By Kelsey Turner
This Friday, the Chicago Field Museum opens its new exhibit Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories to the public, unveiling its first renovation of the museum’s Native North America Hall since its initial installation in the 1950s. The exhibit centers around five permanent sections of core content called “Indigenous Truths” that feature essential information about the Indigenous experience and culture, as well as six rotating story galleries.
The exhibit came about after four and a half years of collaboration between Indigenous elders, community members, artists, educators, scholars and museum staff. Representing 105 different tribes and displaying approximately 400 items, it explores current issues such as tribal sovereignty and climate change while honoring Indigenous history and culture.
“I’m in awe,” said Dakota and Diné artist and comedian Dallas Goldtooth as he browsed the exhibit. “I’m so used to these spaces being so alien, because it’s like we’re exposed, Indigenous peoples and cultures are exposed. It really makes it feel like we’re in charge of the narrative. A clip from the FX series Reservation Dogs featuring Goldtooth as the character William Knife-Man plays on loop inside the lobby.
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As visitors enter the exhibit, they pass bold black letters on the wall that read, “You are in native land.” A recording of a poem written by Native futurist artist X echoes throughout the lobby, read aloud by Chicago Potawatomi artist Monica Rickert-Bolter. Further inside the exhibit is an acknowledgment in bright yellow text: “Museum collecting and display practices have deeply harmed Indigenous communities. This exhibition marks a new beginning.
In addition to displaying traditional art forms and cultural objects, the exhibition also highlights more contemporary mediums like digital art, video, photography and modern music. The labels for each display are written in the first person, allowing the artists to speak for themselves.
“The old room really disconnected Indigenous people as humans from our objects, because it was very object-based,” said Debra Yepa-Pappan, the museum’s Indigenous community engagement coordinator, a Jemez resident. Pueblo. “With that [exhibition], you actually hear voices, you see images of children. This brings us back to the present.
Previously, the Field Museum’s Native North America Hall included over a thousand cultural artifacts from various tribes with little context regarding the stories behind them. Due to cultural insensitivity and a lack of consultation with the tribes when the exhibit opened in the 1950s, the museum had incorrectly assigned some items and exhibited some pieces that were not intended for public viewing. .
For the revamped exhibit, the museum spoke directly with the tribes about how best to honor their cultural artifacts. For example, to appropriately display a standing sacred headdress made by a Blackfoot ancestor, museum staff spent three years talking to Blackfoot women and elders to get their permission and advice on display. . The museum invited several of these women to attend the opening ceremony of the exhibition on Saturday.
“In the past, museums often wouldn’t even tell anyone in the community how they were going to present what are often called ‘artifacts,'” said Rosalyn LaPier, enrolled Blackfoot Tribe member, historian and contributor. on the stand- display of the hairstyle upwards. “We spent time, like everyone I think, making sure the story that was being shared was appropriate and correct.”
The idea for the renovation began after local artist Chris Pappan, a Kaw Nation citizen and husband of Yepa-Pappan, featured his work in a temporary exhibit in the former Native North America Hall from 2016 to 2019. Pappan inserted contemporary artwork representing Native cultures into the exhibition, a commentary intended to bring viewers to confront the museum’s antiquated depiction of Indigenous peoples.
“There was no information about the identity of the people,” Pappan said of the old exhibit. “I was able to step in and create works to enliven the space and make it feel more like we are a living culture.”
When his exhibit was mounted, a “light went out” for museum staff as they recognized the changes that needed to be made to the Indigenous Hall, said Alaka Wali, curator emeritus of North American anthropology . The museum then began raising funds for a revamped Native American exhibit that would properly honor the stories of Indigenous peoples.
The museum established an advisory committee of Native American scholars, museum professionals, artists, and community members from what is now the United States and Canada to guide the project. The committee ensured that every element of the exhibit reflected and supported Indigenous communities, right down to the construction materials for the hall – Menominee Tribal Enterprises, a sustainable lumber supplier that manufactures products on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, provided maple wood for the flooring, while birchbark wall panels serve to anchor visitors to the Great Lakes region.
Yepa-Pappan also successfully advocated for the use of copper, a metal of importance to the tribes of the Great Lakes, as a decorative element in walls. The exhibit designer originally planned to use stainless steel, she said. “It looked good at first, but at the same time, for me personally as an Indigenous person, it still felt a bit industrial.” The copper used in the exhibit ranges in color from bronze to blue to red, giving the space a more natural feel.
Yepa-Pappan was encouraged by the positive feedback Native visitors gave to the exhibit, which opened to the Native American community last weekend. “I had always hoped that this exhibition would be for Aboriginal people – of course, by Aboriginal people, but for Aboriginal people too,” she says. “It’s the indigenous space. We have made it our space.
Details on the opening ceremony for the Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories exhibit on Saturday at the Chicago Field Museum can be found here.
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