‘A quiet sense of anticipation filled a far corner gallery on the third floor of the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul Monday morning, as museum workers put finishing touches on the new exhibit “Our Home: Native Minnesota.” Surrounded by rare Native American artifacts, maps, and multimedia pieces, Mattie Harper talked about her and her colleagues’ work, and a legacy hundreds of years in the making.
“This is significant as the first permanent gallery devoted to Native American history and content, and I think, in a sense, it’s long overdue,” said Harper, senior historian at the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) who grew up on the Leech Lake (Ojibwe) reservation, and taught indigenous studies at the University of California San Diego before returning to Minnesota. “It’s been able to happen now because MNHS has more native people on staff, and people who have more training in the area, and with the new Native American Initiatives division that was formed a few years ago, the institution has recently really been strengthening and building on ties to native communities and really working on building trust. There’s always been a request from teachers and visitors for more content on native history, but also at this time I think native communities feel ready to share stories here, and to give more input and feedback.
“That was a really large part of the process: We interviewed native educators, artists, activists, and community members and because of that, it makes it a really strong exhibit.”
The 2,700-square-foot exhibit employs maps, rare artifacts, interactive screens, multimedia pieces, and historic and contemporary photographs to tell first-person stories of the history of Minnesota’s first people. Saturday’s opening day festivities will kick off at 10 a.m., with music from Mitch Walking Elk, hoop dance performances by the Sampson Brothers, demonstrations of birch-bark biting artwork with Denise Lajimodiere and traditional games like kansu kutepi (dice), tasiha (ring and pin), and cankawacipi (spinning tops) with Jeremy Red Eagle.
MinnPost took in a preview of “Our Home: Native Minnesota,” in interviews and photos:
Mattie Harper, Ph.D., senior historian at MNHS: “There’s a long and troubled history that MNHS has with native communities. MNHS was founded before Minnesota was a state in 1847, and from the beginning it’s processes and museum practices excluded native people and spoke about native people in a way that cast them as inferior to settler-colonial communities and societies. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s when the Indian Advisory Committee was formed and MNHS started working more with native community members that some of these practices started turning around. It’s been a long process of trying to repair those relationships.
“Museums have a very influential role in how the public sees native people; a long history of perpetuating stereotypes and objectifying native people, and so now the institution is more committed to centering native perspectives, and doing outreach with native communities, so it’s more of a process of sharing authority. Native people have input on what sorts of objects are stored, taken care of, how they’re managed, and especially in this gallery, how what sort of narratives about native communities are shared.”
Harper: “One of our main aims in this exhibit is to overturn a lot of common assumptions that have been reinforced about native people over the years. We’re trying to meet those stereotypes head-on and share more about the diversity, the beauty, but also the humanity of native people in community. We show a lot of history here, but we’re also very deliberate in showing contemporary stories interwoven with the history, just to show that native people have always been here in Minnesota, and are here today, and have been throughout all of the significant events throughout Minnesota history.”
Rita Walaszek, curatorial associate with the MNHS Native American collections: “The big thing I want people to come out with from this exhibit is that native people are still here today, and that we have existed during this whole time. My favorite thing is a big panoramic photo from 1912, from the White Earth Indian Reservation, which is actually my home community. This is my gem.”
Harper: “Oftentimes, when people dig deeper into native history, they might leave feeling sad, or angry, or feel like this was a tragic history, and there’s so much injustice. All of that is true; it’s a story of colonization and that context needs to be there and truthfully told, but it’s also a story about strength and resilience and adaptation. We hope that people will read these stories and see people and end up feeling inspired, especially native people, who can feel empowered from learning this history and just seeing these stories of survival.”
Ben Gessner, curator of the Native American collections at MNHS: “We’ve been working with community members for a long time, and we’ve had exhibits before where there’s native material and culture out, and native history told, but clearly this is the first time … I’m part of a content team here that is myself and three native women — Dr. Mattie Harper, Dr. Kate Beane, and Rita Walaszek — and it’s content that’s been developed by native people. And as an institution, we’re ready for that in a way that museums haven’t been ready for until the past couple decades. Some museums aren’t ready for that.
“I hope this exhibit is a place where we can build a little bit of cultural empathy, where non-native people might start seeing native people differently. Native people have stereotypically been romanticized, they’ve been looked at as victims of history and circumstance. So for me, as a non-native person, I like that with this exhibit we get to look at people and groups of people as human beings.”