Native Americans aren’t often depicted as equals in art throughout the U.S. Capitol, a building that is at the heart of representative democracy and the notion that all Americans share the same rights.
But developers of a new app are hoping to change that narrative.
The Guide to Indigenous DC app, which now has more than 600 downloads, takes users on a nine-mile self-guided tour of 17 city sites connected to Native American history.
Created by George Washington University’s AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy, it’s designed for visitors to Washington as well as an educational tool for teachers across the country.
“We hear about Founding Fathers, construction of the White House and all of these institutions that we call American,” said Elizabeth Rule, assistant director of the center. “And oftentimes native people are left out of that narrative. So I hope that the app and the information there will re-center native people in that telling. American history is Native American history and vice versa.”
The tour starts at the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial and discusses Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American who helped in the iconic raising of the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima.
The 16 other stops include the Kicking Bear and Buffalo sculptures on the Dumbarton Bridge, the National Museum of the American Indian and the statues of native leaders in the Capitol Visitor Center. The tribal delegates buried in the Congressional Cemetery and the Liberty and Freedom Lummi totem poles — dedicated by the Lummi Nation after the 9/11 attacks — wrap up the tour. It also notes the Indigenous Peoples March that was held on the Mall in January.
“Indigenous people have been here, continue to be here and as you go through the stops in the app, it progresses through time, and that’s why I think there’s pieces of both modern and history,” said Wendy Helgemo, director of the GWU center.
In art scattered throughout the Capitol, Native Americans are frequently depicted as either subservient to white colonizers and missionaries or as violent aggressors.
In the Rotunda, a frieze shows Pocahontas saving Captain John Smith from being clubbed to death by violent Native Americans. A relief carved into the sandstone wall above one of the Rotunda doors shows Daniel Boone being threatened by a Native American with a fierce expression and a hatchet. A painting shows Christopher Columbus and his crew landing on a beach as Native Americans hide behind trees nearby, one bowing down.
The imagery “reinforces negative stereotypes of Native Americans,” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) told The Washington Post in a statement. In January, Haaland and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) were the first two Native American women elected to Congress. “The guide to Indigenous DC is a way that Native American students are taking back the narrative so that we can tell an accurate history of this country.”
Gregory Smith, an attorney who specializes in representing tribes and tribal organizations, said the images of Native Americans in the Capitol are harmful, but he uses them to inform people.
“Education is the answer,” Smith said. “When we educate people, they move toward tribal positions.”
Most Americans who live outside native lands do not know any Native Americans, according to the nonprofit First Nations Development Institute.
“Here we are in contemporary society, and Native Americans remain invisible,” Helgemo said. “We want to make them visible here in D.C. and other places.”
Rule, an enrolled citizen in the Chickasaw Nation, said the idea for the app came after conversations with high school and college students learning about native history.
“I really wanted our students to know that when they come here . . . they’re following in the steps of their ancestors, by coming here, working on behalf of indigenous people, being representative of their people in the federal government, in the Capitol, in advocacy offices,” she said.
Rule consulted with tribal community members on the app as she researched potential places and wrote the site descriptions.
From the concept to the finished product, the app took about a year and a half to create, Helgemo said. Rule said it’s still evolving, and she’s looking forward to expanding it by adding new tours and exploring partnerships with tribes and other organizations.
If D.C. tourists look closely, they’ll see the legacy of Native Americans all over the Capitol. In the exhibition hall, several statues represent Kamehameha I, Hawaii’s first king; Po’pay, who led the Indian Pueblo Revolt; and Sakakawea, who’s better known as Sacagawea and famous for helping the explorers Lewis and Clark.
Atop the Capitol building, the bronze Statue of Freedom designed by Thomas Crawford and completed in 1863 wears a crested Roman helmet, with an eagle’s head and feathers. It was “suggested by the costume of our Indian Tribes,” Crawford wrote, according to the Architect of the Capitol, the office in charge of maintaining the buildings and grounds of the campus.
The American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association, which partners with GWU, consulted on the app. The association’s executive director, Sherry L. Rupert, said she visits Washington on a regular basis, as other tribal members do.
“When you go to these metropolitan areas, you don’t often think about the history of that place and how native people are connected to those places and, in fact, in many places are their indigenous homelands,” Rupert said. “To have this app I think is really important. Now when I go to D.C., I’m able to visit these different places in D.C. and learn about the people that were there and have made history there — [it] makes me proud.”