Why This Year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival Honors Indigenous Americans

The annual summer tradition will celebrate the National Museum of the American Indian and the people it honors

Native Americans celebrate on the National Mall
The 2004 opening of the National Museum of the American Indian drew an estimated 25,000 Native people from 500 different tribes. NMAI

In September of 2004, I flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C. for the grand opening of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). I fought my way through the crowds and stood near the Smithsonian Castle, where I watched a procession of thousands of Native people from across the Americas, many dressed in full traditional regalia, as they marched on the National Mall. The six-day event remains the largest gathering of Indigenous people that has ever occurred in Washington, D.C.

This year, our annual Folklife Festival—a decades-long Smithsonian summer tradition on the National Mall that celebrates the depth and diversity of culture—will honor the 20th anniversary of the museum’s opening, along with other milestones.

This year marks a century since the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted Native people dual citizenship to their tribal nations and to the United States. The legislation also gave Native Americans the right to vote, although discriminatory state laws prevented them from meaningfully doing so until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s also the 35th anniversary of the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which officially established NMAI, entrusting the Smithsonian with a vast collection of Native artifacts and ensuring our collaboration with tribal nations for the repatriation of Native remains and sacred objects.

Thirty years ago, the museum opened its first physical location in the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City. The Cultural Resources Center, which opened in Maryland a few years later, houses most of NMAI’s collections, with an emphasis on incorporating Indigenous practices into our collections care—including through the shared stewardship of items with their communities of origin. And of course, for the past 20 years, throngs of visitors have toured the flagship museum with its distinctive architecture that connects the building to its environment.

This summer’s program, “Indigenous Voices of the Americas,” pays tribute to these pieces of history and celebrates a museum that has always belonged to tribal nations. We’ll host Indigenous groups from Alaska to Chile, including dancers, musicians, athletes, chefs and visual artists. There will be a narrative stage where Native people can share their traditions and perspectives with diverse audiences. The festival will also extend into the American Indian museum, where visitors can explore exhibitions—including “Unbound,” a new installation featuring narrative art from the Great Plains—and eat at the newly renovated café.

I’m confident that this year’s festival will evoke those same moving feelings as when NMAI opened, with Native people from across the Western Hemisphere converging on the Mall to celebrate both a rich history and a powerful museum.

Subscribe to Smithsonian magazine now for just $19.99

This article is a selection from the June 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine