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On a recent fall day, I took my toddler to a cemetery. It wasn’t just any graveyard; it was the Congressional Cemetery, home to the final resting places of political envoys through the centuries. It was my recent discovery of the app, Guide to Indigenous DC, that led me here to see the Lummi Nation totem poles, a memorial to all of those who lost their lives in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and to see the graves of the 36 Native American delegates, dignitaries, and advocates who had represented 12 tribal nations in Washington before being laid to rest here.
Before it became the nation’s capital, the Washington, D.C. area was home to more than a dozen Native American tribal nations. The capital city was built upon the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank (or Anacostan) peoples, with the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples living nearby.
The intersection of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, leading out to the Chesapeake Bay, was rich in natural resources. Fish were plentiful at the “head of tidewater,” the forests were full of wild game, and the floodplains were fertile for crops.
Before European colonizers wiped out many tribal peoples through disease, war, and slavery, the region was a major crossroads for native trade and culture. In fact, the name “Nacotchtank” comes from the word for “a town of traders.”
However, D.C.’s Indigenous roots aren’t just a matter of the historical record – they’re part of the capital city’s identity today, in large and small ways.
“D.C. was built on Indian land and indigenous homeland, and there is a very strong history and ongoing contemporary indigenous presence in this city,” says Dr. Elizabeth Rule, a member of the Chickasaw nation and assistant director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy at the George Washington University. Dr. Rule designed and developed the Guide to Indigenous DC app, which was produced in collaboration with the American Indian and Alaska Native Tourism Association. The app is available in the iTunes app store and online. It highlights 17 historical and cultural Native American landmarks in the U.S. capital – from the sites of protests to artistic and cultural attractions – that reveal Washington’s deep roots in indigenous history and culture.
Perhaps the most prominent and best-known Indigenous site in D.C. is the National Museum of the American Indian. A stop on the tour , the museum brings together thousands of Indigenous objects from Smithsonian’s collections in 250,000 square feet of exhibit space. The “Return to a Native Place” exhibition focuses specifically upon the Algonquian peoples of the Chesapeake region. The museum offers much more than historical artifacts, though, and houses community gathering places, events, a theater, and an arts and crafts shop. The Mitsitam Native Foods Café, which gives a taste of Indigenous food and cooking techniques in seasonal menus, is one of my favorite restaurants in the city. (Don’t pass up the rabbit stew!)
National Museum of the American Indian
But there are other, more subtle undercurrents of Indigenous history throughout the District of Columbia, as this app shows. Sometimes, the capital’s rich and complicated history exists just beneath the surface; other times, it’s always been out in the open for anyone who knew to look.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked or driven over the Dumbarton Bridge (another tour stop of note), extending over Rock Creek Park between Georgetown and Dupont Circle. But I never realized that the arches of the bridge are lined with 56 busts of Chief Kicking Bear, a Sioux leader and warrior who was part of a Native American delegation to Washington, D.C., in 1896.
Theodore Roosevelt Island (tour stop #2), a favorite spot for picnickers, was originally Analostan Island, home to Native Americans fleeing from invading Europeans. The Nacotchtank people, who lived in the capital long before it was “discovered” by colonists, were forced to move their camps to the relative isolation of the island in the 1660s – more than a century before the United States formed.
At the United States Marine Corps War Memorial (tour stop #1), which honors fallen Marines, one of the six men depicted lifting the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima is Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American born on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona.
Other sites on the tour have no physical markers to show their role in Indigenous history, but visiting these places is no less powerful. Visitors standing on the National Mall can close their eyes and picture the Native American leaders and people who came together in talks, hearings, protests, and demonstrations over the decades to champion everything from human rights and health to sustainable resource development.
One such tour “stop” commemorates the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in November, 1972 to protest treaties that had been broken by the U.S. government.
And the Indigenous Peoples March in January, 2019, which moved from the Department of the Interior along Constitution Avenue to the Lincoln Memorial, called attention to pressing issues such as gun violence, mental health, women's rights, political representation, environmental protections, and more. Walking along the same path, you can still feel the sense of urgency these demonstrations raised.
Statues of Native leaders are also stationed in the U.S. Capitol, alongside paintings, sculptures, and murals of Native American members of Congress and historical scenes. The Department of the Interior contains murals, created as part of the Depression-era New Deal, celebrating indigenous history and culture. The Kiowa painter James Auchiah, or Tse Koy Ate, was one of the celebrated artists of these works of art.
U.S. General Services Administration Fine Arts Collection
The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University is home to a more modern style of mural, with a spray-painted tribute to Piscataway history and culture stretching along the wall.
The artist behind that mural, Joerael Numina, was struck by the rich Indigenous history of the region – but even more than that, he was reminded that the District is still home to a vibrant Indigenous culture. Today, more than 4,000 Native Americans live in Washington, D.C.
“It wasn’t the Piscataway that were here, the Piscataway still live here,” Numina said. “A lot of people think, in the history books they’re taught – the people who were once here – but they still exist.”
And there is even more Indigenous culture and history still to be unveiled in D.C.
On November 11, 2020 – Veterans’ Day – the National Native American Veterans Memorial will be dedicated on the National Mall. It honors more than 31,000 Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Alaska Natives serving on active duty in the U.S. military, as well as the 140,000 Indigenous veterans who offered up their lives to protect their country.
The National Museum of the American Indian houses one of the world’s largest and most diverse collections of its kind. The museum gives visitors from around the world the sense and spirit of Native America.