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Feature Stories

At Mitchell Museum, Native Americans shaping more exhibits

Native American museum

"Who's Will Rogers?" Most know he was a wildly popular American humorist. But how many know he was also a Cherokee Indian who quipped, "My family didn't come over on the Mayflower. They met the boat."

Frankly, I didn't know Rogers's heritage, either – until browsing an exhibit at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Ill. Two others with American Indian backgrounds are rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (part Cherokee) and Mary Katherine Campbell, the only woman to win back-to-back Miss America titles in 1922-23. She boasted some Muscogee Creek and Cree ancestry.

Many more with American Indian ties are featured in an ongoing exhibit, "Did You Know They're Native?" There's Dave Anderson of Famous Dave's BBQ (Chippewa and Choctaw), Rush Trucking CEO and founder Andra Rush (Mohawk), and nuclear physicist Dr. Fred Bengay who pioneered the use of lasers for alternative energy uses (Navajo and Ute).

One exhibit that ran though mid-May was "Deconstructing Stereotypes: Top Ten Truths." It countered longstanding myths like Native Americans are "savages," they're acceptable mascots for sports teams, and they suffer disproportionate alcohol problems.

In fact, native peoples thrive (35,000 in Chicagoland alone), casinos don't enrich all Indians, and they've made and keep making great contributions in the 20th and 21st centuries. To get the data, the Mitchell Museum surveyed 1,000 tribes in the United States and Canada -- the North American regions on which it focuses.

The Mitchell Museum is one of a handful of museums in the nation focusing exclusively on the culture, art, and history of American Indians and First Nation peoples from throughout the United States and Canada. Museum Executive Director Kathleen McDonald aims to reinforce this role.

The Mitchell's future
McDonald will continue "reaching out to the American Indian community. Demonstrating this desire is a key method of contacting and working with the people this institution honors and serves.

"Contacting and working with people who attend and host meetings at American Indian community organizations and offering online and telephone surveys keeps the conversation going," says McDonald.

Another goal: increasing the number of live presentations by Native Americans. For example, on a winter Saturday, Apache Sharon "Okee-Chee" Skolnick conducted a class on traditional doll making in which participants tried their hand, too. In cases like this where materials are needed, a modest fee is charged.

Proprietor of an art gallery in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood (Okee-Chee's Wild Horse Gallery), Skolnick's dolls are dressed in fur, horsehair, deer hide, porcupine quills, feathers, leather, and bead-trimmed cloth. They're inspired by traditional Great Lakes designs. Skolnick is a founding member of the Chicago Indian Artist Guild.

Museum Board President James P. DeNomie is proud the facility remains in the black financially during his term, despite tough times, and wants it to expand physically. "We just don't have the room to show all the items we have." But he knows this "could take time." DeNomie is a citizen of the Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin.

A past president, Frances Hagemann with roots in the Canadian Ojibwe and Metis tribes, is pleased how far public recognition of Native Americans has come since she was a 7-year-old girl. "Then, all I ever heard from my family was, 'Don't talk about where you came from.'"

How it all began
The museum originated with the late John Mitchell of Evanston whose uncle was an Osage Reservation agent in Oklahoma. Spurred by that experience, Mitchell began his own collection. "Whenever he traveled the country," says McDonald, "new artifacts were added. Because he wanted to teach people what he had learned, Mr. Mitchell displayed them in the basement of Mitchell Bros. Real Estate on Green Bay Road in Evanston."

Eventually, the 3,000-piece collection was moved to Kendall College where the Mitchell Museum was officially opened 35 years ago in 1977. Over time and other physical moves, the institution settled in 1997 at its current 3001 Central St. location in Evanston. Mitchell's wife Betty "is still giving and still active," says McDonald.

Beyond welcoming the general public, the Mitchell Museum also conducts numerous school tours; conducts lectures and programs; offers a reference library where visitors can learn about American Indian art, tribal history and culture; and provides self-guided tours.

These allow visitors with enough time to linger over detailed displays of Woodlands Indians (east of the Mississippi River), Plains Indians (west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains), Southwest Indians (the "Four Corners" area of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah), Northwest Coast Indians (Oregon and Washington state coastlines plus Canada), and Arctic Indians (Alaska and parts of Canada).

For information, call 847-475-1030 or go to mitchellmuseum.org . Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Adults pay $5, and children, students, and seniors pay $3.


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