Published On: Sat, Oct 29th, 2016

Day of the Dead at the National Museum of the American Indian

Najwa’s buddy was having a birthday celebration later this afternoon; so what to do until then? A quick search and I found a celebration at the National Museum of the American Indian. So off we went.

They were celebrating the Day of the Dead. Not a celebration I’m familiar with, but an interesting one nevertheless.

Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) is a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, and by people of Mexican ancestry living in other places, especially the United States. It is acknowledged internationally in many other cultures. The multi-day holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey. In 2008 the tradition was inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

We’ve been here a few times before, but each time was through its main entrance facing the National Mall. Going through one of the back entrances, I saw a part of the museum I never saw before. There’s not much to miss; I just didn’t realize there was a full-blown cafeteria. But that’s not what interested me. I wouldn’t have ventured to this part of the museum and found a small set up for a virtual reality trip.


The VR, umm, trip (show? presentation? experience?) was the viewer — Najwa did it; I passed for the sake of time — as a Monarch butterfly. The butterfly, as it relates to the Day of the Dead, has a deep meaning. The local people have long believed the monarchs are the returning spirits of their deceased relatives, mysteriously arriving at the same time each year, coinciding with the Day of the Dead. Aztec tradition holds that the souls of the departed will return as hummingbirds and butterflies, and the link between myth and the monarchs’ annual return spans centuries.

And how better to appreciate its connection than to become a butterfly yourself?


First, Najwa had to close her eyes while the earbuds and VR goggles were put on. Once the lady turned out the show, she tapped Najwa’s shoulder, letting her know she could open her eyes. The lady explained that some people experience motion sickness at first, especially the kids, and sure enough, once Najwa opened her eyes, you could see her wobble in the chair. As if she was going to fall out the chair, orienting herself, though she knew she was sitting in a chair.

She gained her senses relatively quickly, and then she starting looking around. From my perspective, all I saw was my daughter wearing a huge set of goggles, looking around as if she was seeing things. She looked left, right, up, down, then, to my amusement, she looked behind her as if something was there. Obviously, with whatever was in the VR goggles, she saw something, but I was just amazed at how fast technology seems to be introducing itself to this younger generation.


Whatever. We moved on.




As we entered the main area of the museum, as with every festival, there’s a table set up for arts & craft. And without fail, Najwa is lured, starts grabbing paper, markers or crayons, and gets to creating whatever’s in her mind.


Najwa creating her own Day of the Dead mask.


The arts & craft project was to create a mask for celebrating the Day of the Dead. Najwa chose the one that looked like a butterfly mashed with a skull. It was weird, for me at least, to see all these kids running around with colorful butterfly-skulls; then again, it’s Halloween weekend so it’s fitting.


The “main event” was the Day of the Dead dance. I didn’t quite catch what it was called, but something to do with a leopard, another symbolic animal, though I didn’t catch why either. It was getting crowded and since several kids were wearing a mask, for a moment I couldn’t figure out which one was mine. That and Najwa wasn’t really interested so I didn’t get to catch the whole thing.





One of the cooler items on display, something Najwa may appreciate when she gets older, was a Aymara Totora-Reed Boat. It’s literally a boat, made with reeds tied or weaved together with twice. At first glance, there’s no way this thing floats in water. It looks like it has little gaps throughout the entire length of the boat. Apparently, it floats, and has been for generations.




Eventually, to Najwa’s relief, we made it to the top floor where there’s a kid’s area. Another must have if you want parents to bring their kids to a museum.

The interactive, family-friendly imagiNATIONS Activity Center provides visitors of all ages with a multitude of unique learning experiences. Native peoples have always used the natural environments around them to meet their needs, and today many of their innovations and inventions are part of daily life for millions worldwide. Visitors to the center can explore some of these ingenious adaptations through a variety of hands-on activities: Weave a giant basket to learn about the various styles of basketry. Explore different modes of transportation like snowshoes and skateboards. Sit inside a full-sized tipi and learn about the buffalo. And stamp your imagiNATIONS passport with real tribal seals as you journey through the center. Even the homes where Native people lived show how they adapted to their environments! Visitors can find out how as they wander through an Amazonian stilt house, see what makes a Pueblo adobe house special, or learn how a Comanche tipi is built.





Being that the Day of the Dead was being celebrated, in one of the rooms kids could make a marigold.

Why marigolds? It is believed that the spirits of the dead visit the living during the celebration. Marigolds guide the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and scent. Marigolds, or flowers in general, also represent the fragility of life.

Marigolds grow extremely well here in Southern California, as you can see by the enormous marigold sections in some of our plant nurseries. The marigold most commonly used in Dia de los Muertos celebrations is the Targetes erecta or African Marigold, otherwise known as cempasúchil or flower of the dead.




We spent a few hours at the museum. I make it a point to visit at least one of the exhibits, and they have some big exhibits. One of my favorite parts of these trips, ironically, is when Najwa and I grab a bite to eat, sit there in the cafeteria, and just talk about nothing at all. I usually use that time to explain at least one thing that she might understand able something we saw, but explaining the Day of the Dead was a challenge. Especially when she asked me, “why would someone want to be dead?”

Anyway, it was fun. I might make this an annual event.


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About the Author

David Gaines

- David Gaines is a Washington, DC, resident transplanted from North Carolina whose dream career was a newspaper writer but settled for the recruiting industry and simply blogging about whatever thoughts crosses his mind.

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