Native-Curated Exhibit Opens at Minnesota History Center

New exhibit ”Our Home: Native Minnesota” explores the state’s complex Indigenous history—and, for the history center, faces historic wrongs
From left: Minnesota Historical Society's Rita Walaszek, Mattie Harper Decarlo, Ben Gessner, and Kate E. Beane
From left: Minnesota Historical Society’s Rita Walaszek, Mattie Harper Decarlo, Ben Gessner, and Kate E. Beane

Photo by Nate Ryan

“We are on Dakota land.” This land acknowledgement—a statement recognizing a place’s Indigenous origins—is an integral part of a new multi-year Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) exhibit, Our Home: Native Minnesota. Curated by a Native-led team, the experience encompasses the state’s past and present connections with its original residents.

During the exhibit opening at the Minnesota History Center, the St. Paul organization plans to issue an institutional acknowledgement of past negative practices, which have included displaying the remains of Little Crow at the State Capitol in 1879. The Dakota warrior’s body was removed from the display in 1915 but remained unburied until 1971.

“We’re acknowledging this institution’s troubled history and troubled relationships with Native people,” says exhibit lead Mattie Harper DeCarlo, the senior historian for MNHS’s Preservation and Outreach Division and a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe Indians.

Our Home takes on themes like Native identity, adaptation, connection to the land, inter-tribal ties, and relationships with white settlers. Aside from elements of Dakota and Ojibwe history in Minnesota, the 60-plus items include photographs, artifacts, works of art, maps, and even games that aim to illustrate the continued local presence, resiliency, and sovereignty of Native communities.

“Hopefully the whole gallery will help people to understand Native sovereignty,” Harper DeCarlo says, adding that the concept of tribes as nations in charge of their own affairs is one that educators across the state have asked the museum to help them teach.

MNHS's Ben Gessner and Rita Walaszek prepare "1862 Sung Ite Ha" horse mask by James Star Comes Ou (Oglala Lakota)
MNHS’s Ben Gessner and Rita Walaszek prepare “1862 Sung Ite Ha” horse mask by James Star Comes Ou (Oglala Lakota)

Photo by Nate Ryan

Harper DeCarlo’s curatorial team includes the new MNHS director of Native American initiatives, Kate E. Beane (Flandreau Santee Sioux), curatorial associate Rita Walaszek (White Earth Ojibwe), and curator Ben Gessner.

“[MNHS] has shown a commitment over the years in showing more diverse voices, and helping to highlight stories of those who have been marginalized,” Beane says, noting that the historical society has worked to diversify staff. “But in order to do that at this point in time, it’s not MNHS’s role to tell those stories for us—our communities need to tell those stories.”

The curatorial team also worked with the MNHS Indian Advisory Committee, made up of representatives of the 11 Minnesota tribes (seven Ojibwe, four Dakota), educators, and at-large tribal members living in urban areas.

“We have to be courageous,” committee member Lonna Hunter says. “We have to be committed to telling those stories and to understand that we can be a leader here in Minnesota for the nation.”

Hunter also works with the MNHS Dakota Community Council, an advisory group leading an Indigenous-inspired revitalization of Fort Snelling. She kept a child’s perspective in mind as she reviewed the Our Home exhibit materials, adding, “I think children have a natural capacity to be compassionate.”

Our Home intentionally pushes back against dominant storylines by revealing the complexities of Native communities left out of the history books.

“We’re trying to get away from tragic themes,” Harper DeCarlo says.

“Not everything about our history is trauma,” echoes Beane. “We come from strength. It’s really important for our young people to see the beauty and the power of where they come from.”

"Star Knowledge" quilt by Gwen Westerman (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate [Dakota])
“Star Knowledge” quilt by Gwen Westerman (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate [Dakota])

Quilt by Gwen Westerman

The exhibit includes a pipestone tablet that has a Bible verse written in the Dakota language. “Pipestone was an incredibly important material for Dakota people,” Gessner says. “There were things the Dakota brought with them into the new religion despite being converted. There’s an element of strength and perseverance in that.”

Different from assimilation, Harper DeCarlo says, “We’re showing how adaptation was this really smart strategy to ensure that your families and your communities would survive.”

MNHS also commissioned a Moccasin Game for the exhibit to highlight the healthy ways of viewing masculinity fostered by Ojibwe traditions. The museum will host demonstrations during the opening on December 7. There will also be examples of Dakota women cultural practices rooted in love and strength, like a cradleboard made by Dakota/Diné artist Randilynn Boucher, as well as beautiful bandolier bags and an intricately crafted leather jacket for a child from the late 1800s.

Some contemporary artworks include a star quilt created by Gwen Westerman, a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota artist, and a coffin-shaped basket made from black ash wood by April Stone, an Ojibwe artist from the Bad River Band in Wisconsin. Stone, like Westerman and Boucher, was part of MNHS’ Native American Artist-in-Resident program.

Native artists, activists, and community leaders will also have their voices heard throughout the exhibit, taken from interviews, through both exhibit text and audio components. “We are trying to be really intentional about including Native people’s voices in the community in different parts of the text,” Walaszek says.

The hope is that Our Home will become a space for Native communities to gather. “If there’s a gallery dedicated to our histories, it becomes more welcoming,” Walaszek says. “Because then they can see themselves instead of being tokenized.”

Our Home: Native Minnesota opens December 7 at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

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