The story of the making of the American People begins tens of thousands of years ago with the arrival of the first human beings in the Western Hemisphere. The story of American Indians is the first and one of the most important stories that will be told in the National Museum of the American People.
The National Museum of the American People, proposed to be built near the heart of our nation’s capital in Washington, DC, will tell the stories of American Indians along with the stories of all of the other people that have come to this land and this nation. It has support from national American Indian organizations including the National American Indian Housing Council, National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, Society of American Indian Government Employees and United South and Eastern Tribes.
These organizations are part of a coalition of more than 150 ethnic and minority organizations that are calling for a bipartisan Presidential commission after the election to study establishment of the museum.
Today, American Indians and Alaskan Natives account for nearly two percent of the U.S. population, more than 5 million citizens.
"You cannot have a National Museum of the American People without including the American Indians and Alaskan Natives, the first Americans,” said Danny J. Garceau, Chair of the Society of American Indian Government Employees. “The American Indian and Alaskan Native people not only were the first Americans but also played an important role in the influence and survival of America. Too often their story is mistold, they are stereotyped or forgotten.”
“The story of America would be incomplete and inaccurate without an honest account of this nation’s history and relationship with America's first people,” said Kitcki A. Carroll, Executive Director of the United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. “USET applauds the efforts of the National Museum of the American People to properly tell a complete and culturally accurate story of this land's indigenous people. Additionally, it is just as important to tell the present day story of our perseverance, successes and challenges as present day Tribal Nations, Tribal citizens and contributors to the prosperity and strength of America.”
The museum will tell the story of the making of the American People from the first migrations to this land thousands of years ago, extending through waves of migration and immigration to the present. It will also tell about the creation stories of Native Americans. It will challenge visitors to reflect upon that history. Yet nowhere is there a museum devoted to telling this full story.
For American Indians, as well as all the others, the museum will tell who they were, where they came from, why they left their original land, how they got here, when they arrived, where they first settled, who was already here, what they encountered, where they moved after they arrived, how they became Americans, what they contributed and how they transformed the nation.
“It is important that American Indians and Alaskan Natives have a voice in how their story is told,” said Garceau. “Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are not only a part of our history but have survived in spite of centuries of official policy to remove, eliminate or assimilate. Currently there are 565 federally recognized tribes, sovereign nations, within our nation. The story of their loyalty to their people, to this land and to our nation is one that needs to be heard and never forgotten."
The coalition is not seeking federal funding to plan, build or operate the museum. A resolution in Congress calling for a presidential commission to study the museum has bipartisan support, including from Reps. Tom Cole, R-OK, and Dale Kildee, D-MI, co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus.
“The story of the making of the American People would be presented in a dramatic, interactive documentary format,” said Sam Eskenazi, director of the Coalition for the National Museum of the American People. “It would be developed and vetted by teams of eminent scholars, including American Indian scholars, and be told with force and clarity.”
“Very little of the story about American Indians that will be told in the National Museum of the American People is now told in the National Museum of the American Indian,” Eskenazi said. “That includes the story about their earliest history here, the great civilizations and cultures established prior to European settlement, their fate after that and their movements through the continent over the centuries. We strongly believe that the two museums will complement each other and that visitors to one will want to visit the other.
“The National Museum of the American People’s permanent exhibition will leave an indelible impression of knowledge and understanding on visitors as they engage with and come to know the full story of the making of the American People and how the story of American Indians fits into that story,” he said.
The story could be told in the museum over four chapters:
Chapter 1 - The First Peoples Come: Prehistoric period–1607; Indian migration and settlement, early European explorers and first European settlement. The story of American Indians would obviously dominate the first chapter of the story. While most histories about the making of the peoples of this nation begin with the arrival of European explorers after 1492 and the first European settlers soon after 1600, we propose that the full story must also encompass the history, so far as it is known, of the first peoples to have settled in this land. That is thought to have taken place some 20,000 years ago.
This seldom told and little understood story about the great and diverse civilizations and peoples that prevailed in the Western Hemisphere and throughout North America before 1607 is an integral part of the history of the American People. The Museum’s first chapter would start with the first known peoples to come to what is now the United States.
It is estimated that there were as many as 18 million Native Americans in what is now the United States at the time of contact with the first Europeans. That first contact led to the spread of infectious diseases for which Native Americans had no immunity. While that is believed to be the primary reason for the precipitous loss of life, other contributing factors were genocidal policies, displacement and warfare. It is estimated that by 1800 the Native population had shrunk to 600,000 and was down to 250,000 by 1900.
The National Museum of the American People would try to answer a long list of questions: When did the first humans come to this land? How did they get here? Did they come in different waves? Why did they come? How did their cultures evolve from 20,000 years ago to 1,000 years ago? What about Native Hawaiians?
In the 200 years before Columbus, how were tribal groups distributed across what is now the United States? What were their histories up to 1607? What was the nature of inter-tribal relationships? What are the population estimates for North America in 1607? What was the nature of native culture, economy, governing structures, communications, weapons, agriculture and health? What were the nature and impact of first encounters with Europeans between 1492 and 1607?
Chapter 2 - The Nation Takes Form: 1607–1820; the fate of Indians, Western European settlement, the African slave trade, the establishment of the nation, and the beginning of its expansion westward taking in new peoples. The diseases afflicting Native Americans along with violent encounters with Europeans caused breakdowns and, in some cases, elimination of some Native tribal groups and their ability to resist fresh encroachments on their territories.
During the Revolutionary War, some tribal groups supported the British and others the Americans and still others stayed neutral. In the peace treaty ending the war, the British gave vast Native American territory to the United States.
Chapter 3 - The Great In–Gathering: 1820–1924; a century of immigration. The ancestors of most Americans came during this period. As Europeans began spreading out across the continent in large numbers, encroachment onto Native lands increased at a geometric rate and armed conflict took place throughout the 19th Century. American Indians were forced out of their historic territories and generally moved to reservations farther west.
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act which allowed the President to exchange Native American land east of the Mississippi River for lands to the west.
Chapter 4 - And Still They Come: 1924–present; the ongoing story of American immigration. At the beginning of this chapter, in 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act which made Native Americans, who were not yet citizens, citizens of the United States. During World War II, the overwhelming majority of Native Americans welcomed the opportunity to serve.
In 2009, President Obama signed a law that included a joint Congressional Resolution offering “an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States” for past U.S. government actions toward Indian Tribes.
States today with the largest proportion of American Indians and Alaskan Natives are Alaska, 13%; New Mexico, 10%; South Dakota, 9% and Arizona, 5%. States with the largest Native populations include California, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Washington and Alaska.
“The National Museum of the American People will be at the intersection of every American group’s memory and the history of our nation,” Eskenazi said. “The theme of the museum is embodied by our nation’s original national motto: E Pluribus Unum, from many we are one.”
He said that “both U.S. neighbors, Canada and Mexico, have major national museums in their capitals telling the story of their peoples starting from the prehistoric period. They are the most visited museums in those nations. Our museum would be a destination for every school group visiting Washington and it would foster learning nationwide.”