I love Washington, D.C—no, not the government; not the politicians—I love the buildings, the history, the sense of purpose, and the pride it generates that we are a strong, knit-together democracy of tolerant factions.
One of the newest additions to the scene on the mall is the National Museum of the American Indian, a key part of the Smithsonian Institution.
Kevin Gover, the director, says: “Please consider joining us to help bridge the gap between misconception and truth, shatter stereotypes, and forge a path of healing and understanding for all people, Native and non-Native alike.”
Here are a few examples of the museum’s work on producing factual work about three Native American icons portrayed very inaccurately in many popular publications.
Pocahontas, 1595-1617 – Historic Figure
Pocahontas was the nickname of a young Powhatan woman, born Matoaka, who is a pivotal figure in world history. Her father was the leader of the powerful Powhatan Confederacy, which dominated the coastal Atlantic region when English colonists established the James Fort (later Jamestown, Virginia) in 1607. Pocahontas often accompanied her father’s men to the fort on what they considered peaceful missions. But English colonists abducted her in 1613 and held her hostage for a year.
Pocahontas later married the colonist John Rolfe. In 1616 she traveled to London with him, her infant son, and an entourage of Powhatan. There she was received in the court of King James as the daughter of a “Mighty Prince Emperor.” Within a few years of her death, Pocahontas was well known to literate Europeans. Associated with the success of Jamestown—and a reminder of the deeply entangled history that Americans and American Indians share—Pocahontas has remained an indelible part of the American national consciousness for more than four hundred years.
Geronimo, 1823-1909 – Apache Leader
A symbol of Native American resistance and warrior spirit, Geronimo acquired a reputation as a fearless fighter while wreaking vengeance on Mexican troops who had murdered his wife, children, and mother. When U.S. miners, settlers, and soldiers intruded on Chiricahua Apache lands in Arizona, Geronimo and his people resisted the newcomers, rejected U.S. efforts to settle his people on reservations, and were denounced as murderous renegades by angry whites. Hunted relentlessly by U.S. soldiers and Apache scouts, Geronimo was finally persuaded to surrender in 1886, and was shipped as a prisoner of war to internment camps in Florida, Alabama, and finally Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In his later years, Geronimo converted to Christianity, sold autographed photos of himself, and rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. Despite his notoriety, the old warrior was never allowed to return to his tribal homeland. He died a prisoner of war at Fort Sill in 1909. Yet Geronimo’s legend as a warrior survived. In 2011, the U.S. military operation that eliminated Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was code-named “Geronimo.”
Sitting Bull, 1831-1890 – Hunkpapa Military, Religious and Political Leader
Sitting Bull was a stalwart defender of his people’s lands and lifeways, which were threatened by the intrusion of white settlers and miners on treaty-guaranteed tribal territories, and by U.S. government efforts to concentrate Indians on reservations. These violations provoked war in 1876, in which Sitting Bull and other war leaders masterminded the defeat of U.S. troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Faced by a massive U.S. military counteroffensive, Sitting Bull and his 4,000 followers fled to Canada, but returned in 1881. After two years as a prisoner of war, Sitting Bull settled on the Standing Rock Reservation in present-day North Dakota, where he became a successful farmer, and later toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Yet he remained a staunch critic of U.S. Indian policy, and became an apostle of the Ghost Dance—an Indian religious revival movement, which spooked white officials at the Standing Rock Reservation. In 1890, Indian police stormed his cabin, sparking a bloody shootout in which Sitting Bull was killed. He was buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota.
The National Museum of the American Indian is one of the many outstanding sites to visit in Washington, D.C.