The Immersive Experience of the American Indian Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall expresses its intention in every inch. From the soaring limestone tiers of the building’s face to the award-winning native American food in the cafeteria to the artwork on the elevators, its desire to tell the story of the original Americans and immerse museum goers in that story is revealed.

Visitors’ immersive experience at the museum begins on the fourth floor at the Lelawi Theater, where a 13-minute film about native life is reflected on three surfaces: a woven screen in the middle of the room, a large rock beneath the screen and the dome over the viewers’ heads. When one moment shows a magnificent canyon on the screen, the dome overhead shows a hawk circling a blue sky and the rock beneath the screen shows the hawk's shadow on the rocks. The designers have succeeded at creating a unique introduction to the museum.


At times, my visits to the American Indian museum have felt like visits to an art gallery. I could enjoy the beauty of the artifacts, but felt I couldn't fully appreciate what I was seeing without more information.

That feeling has changed with the new exhibit, “Nation to Nation.” The exhibit is about the treaties established over the centuries between various tribes and the European settlers then U.S. government. With two films narrated by Robert Redford and many historical artifacts and documents that tell individual stories, the exhibit shows the respectful establishment of the treaty pact, the disembowlment of that pact by the American government, and the renewed independence treaties gave to the Native Americans in the 70s. It’s a powerful, emotional display of the way treaties have succeeded and failed.

Since you're already at the National Museum of the American Indian, you will have the privilege of eating the best food on the mall. The privilege does not come cheap. Lunch for an individual can easily be over $20 at the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, so reserve the experience for people who will savor the opportunity to eat foods from five different native American regions: Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains.  You will find foods here that you cannot find in the rest of Washington, D.C.: Indian fry bread covered in buffalo chili, canela spiced cupcakes, buffalo and duck burgers. The cafe with its view of a fountain waterfall is a vegetarian's dream. I had a cold root vegetable salad in a mustard vinaigrette that was one of the best things I've ever eaten.

Indian fry bread with buffalo chili and fixings

Indian fry bread with buffalo chili and fixings

A Tour of the National Museum of the American Indian