ST. PAUL — Every time you say “Minnesota,” you’re uttering a Dakota word that describes the reflection of the sky onto water. Tribal peoples have been living in Minnesota for thousands of years.
A new permanent exhibit at the Minnesota History Center offers a portrait of these native communities throughout Minnesota’s history. It tells these stories from a native perspective — a point of view that has historically been overlooked, said Kate Beane, director of Native American Initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society. The exhibit, “Our Home: Native Minnesota,” reflects a year and a half’s worth of collecting stories and items from the past and present.
Mattie Harper DeCarlo, senior historian at the History Center, co-developed the exhibit with Beane. Both women have strong ties to their respective native communities. Beane is a Flandreau Santee Sioux and DeCarlo is part of the Bois Forte band of Ojibwe.
Native and indigenous community members have not always had a seat at the table of institutions such as the History Center, Beane said. These communities existed long before the Historical Society was established in 1849.
“Native history is Minnesota history,” Beane said.
But, DeCarlo said, it’s often segregated from Minnesota history. The exhibit’s goal is to break down barriers, dispel stereotypes and combat a general lack of understanding about native and indigenous people in Minnesota.
“It’s hard to be able to express our history when there’s such a question by the general public of even just who we are and what our connection, here, to Minnesota is. We decided we really wanted an exhibit that showed the connection of Dakota and Ojibwe people in particular but indigenous people in general to the Minnesota region,” Beane said.
The 2,700-square-foot gallery will feature multimedia, contemporary art and artifacts. Instead of being organized chronologically, it is split into Dakota and Ojibwe sections. The History Center has five pieces on loan from the Smithsonian, a few artifacts from Beane’s family and a couple of newly purchased works. But the majority of the items on display are from the roughly 6,000 objects from the Minnesota History Center’s collection.
The gallery’s layout is unique. In the center is a large circular space with latticework on the ceiling, seating and a projection screen on the wall. It’s supposed to mimic an arbor.
“Arbors are a part of different ceremonial spaces, and now you’ll see them in powwow arenas,” said Rita Walaszek, Native American Collections associate at the Historical Society and a member of the White Earth Ojibwe. “Native people are going to recognize what that’s supposed to be.”
There is also a focus on items that have lasted through time. Hundreds of years ago, a prophecy told the Ojibwe people to travel west until they found food — “the land where food grows on water.” They put down roots in Minnesota when they found wild rice. To this day, wild rice is an important part of Ojibwe culture. On display in “Our Home: Native Minnesota” is an Ojibwe pot dating back to ancient times.
“With carbon dating, it was dated to about 600. So, that’s around 1,400 years ago. And the best part of it is that when they were testing it, they found residue from wild rice in there,” Walaszek said.
Intricate beadwork is a part of both Ojibwe and Dakota artistry. An antique Dakota children’s coat on display features more than 20 different colored beads. Though both tribal nations’ creations commonly depict floral elements, there are different stylistic approaches.
Dakota beadwork often uses the concept of bilateral symmetry — the left and right lapels on the children’s coat are completely identical. Ojibwe beading is balanced but not symmetrical and is usually sewn onto a black fabric.
“A lot of times, people think if it’s floral, it’s Ojibwe; if it’s geometric, it’s Dakota. And that’s inaccurate. Dakota people did these types of florals, too, but if you draw a line down the center, it’s a mirror image,” said Ben Gessner, curator of Native American Collections at the Historical Society.
Challenging common narratives
There are certain harmful narratives about Native communities that are simply untrue, DeCarlo said. The stories told in “Our Home: Native Minnesota,” however, are of survival, resistance, resilience and continuity. They’re deliberately communicated through first-person narratives to remove the institution’s voice.
First and foremost, the text in “Our Home” is meant for Native community members, she added. The exhibit features descriptions in Dakota, Ojibwe and English.
DeCarlo said one of the harmful narratives the exhibit aims to dispel is the idea that native people are either traditional or assimilated. Their identities are much more nuanced.
“One overarching theme we have is continuity … showing that native people have always adapted and have been dynamic socially and culturally and remained native people,” she said.
Another area of misinformation lies in the relationship between the Dakota and Ojibwe nations. It is often seen as a constant conflict, but that narrative hardly begins to describe the tribal nations’ long history, DeCarlo said.
Dakota and Ojibwe people have been linked through political and family ties since long before Minnesota was a state. Featured prominently in “Our Home: Native Minnesota” is a 19-foot panoramic photograph of the 1912 White Earth (Ojibwe) celebration with members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (Dakota). Walaszek hopes visitors will be able to identify relatives in the photograph.
“Unfortunately, the majority of these people are not identified,” she said. “A lot of the native photographs we have … it just says, ‘Indian.’ That’s it.”
The exhibit points out how Native communities have survived colonization, diseases and settlements that displaced them.
“Some of these histories are complex. Oftentimes, it’s easy to focus on the negative,” Beane said. “One of the things we want to focus in on is the resiliency and strength of our people.”
Looking to the future
Creating an exhibit that could inspire native youth was at the forefront of Beane and DeCarlo’s minds. Both are parents to young children.
“We want this to be a space where young people can see themselves represented and come out really empowered and proud of who they are,” Beane said.
In an effort to bring new learning opportunities to the permanent exhibit, the Minnesota History Center team has left room for a rotating gallery space.
“We’ve got all sorts of opportunities to keep doing programming and keep the spirit of this alive. The rotating space will change a lot more frequently than this bigger space, and that will hopefully keep people interested and coming back,” Gessner said.
Although the gallery is a space where anyone can learn about native history, there is a focus on providing truthful and uplifting narratives for the native communities of Minnesota. A wall of the exhibit is dedicated to the stories of native members’ contributions to their communities.
One of those stories is of Elizabeth Sherer Russell, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe. In the early 1900s, Russell worked for the Chippewa Indian nursing service. The exhibit features an outfit she wore to represent her community while tending to patients.
“If we look at the changing demographic across the state of Minnesota, we need the stories within this institution to be better reflective of the population it serves,” Beane said.
In the name of transparency, Beane and DeCarlo felt it was necessary to recognize the Minnesota Historical Society’s colonial history.
“We feel like we are at a point where the institution can say, ‘In the past, things were done in a harmful manner, but now we pledge to go forward and do things in a new way,’ ” DeCarlo said. There will be a panel in the gallery that serves as an institutional acknowledgement.
The museum industry has made progress. Beane says there are more advisory committees, more collaboration and a resurgence in tribally owned and operated museums and interpretive centers. But, there is still progress to be made, she said. There has to be a solid consensus about who has the authority to tell certain stories and own certain items.
“I think we’re living in a really interesting time where we have an opportunity to be at the table and help elevate the voices of our community members in these spaces,” she said. “It’s still a struggle, but we can see the benefits of education and we can see the benefits of the hard work our ancestors did in the positions we hold now.”
If you go
Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul
When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 7
Admission: Free museum admission all day Dec. 7.
Regular hours/admission: The “Native Minnesota” exhibit is included in regular History Center admission ($12 adults; $10 seniors, veterans, active military and students; $6 ages 5 to 17; free 4 and younger. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays.
More information: 651-259-3000 or mnhs.org.