Indigenous History Comes Alive at Day of the Dead Celebration

Activities for All Ages Educate Through Festive Events
September 25, 2014
News Release

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Practiced primarily in Mexico, El Día de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, traces its origins to both Spanish and indigenous influences. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, will celebrate the event Saturday, Nov. 1, from noon to 5 p.m.; exciting activities will focus on the Native cultures that helped shape how it is practiced to this day. Admission to the museum and participation in all activities are free.

“Day of the Dead is an excellent teaching opportunity for the museum,” said Gaetana DeGennaro (Tohono O’odham), museum resource center manager. “The activities we have designed are very interactive. Often people tend to think that this is something only for children, but adults will also find that they can take part in the events, have some fun and learn cultural facts that enrich the experience.”

The main focal piece of the event will be a very large and vibrantly decorated altar, or ofrenda, where the souls who return to their loved ones are welcomed. Participants are encouraged to leave photographs of those departed or small tokens, such as food or drinks, to ensure the souls both find their way and are properly greeted. Native dancers from the group Cetiliztli Nauhcampa Quetzalcoátl in Ixachitlán will perform a lively dance procession, honoring these returning souls.   

Many traditions and customs are attached to the observance, and the diverse regions of Mexico may attribute different significance to the objects commonly found at ofrendas. Throughout the day, museum staff and special guests will illustrate what these different indigenous beliefs are and guide visitors as they design their own pieces for the ofrenda. These will include:

  • Calaveritas and calaveras (small and big skulls)
  • Skull masks and foil skull pendants
  • Flores de papel (paper flowers)
  • Friendship bracelets

“The museum has so many wonderful events that embrace Native cultures, but the Day of the Dead celebration is one of our most beautiful and is something I personally look forward to every year,” said Shawn Termin (Lakota), museum cultural arts manager. “We see many return visitors because it really is a very unique experience, and we offer it through a lens most have not encountered.”

The National Museum of the American Indian’s George Gustav Heye Center is located at One Bowling Green in New York City, across from Battery Park. The museum is free and open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Thursdays until 8 p.m. Call (212) 514-3700 for general information and (212) 514-3888 for a recording about the museum’s public programs. By subway, the museum may be reached by the 1 to South Ferry, the 4 or 5 to Bowling Green or the R or W to Whitehall Street. The museum’s website is www.AmericanIndian.si.edu.

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SI-472-2014