Nearly two centuries before Congress declared Washington the Federal City, Native Americans lived in the village of Nacotchtank near the fertile banks of the river that would take its name from one of the tribes: the Anacostans.
The history of a city steeped in it stretches farther back than textbooks traditionally tell us. But the College of Arts and Sciences’s Elizabeth Rule—whose “pathbreaking work,” says interim dean Max Paul Friedman, “helps turn memorial sites into living engagements promoting social justice”—is changing the narrative.
In 2019, Rule, professor of critical race, gender, and cultural studies, created the Guide to Indigenous DC, an app that takes users on a nine-mile, self-guided tour of 17 sites that “showcase empowering stories of how this prominent city is a place of tribal gathering, presence, and advocacy with a long, rich history.” Stops include Dumbarton Bridge, lined with 56 busts of the Oglala Lakota leader Kicking Bear, and what is now called Theodore Roosevelt Island, where Indigenous people fled after Europeans invaded their land along the Anacostia.
“I wanted to put a digital pinpoint on all of these areas to show the breadth of Indigenous impact on this landscape, across time and disciplines,” says Rule of the app, which won the 2021 Library Company of Philadelphia’s Biennial Innovation Award. “The list of 17 sites is not exhaustive. DC is a deeply Native place; the idea is that we would have an infinite number of pinpoints across Washington that represent all the ways that Native people have left their mark.”
Rule herself is doing just that. An enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, she was named to the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development’s 40 under 40 list for 2021 (fellow Eagle Naomi Miguel, SPA/MPA ’17, majority staff director, House Natural Resources Committee, is also among the honorees). Rule used her tenure as a prestigious MIT Solve Indigenous Communities Fellow to focus on the DC app, which was followed last November by the Guide to Indigenous Baltimore. The Guide to Indigenous Maryland launches this spring and Georgetown University Press will release her book, Indigenous DC: Native Peoples and the Nation’s Capital, in the fall.
“It has become very comfortable to have a unidimensional narrative about Indigenous people in the context of history and the creation of the United States,” she says. “But the idea of Native people being contemporary, of existing beyond the archeological and historical sense, of being political entities—that’s less well known, in part because it challenges our deepest held understandings of this land being available for development and conquest.
“My mission as an educator is to bring that flaw out of textbooks.”
The American story is a Native story—and Elizabeth Rule has an app for that. Lace up your sneakers and hit her Guide to Indigenous DC:
1. US Marine Corps War Memorial
Marine paratrooper and Pima Tribe member Ira Hayes was among the six Americans who raised the flag at Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. The iconic, Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of the men atop Mount Suribachi inspired sculptor Felix W. de Weldon’s 100-ton bronze tribute to marines who’ve given their lives in service of the nation since the corps’s 1775 founding. Hayes, born on the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona, died just one year after the memorial was dedicated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954; he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
2. Analostan/Theodore Roosevelt Island
Nearly three centuries before it was designated a living monument to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt Island was home to the Nacotchtank people who sought refuge there after Europeans began to encroach upon their villages along the eastern banks of the Anacostia River. Located in the Potomac between Georgetown and Rosslyn, Virginia, the 88-acre island was originally known as Analostan—an anglicized version of Nacotchtank .
3. Indigenous Peoples March
On January 18, 2019, thousands of Native Americans, many in traditional dress, gathered for a day of prayer, song, and solidarity, marching along Constitution Avenue from the Department of the Interior to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to draw attention to myriad issues that affect Indigenous people: gun violence, mental health, women’s rights, political representation, and environmental protections. Among the speakers was then representative Deb Haaland (D-NM), who made history in 2021 when President Joe Biden appointed her secretary of the interior. Haaland is the first Native American to serve in the cabinet.
4. Mural of Piscataway History and Culture
In 2018, graffiti artist Joerael Numina paid tribute to the Piscataway people, on whose ancestral lands Washington, DC, sits, the best way he knows how: with spray paint. The Santa Fe–based artist crafted a mural for the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University as part of his Mobilize Walls project. His Piscataway-inspired piece depicts an eagle and condor, representing solidarity between the Indigenous peoples of North and South America, and a nude-toned rainbow that celebrates the physical diversity of the Native community.
5. Dumbarton Bridge
Erected in 1914 to connect Georgetown with what is now Dupont Circle, the masonry art bridge spanning Rock Creek Park was designed by Glenn Brown and features Native motifs to pay homage to the closed American frontier. In addition to Alexander Phimister Proctor’s four buffalo sculptures—the largest cast in a single piece of bronze—the bridge is lined with 56 busts of Oglala Lakota leader Matȟó Wanáȟtake. Also known as Kicking Bear, the warrior and spiritual leader was elected by his community to represent tribal interests in DC. While in Washington, he allowed Smithsonian anthropologists to create the replica of his bust that years later would be showcased on the bridge.
6. Occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs
After caravanning east across the country in November 1972 to present their 20-point plan to honor treaty rights, restructure the BIA, and improve living conditions, 1,000 Native activists from 250 tribal nations hit a speedbump when officials declined to meet with them. So the delegation peacefully parked themselves in the building for seven days until, on November 8, the government agreed to launch an investigation into the American Indian Movement’s plan. White House officials also recommended that no one involved in the occupation face prosecution and provided $66,000 to cover the group’s transportation costs home.
7. Native Nations March
In the wake of the monthslong Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a record 10,000 Native activists—led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe—gathered on the National Mall on March 10, 2017, for a day of song, prayer, and calls to action. The monumental gathering in the shadow of the Washington Monument followed three days of lobbying in support of environmental protections.
8. Department of Interior Murals
Kiowa painter James Auchiah, also known as Tse Koy Ate, was among the most prominent artists of the 1930s tapped by the government to create murals as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Oklahoma-born Auchiah’s Harvest Dance, which depicts groups of Native Americans around a campfire, spans 75 feet in what is now the Department of Interior’s basement cafeteria. Sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts—which, over the course of eight years, spent $1.5 million on 1,047 murals and 268 sculptures—Harvest Dance was completed in 1939.
9. Artifacts on White House South Lawn and Ellipse
When President Gerald Ford had a swimming pool installed on White House grounds in 1975, workers unearthed more than dirt and rocks. Studies of the excavated land by National Park Service curator Robert Marshall revealed Native artifacts spanning at least from the Archaic to Late Woodlands periods, including 17 pieces of quartz and quartzite, a piece of broken pottery, and a fragment of biface. The discovery offers archaeological evidence that the Federal City was constructed atop Indian homelands with a long and even ancient history.
10. Cowboy and Indian Alliance Camp
The Cowboy and Indian Alliance kicked off its weeklong protest of the Keystone XL pipeline in April 2014 by riding horseback in Stetsons and traditional headdresses along the National Mall, raising teepees, and erecting a camp in front of the US Capitol. About 5,000 people turned out for the demonstration—a powerful act of solidarity between farmers, ranchers, and tribes from across the nation.
11. Embassy of Tribal Nations
Nestled among diplomatic headquarters, the Embassy of Tribal Nations’s P Street address is all about location, location, location. The National Congress of Americans sought to establish a physical presence in the heart of DC’s iconic Embassy Row to raise awareness of sovereign tribal nations. Seventy tribal leaders and hundreds of members of the public gathered on opening day in November 2009 to share traditional foods, enjoy powwow dance, and offer a ceremonial blessing. “We call this Indian country in Washington, DC,” said Ernie Stevens Jr. of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, chair of the National Indian Gaming Association. “This is our home.”
12. Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Black Canoe
Bill Reid’s bronze sculpture is a 5.5-ton tribute to the Haida people and their homelands: an archipelago just off the coast of British Columbia that the Indigenous tribe has occupied for at least 12,500 years. Featuring 13 characters from Haida stories and spirituality journeying together in a traditional cedar cutout canoe, the piece was installed at the Canadian embassy in 1991.
13. National Museum of the American Indian
Home to one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native artifacts, spanning the entirety of the Western Hemisphere, from the Arctic Circle to the southernmost tip of Argentina, this Smithsonian offering opened on the National Mall in 2004. Enveloped in golden Kasota limestone designed to evoke natural rock formations shaped by wind and water over thousands of years, the 250,000-square-foot curvilinear building is one of the most beautiful in DC—and the first national museum in the country devoted exclusively to Native Americans.
14. National Native American Veterans Memorial
American Indians and Alaska Natives have fought in every major conflict for more than 200 years, serving in the armed forces at a rate five times the national average. Erected in their honor on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian, the memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day 2020. Harvey Pratt, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and US Marine Corps veteran, designed the understated memorial: a stainless steel hoop atop a stone drum surrounded by water that invites reflection and contemplation.
15. Statues of Native Leaders at the US Capitol
Along with a pair of senators, each state is represented by two pieces in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Among the handful that celebrate Native American leaders: Dave McGary’s statue of Chief Washakie, who ensured the preservation of more than 3 million acres in Wyoming’s Wind River country for the Shoshone people, and Benjamin Victor’s bronze of Sarah Winnemucca, who served as an interpreter and negotiator between her people, the Paiute, and the US Army in what would become Nevada. Winnemucca’s autobiography is also the first book written by a Native American woman.
16. Liberty and Freedom Lummi Totem Poles
Created to honor those who died on 9/11, the totem poles carved by Lummi Tribe member Jewell Praying Wolf James received blessings from 40 tribal nations on the 4,500-mile journey from Washington State to Washington, DC. After a stop at the Pentagon, the site of the American Airlines flight 77 crash, the poles, dubbed Liberty and Freedom, found a permanent home at the Congressional Cemetery.
17. Tribal Delegates at Congressional Cemetery
Thirty-six people of Native American heritage from 12 tribes are laid to rest at the 200-year-old Congressional Cemetery in Southeast DC. They include Push-Ma-Ta-Ha, the Choctaw chief and diplomat who fought alongside Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, and Captain Thomas Pegg, senator and associate judge of the Cherokee Nation, who served in the Union Indian Brigade during the Civil War.