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NMAI: A landmark institution working for Indian Country

Your own local museum, the Ah-Tah-Thi Ki Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation, works hard to share the Seminole story and to represent the Tribe’s interests in all our work. We are able to collaborate with many museums and other institutions in Florida, and we help them tell the Seminole story to all their visitors.

But did you know there’s another museum that strives to do that for all of Indian Country? It’s the National Museum of the American Indian, commonly known as NMAI. And did you know that there’s been a connection between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and that institution for over two decades?

The National Museum of the American Indian sits prominently among other Smithsonian museums on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Nery Mejicano)

Although NMAI opened the doors of its newest Washington, D.C., facility in 2004, it has a much longer history. Its first facility in New York City became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1989.

Coincidentally, this was also when the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum was chartered and began building its collection. At the time the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki opened in 1997, we had an extensive working relationship with NMAI.

The Tribe consulted with their professionals about how to build the world-class facility now on Big Cypress. And when it came time to build the permanent exhibits, NMAI loaned pieces from its collection in order to help the museum tell the Seminole story.

When NMAI opened in Washington, D.C., many tribes were very excited. Representatives from the Seminole Tribe joined others at the opening ceremonies to lead a procession on the National Mall to show their support. The Seminole Tribe had a strong presence that included the Seminole Color Guard and Tribal government officials.

A silversmith can be seen working with silver above the display of an early 20th century silverworker’s kit, on loan from NMAI’s collection, in the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s “Camp Life” gallery. (Photo Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)

If you go to NMAI, you might be surprised that the Seminole Tribe is only represented in a small way. Remember that NMAI has the responsibility of advocating for all the Indigenous people represented in its collection. That’s a big job. Come to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki for a total Seminole focus; go to NMAI to broaden your horizons.

One of the most important ways that NMAI fights for Native rights is in the area of repatriation. Responding to outrage over the state of national repatriation efforts, the National Museum of the American Indian Act was enacted in 1989.

Under this law, NMAI has led repatriation efforts within its institution and has returned over 5,000 ancestors to their homes, getting them out of the hands of the non-Native institutions that have allowed research and other culturally insensitive treatment of those remains and significant cultural items for many years.

Helene Buster and Michelle Thomas carried the banner that led the Seminole contingent of the procession celebrating NMAI’s opening in 2004. The Seminole color guard follows closely behind. (Photo Nery Mejicano)

But repatriation is a work in progress. NMAI does a great job, but does not have control over every other Smithsonian Institution. Not everyone realizes how separately the individual museums of the Smithsonian Institution are managed.

This is why the Seminole Tribe’s Native American Graves Protection from Repatriation Act Committee has had to mount a #NoMoreStolenAncestors campaign aimed at the Smithsonian Institution. It’s not because we’ve cut off relations with the flagship museum of Indian Country; they are still fighting the good fight, and we think of them as a sister institution.

However, there’s work to be done elsewhere in the nation’s capital. Join in the fight to advocate for the return of all Seminole ancestors. Our work and your voice will not only help to address historic and current offenses to the Seminole Tribe but also those committed against fellow tribes and Indigenous peoples across the Indian world.