Top 10 Things to See at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Gardens

Moon Woman and Mountain Bird welcome the sunrise and watch the sunset at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Hunkered down in the lush meadows of their garden home on the south side of the museum, the contemporary clay sculptures are now the “Elders” of this Native American museum. The installation is christened “Always Becoming.”

Their creator, artist Nora Noranjo-Morse (Santa Clara Pueblo), built the sculptures on-site in the summer of 2007. They are a mud mixture (of soil, sand, straw, and water), clay, stone, black locust wood, and pigments.

Reminiscent of the hulking boulders seen on the museum grounds, the clay sculptures demonstrate how humans interact with nature. Noranjo-Morse said these living art pieces represent growth, transformation, and Native peoples’ relationship with the land.

“Each sculpture speaks to the idea of that a sense of self and of place are important.”

Nora Noranjo-Morse

The artist and her family visit her artistic creations each year to witness the changes. They have aged gracefully through the rain, wind, snow, and ice that mark the changing seasons in the nation’s capital.

Living Sculptures

Moon Woman and Mountain Bird are now deemed “tribal elders.” This interpersonal relationship is how the older generation hands down its culture and traditions. Stewardship is key to Native people’s relationship with their world.

As the artist explains, “They represent a past from which we continue to learn. The question becomes, what do we do with this knowledge from the past, and how do we take care of what we have with conscious grace and purpose?

Native Landscape

Signs scattered around the grounds remind visitors that they have entered a “Native place.” It should be treated with respect, so visitors are requested not to climb on the boulders on rocks. The museum faces the U.S. Capitol and the U.S. Botanic Garden.

I explored the different types of gardens for over an hour. Through their plants and trees, the Smithsonian recreates the habitats of forest, meadow, wetlands, and croplands to show the restored environments of the Chesapeake Bay and Piedmont regions from four hundred years ago.

Architectural Style

Follow the curving paths around the raised garden beds that mimic the curving design of the museum. “Initially designed by Native American architect Douglas Cardinal, the building’s distinctive curvilinear form, evoking a wind-sculpted rock formation, grew out of his early work and formed the basis for the overall design,” according to the Smithsonian.

Huge bolders sit at the entrance of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The exterior features buff-colored limestone because it resembles natural rock. The museum’s main entrance faces the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. The symbolism continues in the exterior landscaping which is considered an extension of the museum.

Diversity of Plants

According to Smithsonian Gardens, there are 33,000 plants of approximately 150 species that are native to the Piedmont. They are ethnobotanical, “and can be used for food, fiber, dye, medicine, ceremonies, building materials,” according to the Smithsonian.

Upland Hardwood Forest

Inhale the fresh air when you stand in the upload hardwood forest. Feel the father trees look down on you. This grouping of trees and shrubs was nurtured in the dense woodlands of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains and the local Piedmont region.

Scaling the Atlantic coastal plain and the Appalachians, this hardwood forest represents the elders of the region.

Forests are our lungs, covering approximately 40% of the earth’s surface.

“Indigenous people serve as stewards of the forests, protecting not only the resources needed to continue their traditions, but also the survival of future generations.”


Walk into a Monet painting when you cross the bridge to the National Native American Veterans Memorial (NAVM). Opened in 2020, this blissful place is tucked away in the corner of the museum property. This is where I recommend that you sit down on the bench, gaze through the circle, and meditate on the changing Natives’ museum. This is a meditation corner.

Located on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the NAVM is a spiritual haven. It honors the service of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and native Hawaiians. However, it is also an artistic statement.


This was probably the most exciting section of the gardens as I could see the produce that would be turned into food. The corn crop yields ears ready to pick. A succulent tomato was ready to be picked. Bobs of cotton fluff floated on the wind.

I learned that 60% of today’s diet is derived from foods native to the Americas, such as corn, potatoes, chili peppers, quinoa, and YES chocolate.

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian raises produce that can be used in foods served at the museum’s restaurants.

Notably, there are no chemical pesticides used in the gardens. “The gardens deploy hundreds of ladybugs in the garden as an organic pest control.”

Eastern Meadows

I think this was my favorite habitat at the museum. Breathe in deeply to smell the wildflowers, shrubs, and grasses in the meadow habitat. Apparently, many of these plants were used for medical purposes. “They give thanks for the plants they harvest by offering tobacco, song, or prayer.”

Meadows represents an ecosystem covering 19% of the earth’s surface. They help to regulate and clean rivers, streams, and lakes. Many of the plants are perennials that lay dormant over the seasons.


There are four stone “cardinal direction markers” that follow the east-west and north-south axes of the building. The Smithsonian procured the boulders from four corners of the Western hemisphere: Hawaii (West), Canada (north), Maryland (east), and Chile (south).

The ties to Natives’ elders are symbolized by the 40 boulders placed throughout the grounds. Known as the “Grandfather Rocks,” these boulders came from Canada.

Reflection Zone

I am lucky because I can visit with these tribal elders throughout the year in my solitary daybreak walks on the grounds of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

You notice different things when you slow down to look carefully and examine what can be commonplace. I am fascinated by how this Smithsonian museum honors the relationship between humans and nature.

The words of Past National Laureate Poet Jo Harjo tumble in my head, like the chant of a drumbeat. “Remember the earth whose skin you are: Red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth, brown earth, we are the earth.” Spending time in nature helps us to step away from the world’s buzzing noise and enter into communion with nature.

“Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them, listen to them.”

Jo Harjo

I bend over to sniff a wildflower then raise my eyes to look at the bright sunlight feeding the plants and trees. Although we are not standing in a circle, I am part of them and they are part of me.

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    September 9, 2023 at 6:53 am

    I so agree with that quote by Jo Harjo. Only if we could involve ourselves even a little with other living beings, the world will be a better place.

    • Terri
      September 9, 2023 at 1:56 pm

      I highly recommend Jo Harjo’s poetry. She is a wise woman and elder.

  • Adéle Land
    September 9, 2023 at 6:54 am

    Sounds like a wonderful place to visit! I’ll definitely have it on my list for next time I’m in DC.

    • Terri
      September 9, 2023 at 1:55 pm

      I hope you get to visit DC!

  • Goya Galeotta
    September 9, 2023 at 7:27 am

    This looks like such a serene place – I’ll definitely add it to the list for when I’m in DC.
    Thanks for sharing Terri!

    • Terri
      September 9, 2023 at 1:55 pm

      We all need a place to reflect and rest when exploring the National Mall and the Smithsonian museums. These gardens are a treasure.

  • Laureen Lund
    September 9, 2023 at 10:08 am

    We were blown away by this museum last spring. I can’t wait to visit it again. The thoughtful presentation, astonishing architecture and gorgeous gardens made for such an experience. Great post!!

    • Terri
      September 9, 2023 at 1:54 pm

      I am so excited you could visit this museum during your trip to Washington DC. I think it is remarkable. I also wanted to make sure that visitors realize the education continues outside the museum walls.

  • Jasmina
    September 9, 2023 at 2:50 pm

    It sounds like a great place to visit. I really hope I can visit DC as soon as possible!

    • Terri
      September 10, 2023 at 6:00 am

      I hope you can visit soon!

  • Brittany
    September 9, 2023 at 3:48 pm

    Woah, I can’t believe I have never heard of this Smithsonian Museum before! It looks like such a cool spot. Your posts always make me want to plan a trip back to DC!

    • Terri
      September 10, 2023 at 6:00 am

      Hahaha you definitely should plan an East Coast visit to see Washington DC. But you need at least 3 days!

  • Rachel - Rays of Adventure
    September 9, 2023 at 5:55 pm

    This looks like a really interesting museum to visit. I love learning about new things at museums so I know I’d find this one fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

    • Terri
      September 10, 2023 at 5:59 am

      I highly recommending visiting this Smithsonian museum!

  • Jenn | By Land and Sea
    September 9, 2023 at 6:15 pm

    I had no idea this was in DC. Sounds like a really interesting spot!

    • Terri
      September 10, 2023 at 5:59 am

      I think a lot of Washingtonians don’t know this garden exists. It is a treasure.

  • Ella
    September 9, 2023 at 10:31 pm

    Very intriguing and unique. What a calm place!

    • Terri
      September 10, 2023 at 5:58 am

      It is a bastion of serenity. I love to meditate here.

  • Anja
    September 10, 2023 at 3:52 am

    I really love your garden posts, Informal gardens are one of my top thing to visit when I travel. I get a lot of inspiration for my own garden which I am slowly but surely growing at home

    • Terri
      September 10, 2023 at 5:57 am

      Thank you! I love to visit gardens whenever I travel. I am also lucky to live in Washington DC where many of the museums include gardens to visit.

  • Irma R Franco
    September 10, 2023 at 7:19 am

    Wonderful ! You Are DC’s Best Ambassador!

    • Terri
      September 11, 2023 at 5:33 am

      Awww thank you!

  • Pam
    September 10, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    What a cool museum! I love that they were committed to their mission in all the little details of the museum not just the major exhibits. Your posts always make me want to visit DC!

    • Terri
      September 11, 2023 at 5:33 am

      It is a remarkable museum. Come visit DC!

  • Emily
    September 23, 2023 at 4:21 am

    I never knew these gardens existed! I’ve heard so many good things about DC. Will add these to the list!

    • Terri
      September 23, 2023 at 4:53 pm

      The Smithsonian museums offer so many wonderful gardens to explore!