A Visitor's Experience: The National Museum of the American Indian
An article by Bill Grandy
The National Museum of the American Indian is operated by the Smithsonian Museum and is focused on educating the public on the history and culture of the Native American people. The museum's goal is to promote the various aspects of Native American life, from art to literature to language. There are three locations: New York, Maryland and Washington, DC. As an avid museum lover, I decided to visit the Washington, DC location, near to where I live.
Enthusiasts of historical arms and armour might not think to visit such a museum, and indeed the subject had not even occurred to me when I first thought to go there. Throughout the museum one can find a few examples of stone weapons and tools, bow and arrows and war clubs used by various tribes, all of which are fascinating. However I was in for an extra-pleasant surprise on the top floor, where I came across an excellent display of European arms from the Renaissance and beyond. This section of the museum discussed the arrival of Europeans and the items they brought with them, and naturally weapons were among those items. This display was not merely two or three pieces, but instead contained dozens of well-preserved swords, daggers and firearms.
The DC location of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is located in the downtown area between 4th Street and Independence Avenue SW. It is Metro (DC's public transportation system) accessible, which is highly recommended because parking can be very difficult in downtown DC. Finding the building is quite easy due to the unique curved architecture. It clearly stands out next to the other gray, angular concrete buildings around it.
The beautiful thing about museums in the DC area is that they are all government funded, so there is no admission to enter. There is generally a line outside to get in, however, so be prepared for this, particularly in inclement weather.
Viewing the Collection
While there are many collections and exhibits throughout the museum, I will focus purely on the arms display. This is a very small portion of the museum as a whole, and yet serious enthusiasts of historical European arms and armour who find themselves in the area would be missing out if they did not make the trip here.
Many of the longswords had blades of the Oakeshott Type XIX style. These blades showed engraving along both sides of the ricasso and fuller area that look like groups of dots connected by a line, meeting in the center of the blade with a small cross. I have seen this decoration on some other blades of this type, and I had never given it much thought before. Fellow sword enthusiast Pamela Muir was with me and noted that these appeared to be depictions of rosaries, which was a very fascinating discovery.
The unfortunate aspect of the sword display, at least for the student of historic arms, is that there was not much thought into giving information on the individual pieces, given that this was not a priority for the museum overall. The display itself did not have the swords marked, and instead the information is in a book on a stand that is out of the way and not immediately obvious unless if you specifically look for it. The information in the book, like many museums, is not very detailed, giving a general name for the sword and basic date of when it was in use. The book gave a poor outline drawings each sword, which the viewer is supposed to use to figure out which sword is which.
The best part of this display is its simple explanation of the history of firearm usage in America from the Native American perspective. It shows how the 16th century Native Americans took "hand gonnes" from the Europeans and used them to raid Spanish settlements, and how in the 17th century King Philip's demands that the American Indians give up their firearms were ignored. It discusses how in the early 1800s the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, built a confederacy that united 32 Indian nations and some 15,000 armed warriors to fight the expansion of the white settlement in the Greater Ohio valley. These types of historical details may not be terribly in-depth, but they give a clear and easy to understand context to what went on in this country's rich history, and what these weapons meant to that culture.
Other Things of Note
In one display showing Native American beadwork, there is a saber that is housed in a leather sheath covered in beads. It is an interesting specimen, and unfortunately there is almost no description other than that it is a sword in sheath. The saber appears to be a civil war era weapon, though this time period is not my period of focus, so I could not know for certain.
It was again no surprise that the gift shop did not appear to have any books related to most of the arms and armor, although there was one book titled Indian Tomahawks & Frontiersmen Belt Axes by Daniel D. Hartzler and James A. Knowles. This is a possible resource for those interested in such arms.
The National Museum of the American Indian overall is somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand it has wonderful resources on Native American culture. However it is not, as many people expect, really a history museum. It is much more focused on the modern Native American experience, using history to show that the Native American culture is not a thing of the past, but rather a living tradition in the modern world. This should definitely be kept in mind when coming, as many people have expressed disappointment in it because they expected the focus to be on historical data.
The museum is really a serendipitous find for those interested in historical European arms, a place that most would not even think to visit for such a reason. The collection isn't that large when compared to museums that really focus on the subject, but it is still quite nice for what it is. I wouldn't recommend a person go far out of their way to visit this museum based on the weapons alone, but any enthusiast who happens to be in the area should absolutely check this museum out. The exhibit is definitely worth the effort, as the pieces here are very well preserved and are stunning examples of their kind.
About the Author
Bill Grandy is an instructor of Historical European Swordsmanship and sport fencing at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. He has held a strong passion (obsession?) for swords and swordsmanship for as long as he can remember. He admits that this passion comes from a youth spent playing Dungeons and Dragons, but he'll only admit that if there are no girls around.
Photographer: Bill Grandy