Native Americans: Everywhere and Nowhere

From the Americans exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Blog by Cassandra Ceballos, Programs Assistant, The Corps Network

On Sunday, February 18, I found myself striding purposefully into the Museum of the American Indian.

Although I’ve lived in D.C. for the past six months, this was my first trip to the museum. Despite my mestizo heritage, I never felt a connection to the curvilinear, limestone building. I'm not alone in this sentiment; fourteen years old, the museum has, as stated in The Washington Post, “struggled to find an audience, and settle on a consistent approach to how it tells stories and presents information.”

Once inside, I ascended the steps of the grand staircase, two at a time, barely able to contain my excitement. The reason for my visit was simple: the Americans exhibit. Unveiled on January 18, 2018, the exhibit will run until January 2022.

The Washington Post calls Americans "an exhibition that examines how images of native people have been fundamental to American culture, commerce, and government."

Dichotomy exists between how this country uses Native American culture and our discourse on Native Americans. It is increasingly acknowledged that the United States government and institutions took steps to eradicate indigenous people. So why do we idolize imagery and names associated with Native Americans? We are surrounded by Native American influences and examples of the appropriation of Native cultures, yet, according to a 2015 study, Manifesting Destiny: Re/Presentations of Indigenous Peoples in K–12 U.S. History Standards, nearly 90 percent of curriculums in the United States do not refer to the existence of Native Americans after 1900.

I understand intimately the erasure of indigenous people from society's view. Read below to learn about my experience at the museum.

Native Americans: Everywhere & Nowhere
The sign below welcomes visitors as they enter the exhibit. I was immediately struck by the economic perspective invoked in the first sentence: "nearly all that can be named or sold has at some point been named or sold with an Indian word or image." Commerce lies at the center of the United States' national identity, and thus does the Indian. If you doubt the truth of this statement, uncertainty vanishes when you walk into the main gallery.


Hundreds of meticulously numbered images and items covered the walls of the oblong gallery. In the middle of the gallery, two touch tables allowed visitors to learn more about an item using its number. Cigarettes, motorcycles, sports teams and merchandise, motor oil, magazine covers, cornmeal, city insignias, whiskey, soda, butter, candy, movies, toys, military fighter jets and torpedoes… a motorcycle?

I spent over an hour walking back and forth from different images to the touch tables, reading more about the Tootise Pop wrapper, American Spirits’ packaging, a giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, and the RCA Indian-Head Television Test pattern from 1939, just to name a few.



More than half of the other people milling about the exhibit were white, about evenly split between older people and young families. It being a Sunday afternoon, this made sense, I suppose. While the gallery was filled with the sounds of chatter and movement, this melody melted in the side rooms.

Five side rooms extend off the gallery, three on the left and two on the right. The first two rooms on either side contained “stories”: The Invention of Thanksgiving, Queen of America, The Removal Act, and The Indians Win. Each one briefly examines the history of how and why Native American images and names are so prolific.

Walking through each room, the spaces were very quiet, and the mood reverent. I took care to read all the information and noticed that everyone around me was doing the same.

In the Indian Removal Act room I was greeted with the words, "Even today the Indian Removal Act remains one of the boldest and most breathtaking laws in American history." Which is a bit disappointing, when you think more deeply about the choice of wording. Boldest and breathtaking? Why not call it what it was: atrocious, unhuman, devastating.

After making my way through the “story rooms,” I entered the final, fifth room. The sign outside read “Americans Explained.” In stark contrast to the first four rooms, this space contained very little color or imagery. The entire room was white and brightly lit. On the wall to the left of the entrance were four large blocks containing text, the last of which I placed at the start of this blog, cut into two pieces.


View larger


Videos of individuals, diverse in age and background, played on the wall opposite of the text blocks. Each short film featured one person talking into the camera, describing their reaction to the exhibit, what they learned and felt along the way, what Native American imagery and narrative meant to them.

Dozens of postcards filled the wall space to the right of the film strip. These were messages left from previous visitors. Blank postcards sat in the center of the room, and persons were invited to write their own notes and deposit them into bins for a chance to be displayed.


View larger


Prior to exploring the fifth room, I was a bit underwhelmed by the exhibit. While the hundreds of images in the main gallery elicited provocative feelings, and the stories in the side rooms offered a nuanced perspective, the overall effect left me wondering about the curator’s overall goal. However, upon entering the fifth room, I finally understood. Everything encountered thus far, all the images, the first four “story rooms,” and the entire layout of the exhibit, suddenly made sense.

Representations of Native Americans from the nonindigenous point of view are stuck in a Machiavellian time-warp. Native Americans images and names are in our pantry, on our televisions, our bodies, our street corners, our money, in our mouths. It’s awe-inspiring, really. And overwhelming.

For where are they, the Native Americans? How is it that they appear everywhere, and exist nowhere?

“Americans” does not attempt to answer that question. Rather, it attempts to get you questioning.

All in all, my first visit to the exhibit reinforced what I already knew, as well as taught me much more. This last room, “Americans Explained,” hastily visited in the final minutes before the museum closed for the day, was by far my favorite part. Reading others’ responses on the cards and hearing their thoughts through the videos allowed me to better understand the exhibit’s purpose and approach.


A Time to Discuss

Following my first exploration, I read several reviews and news articles about the exhibit, all of which are cited at the bottom of this blog. The new information lead me to visit the museum once more in the month of February. My curiosity immediately paid off; previously unnoticed, a clear bin mounted to the wall immediately to my right enticed me closer.

The bin contained about nine large, spiral books: a "Gallery Discussion Guide." How had I missed this vital piece to the puzzle?

I flipped through the pages of the book and found it to be utterly remarkable.

The book began with an exploration of the gallery area. The first pages asked visitors to look around the room and identify familiar objects, as well as objects connected to the government, such as city seals and military aircraft.

View larger


The remainder of the book accompanied the stories featured in each of the four side rooms. Individuals are encouraged to make their way through each room, noticing symbolism and learning about the history and origin of how these stories came to be told, rather than another version.

Additionally, readers are challenged with thinking critically about the implications of these stories, both for the founding of the United States and the lives of Native Americans. 


Americans Online

An interactive website allows visitors to explore some of the images and objects on display at the museum. Users click and drag the webpage to search through, selecting artifacts or “stories” individually to learn more. 

Unfortunately, you’re unable to search for an item on the website using the ID numbers in the museum. Perhaps this feature could be added, so visitors could go back to items that were of particular interest, even after they’ve left the exhibit.

The stories from the exhibit - The Invention of Thanksgiving, Queen of America, The Removal Act, and The Indians Win - are also on the website in a modified version. I encourage you to use the links above to explore the stories, especially if you’re unable to visit the exhibit in D.C.

Below you will find several links to reviews and news articles about “Americans,” so that you may learn more about the curators’ intent.


For your consideration

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  • Native Americans comprise less than one percent of the U.S. population, yet Native American imagery and names seem to be everywhere in our culture. Why do you think this is the case? How is that Native Americans can be so present and so absent in American life?
  • The history of the United States is checkered with the mistreatment of Native Americans. Through legislation and policy, the U.S. government once made efforts to destroy native cultures and assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. So why, especially in the past 100 years, do you think Native American imagery has been seen as a marketing tool? 
  • The names of half the states in the U.S. are derived from Native American terms. In your own community or region, are there towns, streets or geographic features with Native American names? What do you know about the people or cultures behind these names? 
  • In what ways is the use of Native American imagery and names problematic? In what instances might it be considered "appropriate" or respectful? 
  • In what ways do imagery, language or cultural traditions associated with other minority groups appear in mainstream U.S. culture? In what ways might the assimilation of these cultural artifacts be okay, and in what instances might it become exploitative or offensive? 
  • Why do you think that certain stories are told and others not?  In one section of the Americans exhibit entitled, “Queen of America,” which is about Pocahontas (you can learn more here), a frieze is presented, which depicts the story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.  In this frieze, Pocahontas is “defying her father and saving Captain John Smith.”  It is acknowledged, however, that it is an incident that historians doubt happened at all.  Why do you think this particular story was told?
  • Do you know of any Native American “hidden history” figures?


These resources, and much more, can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative resource library.

Dingfelder, Sadie. “Why there’s Redskins merch at the National Museum of the American Indian.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Jan. 2018,

Fonseca, Felicia. “New exhibit examines Native American imagery in U.S. culture.” The Columbian, Associated Press, 25 Feb. 2018,

Kennicott, Philip. “Review | The American Indian museum comes of age by tackling this country's lies.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Jan. 2018,

“Looking at Indians, white Americans see themselves.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 10 Feb. 2018,

Loria, Michael. “Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian.” On Tap Magazine, 27 Feb. 2018,

Miranda, Carolina A. “Its not just Chief Wahoo. Why American Indian images became potent, cartoonish advertising symbols.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 29 Jan. 2018,

Rothstein, Edward. "'Americans' Review: Detailed Portrait of a People." Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 17 Jan 2018,

Schjeldahl, Peter. “America as Indian Country.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2018,

Shear, Sarah B., et al. “Manifesting Destiny: Re/Presentations of Indigenous Peoples in K–12 U.S. History Standards.” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 43, no. 1, Feb. 2015, pp. 68–101., doi:10.1080/00933104.2014.999849.

Smith, David. “Trump doesnt understand history: Native Americans tell their story in DC.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Feb. 2018,


This Land is My Land? The Legacy of Early Interactions Between Native Americans and Colonists


The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative – supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – seeks to address bias and structural racism in the conservation workforce and help increase the employment of young adults of color in public lands management and conservation-related careers.

As part of this initiative, we aim to provide information to help people develop a foundation to understand the history, policies, practices and societal dynamics that have shaped our country and the conservation field. This blog will explore the relationships between Native Americans and the first permanent British settlements in the present-day United States. This week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving – a holiday built around the lore of peaceful and mutually-beneficial relationships between Native Americans and Pilgrims – we feel it’s important to add our voice to the growing conversation about the inaccuracies of these stories.

The British – who would later become the first “American citizens” – viewed the indigenous people as subordinate and uncivilized due to their nomadic lifestyles and “underutilization” of the land. The settlers’ hunger for expansion drove them to pursue goals of eradication. They took actions which displaced native peoples and redefined tribes’ relationships with ancestral lands. Over a period of 300 years, from 1609 to 1900, Native American tribes went from inhabiting the entire land area, to living on specifically defined “native reservations.” Long before the founding of the United States, countless acres were taken through illegal treaties, trickery, and bloodshed.

These preliminary encounters between Native Americans and colonists laid the foundation for a tradition of land grabbing that repeated itself through the Revolutionary War of 1776, and later through policies of the United States federal government. The phenomenon of taking land from the Native Americans under the banner of supremacy is highly relevant to the Moving Forward Initiative. European settlement of North America altered the way people had interacted with the land for millennia, and proved devastating for indigenous communities and their people.

The structural dynamics responsible for the erosion of indigenous land sovereignty continues to the present. Today, exposure to environmental degradation is a concern for Native Americans residing on reservations. However, barriers, including explicit and implicit biases, have historically prevented native voices from participating fully in conservation and preservation discussions. Meanwhile, their historical and sacred sites are celebrated as treasures of America’s “public lands.” 


Native Americans arrived in the Americas about 15,000 years ago. It’s difficult to quantify the population of indigenous people inhabiting North America prior to European arrival in the late 15th century; estimates range from 4 million to over 100 million. What is certain, however, is that their numbers greatly dwindled following contact with white settlers.

The greatest threat to Native life came from diseases, such as measles and small pox, unknowingly carried by Europeans. These diseases spread farther and faster than Europeans themselves. Despite this fact, it’s important to examine the direct impact of European imperialism and colonization on the indigenous people of the present day United States. In the Americas, modern society was built on land-grabbing.


European Contact Pre-1600s: Glory, God and Gold

European empires began exploring the New World over 500 years ago, laying claim to land and riches for their respective crowns. Dutch and French settlers established mutually-beneficial trading relationships with indigenous people in present-day Canada and the Ohio River Valley. In contrast, the Spanish initially treated the native peoples of South and Central America as enemies to be eradicated in order to take control of the region’s natural bounty of gold. However, the Spanish turned toward a policy of assimilation through Christianity in the early 1500s. By the mid-16th century, Spanish priests were successfully “missionizing” the native people in established communities. Much intermingling took place between the two groups through marriage and reproduction, creating a majority population of mestizos.


The Coronation of Powhatan - John Cadsby Chapman (1835)

The Settlement of Jamestown

While the British were nearly a century behind other European countries in colonizing North America, they did not follow their counterparts’ policy of missionizing. Britain created its first permanent settlement at Jamestown in 1609, primarily as a temporary venture to amass wealth. Most of the early colonists came from upper-class English families and arrived heavily backed by private investors. In contrast, Pilgrims formed the colony at Plymouth in 1620 not for riches, but to escape religious persecution in England. Although differing in motivation and social organization, the English settlers at Jamestown and Plymouth both engaged destructively with indigenous peoples

The English at Jamestown and the Algonquian-speaking tribes inhabiting the area, led by Chief Wahunsunacawh, lived in relative peace for the first few years after English settlement. Unfamiliar with the Algonquian language, or simply unwilling to learn, the white settlers used the name “Powhatan” for Wahunsunacawh and called the tribes of his kingdom “Powhatans.” Neither group desired military conflict, as fighting would distract from other goals, mainly wealth accumulation for the English and maintenance of chiefdom for the Powhatans.

Conflict arose at the end of 1609 when the English found themselves without enough food. Attempts to raid the Powhatans’ food stores proved largely unsuccessful; nearly all of the settlers died of starvation in the winter of 1609-1610. With supplies and numbers depleted to almost nothing, and the sobering realization that Virginia would not yield the same mineral riches as discovered by the Spanish in Latin America, the Jamestown settlement abandoned the colony and sailed back to England in 1610. But, while journeying down the James River, the group encountered Lord De La Warr, sent from England with ships of supplies.


The Anglo-Powhatan Wars

The arrival of De La Warr changed the relationship between the English colonists and the native people inhabiting present day Virginia. De La Warr, experienced in warfare from his time spent colonizing Ireland for the British, soon took control of Jamestown and launched aggressive military assaults against Chief Powhatan and the Powhatan people, known as the First Anglo-Powhatan wars. The series of conflicts temporarily ended in 1613 when John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan.

Although peace negotiations appeared temporarily successful, skirmishes continued between the English and native peoples as settlers continued to push westward. Opechancanough, who assumed leadership of the Powhatans following the first Anglo-Powhatan War, orchestrated a major surprise attack on English settlements in the spring of 1622, inciting the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. This maneuver killed nearly one-third of the settlers in Virginia. For the next decade, the English continuously attacked and raided North American settlements, greatly depleting the number of indigenous people living in the area. When a peace agreement was finally reached in 1632, the Powhatans found themselves permanently displaced from the present-day Chesapeake Peninsula.


This map indicates the domains of New England’s native inhabitants in 1670, a few years before King Philip’s War. Image credit: "English Settlements in America" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0. - Via Khan Academy

The Pilgrims

As Opechancanough prepared to launch his ambush in Virginia, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts in 1620 and were met by Natives belonging to the Wampanoag Nation, which contained numerous distinct tribes.

At first, certain sects of Wampanoag and the Pilgrims worked together under Chief Massasoit; the tribes needed allies for defending their territory from rival groups, and the Pilgrims desperately needed help learning how to survive in their new environment. Not all Native Americans supported an alliance with the Pilgrims, namely the Massachusetts and Narragansetts, as they saw the settlers’ occupation as a threat to their way of life.

An uneasy peace between Natives and Pilgrims lasted for over forty years until Metacomet succeeded Massasoit as chief of the Wampanoag people in 1662. Metacomet, similar to his Massachusetts and Narragansetts counterparts, viewed the increasing number of settlers as hazardous to Native land.

Cultural differences and misunderstandings played a large role in the conflicts over land. When treaties were signed between the Pilgrims and Natives, the Pilgrims sought to own the land through privately held property rights. Meanwhile, the Natives thought the Pilgrims simply wanted permission to hunt or farm the land, as Native property values centered around communal use by and for the group.

Throughout the 1660s, tensions rose sharply between the two cultures as Native American sovereignty waned due to the loss of land from European encroachment. In 1671, Metacomet, whom the Pilgrims called King Phillip, was ordered to the town of Taunton where the settlers forced him to sign a new peace treaty. History tells us that a humiliated Metacomet returned to his tribe and commenced organizing an inter-tribal resistance against the colonists.

The details of the events taking place in the four years following the incident at Taunton in 1671 remain unclear. However, in the Spring of 1675, all-out warfare commenced between Metacomet’s faction of tribes and the Pilgrims. Known as King Phillip’s War, fighting only lasted fourteen months, but brought unspeakable damage and loss of life. The war ended in August of 1676 when the British beheaded Chief Metacomet.

Of the roughly 4,000 individuals killed over the fourteen-month period, three-quarters were Native Americans. The handful of Natives surviving either fled west, were executed, or sold into slavery. Similar to the outcomes of the Second Anglo-Powhatan war, this defeat of the New England indigenous populations essentially ended their inhabitance of the New England region.


The Lasting Consequences

Between 1700 and 1775, the British population, including their enslaved persons, increased ten-fold, from 250,000 to approximately 2.5 million. An expanding population requires expanded land holdings on which to settle.

The history of warfare, trickery and misunderstandings outlined above are not unique to Jamestown and Plymouth. Beginning with Jamestown, a 350-year pattern of near-constant conflict brought all but a handful of native lands under the jurisdiction of the United States. Over the course of the nineteen and twentieth centuries, a series of legislative actions and legal mandates attempted to distribute, and in many cases, shrink, the land held by indigenous peoples. Of the 2.3 billion acres composing the United States, Native American reservations comprise approximately 56 million acres, or less than 3 percent of total land mass.


For Your Consideration 

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  1. Read this opinion on Native American Heritage Month by a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation. What are your feelings on the observance of cultural and ethnic recognition “holidays?” What is their purpose? How are they useful, and in what ways might they be problematic?  
  2. What do you know about the indigenous people of your state or region? What do you know about their culture, traditions or beliefs?
  3. Spend some time on this interactive map which chronicles the loss of Native American land from 1784 to the present. You can click on specific tracks of land to learn when and how it was seceded, or designated a reservation. As you familiarize yourself with the map, what stands out to you?
    • Research: Were there any Native American settlements in your town or city? What became of these places and people? Where are they today? 
  4. What do you know about the relationship between the U.S. Government and Tribal Governments?
  5. In American schools, many of us grew up learning “sanitized” versions of historical events and inaccuracies about Native peoples and their cultures. What can be done to correct some of these past teachings and increase awareness? What can schools do today to better educate students?
  6. For Corps working on Public Lands: How, if in any way, does this narrative conflict with the traditional narrative surrounding public lands? What role can you play in ensuring an honest and holistic conversation about the historical formation of America’s public lands system?