Tribal Museums

Several tribes in the Midwest operate tribal museums and cultural centers, sometimes in conjunction with tribal libraries. These are community-based and focused centers that are owned and managed by tribes. They have become an integral part of cultural renaissance in Native communities, as well as one of the ways Native communities try to correct misunderstandings about Indians. Until the 1970s, Native cultural objects were showcased in museums operated by non-Indians, largely for non-Indians. From a Native perspective, these exhibits reinforced harmful stereotypes because they focused on Indians of the past and often distorted Indian life. There are now over 150 tribal museums in the United States, including several in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

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Beginning in the 1970s, the development of tribal museums surged due to the availability of federal funding and concomitant emphasis on economic development. Local museums could help attract tourists—and the federal government was pushing tourism as a vehicle of economic development. Construction work and jobs staffing museums began to materialize. The government offered training in museum management. The sovereignty movement and associated federal legislation that attempted to protect Native-made cultural objects helped focus attention on the need to preserve tribal heritage. The introduction of gaming in Indian communities provided funding to further develop tribal museums and libraries and allow Indian communities to tell their own stories.

What is one important theme in tribal museum exhibits?

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Tribal museums pursue two goals simultaneously. They try to correct the misrepresentations of Indian life by educating the general public, and they also are a very important cultural resource for the local Indian community itself. These museums are building and protecting collections of objects by purchasing, borrowing, and repatriating them. They also are producing contemporary representations of Native life in exhibits and demonstrations. Their exhibits offer an alternative perspective to what non-Indian owned museums have—especially in the inclusion of 20th and 21st century representations and in the emphasis on pride in heritage and homeland.

What did the Lac Vieux desert museum do to educate non-Indians?

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Tribal libraries and archives acquire and preserve for community use documents, photographs, oral histories, sound recordings, and other things important to the Indian community. And the libraries and museums are a source of jobs and job training for Native people. Today there are over 200 tribal libraries, some in the Midwest. There is funding available for tribal libraries to train staff and to obtain copies of documents and photos from other libraries and archives. Usually located away from tourist centers, tribal museums and libraries (including those in the Midwest) struggle to obtain funding, for they are largely dependent on tribal and federal support.

Tribal museums and cultural centers work to strengthen indigenous culture and identity by fostering the retention of Native language, undertaking oral history projects, and supporting the work of Native artists and the perpetuation of indigenous artistic traditions. The libraries provide Indian communities with access to research collections, including genealogical records, treaties, and books. These centers often serve as gathering places for educational and other programs. They also are an expression of tribal sovereignty in their focus on telling their own stories in their own ways.

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