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Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans

  • 1.  Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans

    Posted 06-10-2019 11:30

    Does anyone know why there is so little information about California Native Americans in the Smithsonian Museum about Native Americans in Washington DC?  At the time of the Gaspar de Portol'a Expedition almost 250 years ago (this 11/4/19) there were over 300,000 Native Americans known to be in California that highest density north of Mexico compared to other areas in the US.  What can be done to get the Museum to update its information about California Native Americans?  Many of these tribes were not recognized by the State or Federal government and their lands were not recognized, but they still exist.


    Sam Herzberg

  • 2.  RE: Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans

    Posted 06-11-2019 09:33
    Edited by Priya Chhaya 06-11-2019 09:33
    I don't know the specific answer to this but if I remember correctly, the narrative vision of National Museum of the American Indian was to focus on education and interpretation through programming and special exhibitions.

    The permanent exhibition is more broad strokes - I get the feeling that instead of covering all of the native stories, they chose to show how there was differentiation based on regions and groups - and to emphasize that this is a living tradition. Again I could be totally wrong and am by no means an expert, but I know that the approach is one that was not universally loved.

    I think this is the article I read a while ago by Amy Lonetree.

    In terms of changing things at the museum? I would reach out to them directly to ask for more information. I bet this is a question they get a lot, especially in terms of the federally recognized vs unrecognized tribes.

    Priya Chhaya
    Associate Director, Publications and Programs
    National Trust for Historic Preservation
    Washington DC

  • 3.  RE: Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans

    Posted 06-11-2019 20:24
    Hi Sam,

    In Grave Matters: Excavating California's Buried Past (Heyday, Berkeley, California. 2011), Tony Platt reports hundreds of thousands of California artifacts were transported to European collectors in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Late nineteenth century collector Paul Schumacher wrote about excavating Chumash and Tongva graves in Southern California, "we collected about four thousand skeletons, which we brought into daylight."

    Schumacher---whose work included excavations in Santa Catalina Island---was collecting under the umbrella of "Special Explorations" for the Peabody Museum with Harvard University and the Smithsonian Museum.  The Peabody Museum's annual trustee meeting reported in 1876 that "Mr. Paul Schumacher, who, probably, of all collectors has made the most extended and important investigations of the old shell heaps and burial places on the coast of Oregon and California" had collected, along with numerous grave artifacts "about thirty human crania in good condition, the perfect or nearly perfect skeletons of two or three individuals, and parts of others." 

    In Orange County where I live, workers on a ranch in 1930 found over a dozen skeletons and several large stone bowls, called in the sheriff who concluded it was a Native American burial ground. It was reported in the local newspaper and the next day more than 500 people descended on the burial site, carting away "skulls and other relics."   At least 100 skulls were found, thousands of years of human history picked apart and carted away to private collections.  The photographs and commentary of this event are horrific.  Only more recently has there been more study of the handful of artifacts that are known to be connected to this site.

    In California's Story, a 1922 textbook written to meet the State requirement for the teaching of the history of California, there is reference to the "Chinese question" and later, the "Japanese question," both preceded by the "Indian question." It's a very telling mindset.  To me, there seemed to be a lot of interest in the race to collect artifacts by private individuals and institutions (we don't know where most ended up), but less focus on the actual life and history of native Californians.

    I am in full agreement with you that these histories need much more attention and should be taught.


  • 4.  RE: Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans

    Posted 06-12-2019 11:30



    I'm less interested in the collection of bodies and artifacts than the acknowledgement of the peoples history and presence and way of life being conveyed.  Seems like a huge cultural gap for a national museum focused on Native Americans.  I've tried to contact them by e-mail without any response.





  • 5.  RE: Smithsonian Museum of Native Americans

    Posted 06-19-2019 18:29

    An important historical shift is occurring in California.  Let the healing begin.