The entangled history of non-Native Americans and American Indians has shaped and defined who we are as a people

Images of American Indians are embedded in Americans’ everyday lives and have been since before the American Revolution. What other nation in the world is so fascinated by one segment of its society? And what can we learn about ourselves and our history by thinking about why? One of the curators of the “Americans,” opening January 18 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., gives a brief introduction to a few of the ideas behind the major new exhibition.

In the exhibition
In the exhibition "Americans," a hall of images called Indians Everywhere leads to galleries that explore the national stories we have created around certain events in our shared history. "Americans" opens January 18 at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for the National Museum of the American Indian)

Most succinctly, Americans is an exhibition that sheds light on the nature of the American people’s and American Indians’ relationship. It insists that non-Native Americans and American Indians share an entangled history, and that, in many ways, this history is the history of the United States. This is not an exhibition whose main messages are going to creep up on anyone. They are sharply stated. We hope they will resonate deeply with visitors and stay with them long after they've left the museum.

The exhibition begins in a bold, even audacious, manner. “Indians Everywhere” foregrounds the "white noise" of American life: the images of American Indians that are indisputably embedded in our everyday lives. Americans asks, “What other nation in the world is so fascinated, if not preoccupied, by one group of its people that it is constantly reproducing images of them?” For us, the images in “Indians Everywhere” represent a phenomenon that demands exploration. This phenomenon began with the revoluionary generation and has continued, unflaggingly, to the present day. It is the tip of an iceberg whose very large, supporting mass is the history that Americans and American Indians share, and that has contributed significantly to shaping and defining who we are as a people.

In each of the three historic events the exhibition presents—the life of Pocahontas, the Trail of Tears, and the Battle of Little Bighorn—we look at the event's larger historical significance, its intricacies and complexities. In doing so, we see how Americans were caught up in that event, intellectually and emotionally; how it entered and has lingered in American national consciousness; and how, over time, it has impacted American popular culture. We hope that the central question of this exhibition, which we have been impelled to ask, will stir you to explore the deeply entangled history that lies behind these images.