Indian cultures believe rocks to be the oldest living things in the world, worthy of the same respect you would give to your elders. More than 40 large, uncarved boulders, called Grandfather Rocks, serve as the elders of the NMAI landscape. These Grandfather Rocks welcome visitors to the museum grounds and serve as reminders of the longevity of Native peoples’ relationships to the environment and the past. All rocks have a “memory” of the earth’s past, so it is very important to Native people to honor that memory and the knowledge of the times that humans do not know.
The orientation of the Grandfather Rocks at the museum is exactly the same as that in their original setting of Alma in the province of Quebec, Canada. This was done as a gesture of respect for the rocks, so that they would not become disoriented in their new location. Prior to being transported to Washington, DC, the Grandfather Rocks were blessed by the Montaignais First Nations to ensure a safe journey and to carry the message and cultural memory of past generations to future generations. The rocks were also blessed when they arrived at the museum.
Other special stones have been placed at selected points on the museum grounds to mark the four cardinal directions, east, south, west and north. These very important stones serve as a reminder of all the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The stones journeyed to the National Museum of the American Indian from the far reaches of the Western Hemisphere in collaboration with their Native source communities. Each stone was blessed by the communities before making the journey to the museum.
WEST CARDINAL DIRECTION MARKER
The stone at the western point is A’a lava from a volcano in Hilo, Hawaii. It is among the youngest of rocks known in the Hemisphere, only about 300-400 years old, and was given to the museum by the Native people of Hawaii. This stone is very important to the Hawaiian people because they believe it is a living member of their community. For this reason, the rock at the museum will be returned to Hawaii in twenty years and another one will be sent to replace it.
The West Cardinal Direction Marker from Hawaii.
EAST CARDINAL DIRECTION MARKER
The stone at the eastern point was given by Native American tribes from Maryland and Virginia. It is Quartzite that came from Sugarloaf Mountain in the state of Maryland. When the community was looking for a rock to give to the museum, this one stood out for a very special reason. When the people approached it, a great number of butterflies flew up from behind the rock and fluttered around their heads. It was a good sign.
The East Cardinal Direction Marker from Great Falls Maryland
NORTH CARDINAL DIRECTION MARKER
The stone at the northern point comes from Yellowknife in the province of the Northwest Territories, Canada. It is a type of rock known as Acasta Gneiss, and is among the oldest known stones on the earth, over 3.9 billion years, and was provided as a gift by the Dogrib First Nation. This rock had to be lifted from its original location by a helicopter because no trucks or other machinery could get into the area to move it.
The North Cardinal Direction Marker from Northern Canada
SOUTH CARDINAL DIRECTION MARKER
The southern stone is another type of Gneiss and it came from Tierra del Fuego in Chile, South America. It was donated by the Yagan people of Isla Navarino. They chose this rock because it once stood in the center of their old village. When they had to move their village to a new location, everyone remembered this rock as an important part of the life of their community. They decided to honor the rock by sending it to Washington, DC.
The South Cardinal Direction marker from Punto Arenas, Chile
Native people believe that the earth remembers the experiences of past generations. The National Museum of the American Indian recognizes the importance of indigenous peoples' connection to the land; the grounds surrounding the building are considered an extension of the building and a vital part of the museum as a whole. By recalling the natural environment that existed in the Washington, DC, area prior to European contact, the museum's landscape design embodies a theme the runs central to NMAI — that of returning to a Native place. More than 33,000 plants of 150 species can be found throughout the landscape and its four habitats.
A forest environment runs along the northern edge of the museum site. Forests have provided indigenous cultures with important materials for shelter, firewood, medicines, and other purposes. More than 25 tree species are included in the forest, including red maple, staghorn sumac, and white oak.
Culturally important to many tribes, wetlands are rich, biologically diverse environments. Wild rice, morel mushrooms, marsh marigolds, cardinal flowers, and silky willows are among the species planted at the eastern end of the museum site. The wetlands represent the Tiber Creek and tidal marsh that once existed here.
Buttercups, fall panic grass, and sunflowers are among the plants featured in the meadow, located southwest of the museum building.
The traditional cropland area on the south side of the building features medicinal plants and some of the food crops that Native peoples have given to the world, including tobacco and the "Three Sisters" — corn, beans, and squash. The plants in this area are cultivated using traditional Native agricultural techniques.