United States has a population called Native Americans who are considered as the people who used tolive in the now ‘American Lands’ before Columbus discovered America. This population was a mix of different and distinct tribes ethnic groups and bands. Many of such groups still survive and live today as sovereign nations. The term ‘Native American’ is used to refer to these people but those people identify themselves as “Indians” and sometimes as “American Indians”. Their younger population however call themselves as ‘Indigenous’. What they should be called is actually a controversial subject calling for technical debates. Newspapers, however coined the term “Native American” for them while Native Hawaiians are not included in that term. Same holds true for ‘Native Alaskan Natives” too.
By the end of the 15th century when Europeans migrated to the Americas, there has been exchange of information and mixing of traditions among the masses who started living together in America between societies from New and Old World. Most of the Native American groups had been historically living as hunter-gatherer groups and they preserved their own histories orally and through their artwork. This artwork however is considered as the document for tracking their thinking and their approach to various situations including their interaction with “foreigners” as they may call others.
In Europe, these art work exhibition are held regularly in various main cities while Washington DC and New York have “National Museum of the American Indian” abbreviated as NMAI that house the most extensive collections belonging to Native American about their artifacts and arts in the world. The museum has around 266,000 catalog records covering around 825,000 items. These collections explain over 12,000 years’ history and around 1,200 indigenous cultures. These are the people from Pre-Americas and range from the Paleo-Indian points up till contemporary fine arts. Thesecollections are works of aesthetic, historical and religious significance together with articles they had produced for their daily use.
By enlarge, these collections include all of the major culture areas pertaining to the Western Hemisphere and represent almost all known all tribes in the United States. Some of them are from Canada as well as from Middle as well as South America and then reaching Caribbean. Almost 68 percent objects collected are from the United States, 3.5 percent are from Canada, almost 10 percent are from Mexico and Central America, 11 percent are from South America while 6 percent are from the Caribbean. Generally speaking 55 percent of this collection is all archaeological, 43 percent pertains to ethnographic areas and just 2 percent is from modern and contemporary arts. The collections keep growing even today and NMAI continues to emphasize actively on contemporary and modern arts having relied on donations for expanding earlier ethnographic collections.
UNESCO has issued guidance in 1970 to regulate and control antiquities drain or exports from Latin America as well as North American Indian peoples’ continuing uncertainty for archaeology, there is really low expectation for sizable growth of these archaeological collections. Although NMAI’s enabling legislation covers Hawaii but the museum is reluctant to collect or accept Native Hawaiian historical items.
Not only the object collection, the collections in these museums also include Photographic Archive to the tune of approximately 324,000 images starting from the 1860s till present. The Media Archive has around 12,000 items which are film as well as audiovisual collections like wax cylinders, phonograph discs, 35mm and 16mm motion picture films followed by magnetic media of several varieties along with optical as well as digital media taken on record from the late 1800s till present.
There are the Paper Archive as much as approximately 1500 running feet and these comprise of the records starting from 1860s to the present preserving documentary history of the museums, its earlier period, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI) including collections from Heye Foundation and other archival anddocumentary materials. NMAI also keeps some un-accessioned collections too. These include educational teaching collections as well as non-Native art works representing some American Indian subjects, and poorly documented materials presently being investigated for their value towards the overall collection and potential disposition.
Although there are four discrete components, the Paper Archive, Photo Archive, Media Archive and Objects but the collections are fairly intertwined as each has the items that relate to each other: Media Archives and Photo have images of objects in use by Native communities or excavation contexts while the Paper Archives are field notes and those documentations related to the combined collections.
Practically speaking, due to the Collecting Plan, NMAI expects to expand the scope of these collections that continue its historically significant work while documenting indigenous lives as well as perspectivesthrough diverse media, objects and other means. In parallel this will improve and increase the mutual integration of the collections making them more relevant to museum programs and their accessibility to external users.
There are some websites where the NMAI collections are mentioned including a representative sample of object and historic photo from NMAI. The website has each item to be accompanied by some basic and standardized information. To be familiar with the site, one should start with one of those Collection Highlight tours would be beneficial or another way could be to search the website using the accompanied pages/tabs etc.
Goal of the website owners is to add maximum possible number of items. NMAI staff makes strenuous efforts to verify the accuracy of information given for each item to beculturally sensitive or finding out the items which have no value for the museum. The staff however expects its website visitors if they can provide any useful information to add value to the cause or to rectify a possible error.
Records for most of the objects means mentioning the catalog cards that usually date to early 1900s.These cards usually, have tribal names followed by the terminology considered offensive or unacceptable today but the staff has included that part just to illustrate the useful information that basically pertains to the objects. The items are however grouped together under the headings like Peoples/Cultures, places, Artists or individuals and then specifications for the objects found.