The National Museum of the American Indian is the sixteenth museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It is the first national museum dedicated to the preservation, study, and exhibition of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of Native Americans. Established by an act of Congress in 1989 (amendment in 1996), the museum works in collaboration with the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere to protect and foster their cultures by reaffirming traditions and beliefs, encouraging contemporary artistic expression, and empowering the Indian voice.
The museum's extensive collections, assembled largely by George Gustav Heye (1874–1957), encompass a vast range of cultural material—including more that 800,000 works of extraordinary aesthetic, religious, and historical significance, as well as articles produced for everyday, utilitarian use. The collections span all major culture areas of the Americas, representing virtually all tribes of the United States, most of those of Canada, and a significant number of cultures from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Chronologically, the collections include artifacts from Paleo-Indian to contemporary arts and crafts. The museum's holdings also include film and audiovisual collections, paper archives, and a photography archive of more than 300,000 images depicting both historic and contemporary Native American life.
The National Museum of the American Indian comprises three facilities, each designed following consultations between museum staff and Native peoples. In all of its activities, the National Museum of the American Indian acknowledges the diversity of cultures and the continuity of cultural knowledge among indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and Hawai'i, incorporating Native methodologies for the handling, documentation, care, and presentation of collections. NMAI actively strives to find new approaches to the study and representation of the history, materials, and cultures of Native peoples.