New Field Museum Native American Exhibition Speaks the People’s Truth to the Public

The Chicago Field Museum is opening May 20th its new Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories exhibition to the public, revealing its first renovation of the museum’s Native North America Hall since its initial installation during the 1950s. 

The Field Museum, one of the top attractions in Chicago, for locals and visitors alike

The Field Museum is one of the top attractions in all of Chicago, and when you consider that they’ve managed to fit 4.6 billion years of history under one roof, it is easy to see why. With a legendary collection of fossils, artifacts, gemstones, and other natural historic objects, there’s something for everyone to dig their teeth into and learn more about at this stop on your visit. And this is only one of the many reasons to choose Chicago over any city, even New York.

This new exhibition was the product of four and a half years of collaborations between Native elders, community members, artists, educators, scholars, and museum staff.  105 different tribes are represented and an estimated 400 items are on display, to help visitors explore current issues like tribal sovereignty and climate change, while honoring Native history and culture. 

The exhibition is centered around five core content permanent sections called “Native Truths” that present essential information about Native experience and culture, along with six rotating story galleries. 

“You are on Native land”

As visitors enter the space, they pass bold, black letters on the wall reading, “You are on Native land.” This short reminder of what was lost by the indigenous population is completed by a recording of a poem written by the Indigenous-futurist artist Santiago X. His poem sounds throughout the entranceway, read aloud by Chicago-based Potawatomi artist Monica Rickert-Bolter. Further inside the exhibition is an acknowledgement in glowing yellow text: “Museum collecting and exhibition practices have deeply harmed Native communities. This exhibition marks a new beginning.” 

“I’m awestruck,” said Dakota and Diné artist and comedian Dallas Goldtooth as he walked through the exhibition. “I’m so used to these spaces feeling so foreign, because it’s like we’re on display, Native people and cultures are on display. This very much feels like we are in charge of the narrative.” Inside the exhibition hall, a clip from the FX series Reservation Dogs, featuring Goldtooth as the character William Knife-Man, plays in a loop. 

The exhibition brings Indigenous people back into the present

The exhibition now displays more than just artifacts. Beside the traditional art forms and cultural items, more contemporary mediums like digital art, video, photography, and modern music are also included to tell a complete story of who the natives are today. The labels for each display are written in the first person, so the artists can speak for themselves and feel closer to visitors.    

“The old hall just really disconnected Native people as humans from our items, because it was very object-based,” said the museum’s Native Community Engagement Coordinator Debra Yepa-Pappan, a citizen of Jemez Pueblo. “With this [exhibition], you’re actually hearing voices, you’re seeing images of children. It’s bringing us back into the present.” 

The Field Museum’s Native North America Hall previously included over a thousand cultural items from different tribes, but very little if any context regarding the stories behind them. When the exhibition was first opened in the 1950s, due to cultural insensitivity and a lack of consultation with tribes, certain items were incorrectly attributed by the museum, and some pieces not meant for public viewing ended up on display.    

Gaining the approval and guidance of the Natives was key

In the last four and a half years, the museum spoke directly with tribes about how best to honor their cultural items. It took three years of conversing with Blackfoot women to gain their permission and guidance about how to appropriately display a sacred stand-up headdress made by a Blackfoot ancestor, for example. The museum invited several of these women to attend the exhibition’s opening ceremony on Saturday, May 21st.   

“In the past, museums often would not even talk to anybody in the community about how they were going to present what are often called ‘artifacts,’” said Rosalyn LaPier, an enrolled Blackfoot tribal member, historian, and collaborator on the stand-up headdress display. “We spent time, as I think everybody did, on making sure that the history that was being shared was appropriate and correct.”

An artist’s work sparked the idea of the renovation

Local artist Chris Pappan, a citizen of the Kaw Nation and husband of Yepa-Pappan, displayed his work in a temporary exhibit within the old Native North America Hall from 2016 to 2019, proving why a change was needed. Pappan inserted contemporary artwork depicting Native cultures into the exhibition, in an effort to confront the museum’s outdated portrayal of Native people with his own work, and make viewers see the truth.  

“There was no information regarding who the people were,” Pappan said of the old exhibition. “I was able to intervene and create work to liven up the space and make more of an impression that we’re a living culture.” 

It was his exhibition that proved to the museum staff changes needed to be made to the Native hall, said Alaka Wali, curator emerita of North American Anthropology. In order to properly honor indigenous people’s stories, the museum then began raising money for a renovated Native American exhibition.  

Native American professionals ensured everything, down to the materials used, was done right

An advisory committee of Native American scholars, museum professionals, artists, and community members from across what is now the United States and Canada was put together to guide the project. The committee members made sure every component of the exhibition reflects and supports Indigenous communities, right down to the hall’s building materials. Menominee Tribal Enterprises, a sustainable lumber supplier that manufactures products on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin, provided maple wood for the flooring, while birch bark wall panels connect visitors to the Great Lakes region. 

Even the decorations of the walls were carefully selected. The exhibition designer originally planned to use stainless steel, but Yepa-Pappan successfully advocated for the use of copper, a metal that holds significance for Great Lakes tribes. “It looked nice initially, but at the same time, for me personally as a Native person, it still felt somewhat industrial.” The copper used in the exhibition ranges in color from bronze to blue to red, giving the space a more natural feel.

All the hard work paid off, since Indigenous visitors who saw the exhibit the previous weekend, when it was open especially for them, gave Yepa-Pappan the positive feedback she needed and had hoped for. “I had always hoped that this exhibition would be for Native people – of course, by Native people, but for Native people also,” she said. “This is Native space. We made this our space.”

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