A museum to celebrate

In 1897, a wealthy oil heir acquired a deerskin shirt from the Navajo foreman of a railroad construction project in Arizona. That single acquisition led to a lifetime dedicated to collecting and documenting American Indian culture as the “sources of vistas and dreams.” Dr. Skorton shows us those vistas and shares those dreams as the American Indian Museum celebrates its first century.


Mrs and Mr Heye seate don a bench

Mr. and Mrs. (Thea) George Gustav Heye in front of the Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation, 155th and Broadway, New York, 1917. Photographer unknown, via National Museum of the American Indian

Museums are wellsprings of programs that engage, inspire and teach; hubs of scholarship, creativity and research; venues for fostering timely and important discussions. Collections drive and inform that activity, and they come to us from a variety of places. Take the massive number of anthropological, biological, and geological samples gathered by civilian scientists from 1838 to 1842 on the Navy’s United States South Seas Exploring Expedition. Those findings would later be given to the Smithsonian, forming the backbone of our initial scientific collections. This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the predecessor to the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. MAI came into existence because of George Gustav Heye (1874–1957) and the impressive array of American Indian objects amassed for the museum he founded.

Heye was an oil heir whose family wealth and money made from investment allowed him to pursue his interests. In 1897, with a newly-earned engineering degree, he went to work in Arizona on a railroad construction project. There, working for the first time with American Indian people, he became fascinated with their cultures. He acquired the deerskin shirt of a Navajo foreman on the project, beginning a lifelong dedication to collecting and documenting American Indian cultural materials. By the time he founded MAI on May 10, 1916, acting as its first director, the collection had grown to nearly 175,000 archaeological and ethnographic items. He said of the collections that were his life’s work, “They are not alone objects to me, but sources of vistas and dreams of their makers and owners.”

Outdoor signing ceremony transferring Heye collection

Smithsonian Secretary (1984-1994) Robert McCormick Adams (1926- ), signs a Memorandum of Understanding with the Museum of American Indian, Heye Foundation, transferring its superb collection of American Indian artifacts to the Smithsonian at a ceremony on May 8, 1989, overlooking the site of the hoped-for new National Museum of the American Indian to be built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Looking on, from left: Suzan Harjo, member of board of trustees, Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York City; Roland Force, director, MAI; Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI), chief supporter of legislation to create NMAI within SI; Dick Baker, member, Lakota Sioux Red Feather Society; Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-CO), the only American Indian member in Congress. (Photo by Laurie Minor-Penland, as featured in the Torch, September 1994)

In 1987, Senator Daniel Inouye testified to Congress in support of the bill that would create the NMAI on the National Mall. He said, “the most priceless artifacts of Indian culture, history, and art” would help “honor and remember the greatness of the first Americans, their wisdom, their leadership, their valor, and their contributions to the people of the United States.” The transfer of the Museum of the American Indian collections to the Smithsonian in 1990 ensured their care and preservation as well as their continued educational use. The collection of more than 800,000 items plus archival collections and photographs, representing more than 1,500 tribal communities from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, have enabled us to impart knowledge of indigenous peoples more comprehensively and more honestly. Like the history of this country, and even like Heye’s own complicated legacy, this knowledge is often challenging and controversial, but it is our responsibility to study and disseminate it.

In addition to our research, education, and outreach, the Smithsonian has always been known for the objects we care for, whether iconic or infamous, outrageous or courageous. The artifacts we have in our collections tell us and future generations who we are, where we came from, and what we believe. They are reminders of our past and roadmaps to our future. But our collections are a far cry for the dusty ephemera one might find in an attic; they comprise a living, breathing testament to the nation’s character as well as our history, proud and otherwise. In 1879, when Congress created the Bureau of American Ethnology and transferred the Indian collections of the Department of the Interior to the Smithsonian, it started our mission to document the legacy and contributions of the American Indian. That mission continues today, in the nation’s capital, in New York, and in communities all across the country.

Part of a series of pictures depicting Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology. Library of Congress caption: "Piegan Indian, Mountain Chief, listening to recording with ethnologist Frances Densmore, 2/9/1916." National Geographic caption: "This 1916 image of Frances Densmore and Blackfoot leader Mountain Chief listening to a cylinder recording has become a symbol of the early songcatcher era."

Frances Densmore (1867 – 1957) recording Blackfoot chief, Mountain Chief during a 1916 phonograph recording session for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology.

On May 11, the Legacies of Learning Gala at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York will commemorate MAI’s 100th anniversary. It will also be a recognition of the educational mission that is at the heart of the museum. Two major initiatives in New York will be unveiled that highlight this: Native Knowledge 360, to provide Native content that meets state and national standards to schools nationwide, and the new imagiNATIONS Activity Center, a 4,500-square-foot K–12 learning center and exhibition space for young people. Finally, the Gala will present the second annual NMAI awards to people who have supported NMAI’s mission and have made a positive impact in American Indian Nations.

One of this year’s awardees, Ojibwe author and poet Louise Erdrich, in her poem “Advice to Myself,” advises to “Pursue the authentic—decide first what is authentic, then go after it with all your heart.” We can thank George Gustav Heye for pursuing with all of his heart the authentic Native cultures that helped create the Museum of the American Indian. That dedication lives on in the NMAI on the National Mall, at the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, and at the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland. The Smithsonian will continue to honor both MAI’s legacy and the legacy of the American Indian for the next 100 years and for generations to come.

composite photo of recipients

The recipients of the 2016 NMAI Awards are, clockwise from from top left, Gregory Annenberg Weingarten; LaDonna Harris (Comanche); Louise Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band Chippewa/Ojibwe); Nusrat Durrani; David Sable; and Shepard Fairey.
(Photos of Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, LaDonna Harris, Nusrat Durrani and Shepard Fairey courtesy of honorees. Photo of Louise Erdrich by Paul Emmel. Photo of David Sable by Amy Arbus.)

Posted: 2 May 2016
About the Author:

David J. Skorton is the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian. A board-certified cardiologist whose specialty is congenital heart disease and cardiac imaging, Skorton is also an avid jazz musician and a passionate supporter of the arts and humanities.