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Through implementation of its Collecting Plan, NMAI hopes to expand the scope of the collections and continue its historically significant work in documenting indigenous lives and perspectives—through objects, diverse media, and other means—while simultaneously increasing the integration of the collections with one another and making them more applicable to museum programs and accessible to external users.

Native Americans were greatly affected by the European colonization of the Americas, which began in 1492, and their population declined precipitously due to introduced diseases, warfare, and slavery.There are over 500 federally recognized tribes within the U.S., about half of which are associated with Indian reservations.Overall, 55 percent of the collection is archaeological, 43 percent ethnographic, and 2 percent modern and contemporary arts.(These figures are based on catalog numbers, not number of items, where single catalog numbers encompassing dozens of sherds or projectile points would skew percentages toward archaeology.) In terms of collections’ growth, NMAI continues to focus actively on modern and contemporary arts, relying on donations for the expansion of earlier ethnographic collections.The term "Native American" has not traditionally included Native Hawaiians or certain Alaskan Natives, such as Aleut, Yup'ik, or Inuit peoples.

By comparison, the indigenous peoples of Canada are generally known as First Nations.As American expansion reached into the West, settler and miner migrants came into increasing conflict with the Great Basin, Great Plains, and other Western tribes. Contemporary Native Americans have a unique relationship with the United States because they may be members of nations, tribes, or bands with sovereignty and treaty rights.These were complex nomadic cultures based on (introduced) horse culture and seasonal bison hunting. Cultural activism since the late 1960s has increased political participation and led to an expansion of efforts to teach and preserve indigenous languages for younger generations and to establish a greater cultural infrastructure: Native Americans have founded independent newspapers and online media, recently including First Nations Experience, the first Native American television channel; established Native American studies programs, tribal schools and universities, and museums and language programs; and have increasingly been published as authors.Most Native American groups had historically preserved their histories by oral traditions and artwork, which has resulted in the first written sources on the conflict being authored by Europeans.At the time of first contact, the indigenous cultures were quite different from those of the proto-industrial and mostly Christian immigrants.In addition to the object collections, the museum’s holdings also include the Photographic Archive (approximately 324,000 images from the 1860s to the present); the Media Archive (approximately 12,000 items) including film and audiovisual collections such as wax cylinders, phonograph discs, 16mm and 35mm motion picture film, magnetic media of many varieties, and optical and digital media recorded from the late 1800s through the present; and the Paper Archive (approximately 1500 linear feet) comprised of records dating from the 1860s to the present that preserve the documentary history of the NMAI, its predecessor, the Museum of the American Indian (MAI), Heye Foundation, and their collections, as well as other documentary and archival materials.

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