Living justice: Native American and Indigenous voices at forefront of new exhibit


Courtesy of Field Museum Instagram

Scholars from over 105 Tribes and Nations participated in composing the Field Museum’s updated exhibit.

When the Field Museum opened its original Native American exhibit in the late 1950s, the only Indigenous peoples invited to participate were those asked to perform. Now, nearly seven decades later, this natural history museum is finally confronting its past.

After five years of tireless work, “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories” opened to the public in May, uplifting the voices and experiences of Native Americans from over 100 different nations, spanning across the United States and Canada. 

In honor of Native American Heritage month, DePaul University hosted Dr. Doug Kiel, a member of the Oneida Nation and professor at Northwestern University, and Field Museum exhibit developer Ryan Schuessler to discuss the significance of the updated exhibition. 

DePaul junior Jada Woodwards and sophomore Gabriela Cordova initiated the program, each reading a segment from Native author Linda LeGarde Grover’s poem “Everything You Need to Know in Life You’ll Learn at Boarding School.”

“I connected with the poem mainly through an experience both my father and mother had when they went to Catholic school,” Cordova said. “In my father’s case he could not speak English when he first immigrated here…and was often punished by the nuns and was forced and sometimes on the coldest days of winter to stand outside in the sign of the cross and hold bricks.”

DePaul English professor and member of Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Mark Turcotte (left) moderates discussion of the Field Museum’s new exhibit with Dr. Doug Kiel (center) and Ryan Schuessler. (Tom Vangel | DePaul University)

For Woodwards, the poem represented a more personal connection. 

“This poem is very similar to my experience in Catholic school. I was often chastised for speaking African American vernacular English, which according to the institution was not proper English,” Woodwards said. 

Structured as a panel discussion and later a Q&A with the audience Mark Turcotte (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe), DePaul English professor moderated the dialogue regarding the exhibit. 

“It can be thought of as a reboot of the institution and its relationship with native people,” Kiel said, serving as an adviser on the museum’s Native American Advisory committee. “Now the museum is not in a relationship of being this extractive entity…but is actually there to provide things for native communities.”

Comprising nearly 400 artifacts, “Native Truths” seeks to illustrate the rich history and traditions of Native American culture while also highlighting contemporary issues within Indigenous communities, such as tribal sovereignty and threats against their land.

“We started this project back in 2018 with an advisory group of 11 Native Americans and First Nations Museum professionals and academics from the U.S. and Canada,” Schuessler said. “It [the new exhibit] builds representation over time because the exhibit does not try to be comprehensive about all Native American history and experiences.” 

However, the museums and the city’s relationship with native communities were not always so progressive. 

“One of the things I learned is that Chicago was one of the relocation cities last century and I found there were several people who I remembered whose families remembered the Field Museum anthropologist from the late 1800s,” Schuessler said. “It was emotional and fraud, and people did not trust us at first.” 

Following the 1956 Native American Relocation Act, the federal government sought to drive individuals from their reservations into urban centers such as Chicago. By the end of the 20th century, over 40,000 Native Americans resided within the city.

One unique aspect of the museum’s updated collection is its decision to commission art from native artists rather than showcasing items acquired through unethical means. 

“So much of the institution’s history in terms of collecting these materials premised upon the idea that none of this stuff is ever gonna be made again, it’s salvage anthropology,” Kiel said. “If I remember right, there were around 50 or 60 pieces that the Field Museum commissioned from artists, all over the exhibit.”

Furthermore, in recognition of the fluctuations and developments that all cultures have experienced over the years, the institution plans on regularly changing the exhibit’s layout to reflect this diversity.

However, while the Field Museum continues to make progressive strides in its treatment of Indigenous history, problems still remain.

Rockwell Wirtz, the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, whose name and logo continue to epitomize the nation’s legacy of genocide and imperialism, remains chair of the museum’s board of trustees, spurring some native groups to withdraw from the exhibit in protest.

“It [Wirtz position] renders everything that has been achieved in this exhibition as kind of a window dressing. It feels disingenuous a little bit for us, especially native people, that the Field is making this new claim to redoing what they’ve been representing,” Turcotte said. 

Although Wirtz did not have any connection or say in the exhibit, according to Kiel, the Field’s close relationship to him still causes some to question the authenticity of “Native Truths.” 

“It’s unfortunate that there is that link, and it’s a very bothersome link, but people make sure that he and the team don’t have any sort of relationship with this exhibit,” Kiel said. 

However, while Wirtz’s presence must be acknowledged, it should not take away from the museum’s deliberate effort of letting Native American and Indigenous people tell their own stories. 

“I feel pretty strongly about that because I’m Native. But I also believe that the Field Museum is making claims to be trying to rectify a very murky relationship with Native people,” said Turcotte. “I know the people in the institution who are trying to make that happen, and they are not disingenuous. They are sincere.”

Though flaws still remain, it is evident that museum leadership and members of the Native Advisory Committee are devoted to re-establishing the way colonial institutions tell the complex narrative of their history.

“The point is where we started, the Field Museum’s relationship with native people was in a bad place…And so this is all a big effort to try and start moving forward in a better direction and start building a positive legacy,” Kiel said.

Connect with Lilly Keller: @lillyraek | [email protected]