Low – Pokagon Exhibit

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I think that, invariably, people are best at telling their own story. And so, the exciting moment in contemporary museum history has been the emergence of the tribally-controlled museum to tell the story of American Indian people. And it’s been very successful. Up in Mount Pleasant, at Ziibiwing Center, for instance, they have a wonderful exhibit that tells the story from the beginning of time up until the present of that community. They’re best able to tell their story. They know their story the best. And it’s really, also, helped bring the community together. As the community participated in the telling of their story.

When we, for instance, the Pokagon Potawatomi, collaborated with Southwestern Michigan College for an exhibit a couple years ago, that was the first time that we had ever participated in a museum exhibit telling our story. In 2007, there was a gathering of the Potawatomi Nations in Dowagiac hosted by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. As a part of that celebration we partnered with a local community college, the Museum at Southwestern Michigan Community College in Dowagiac, to exhibit the Pokagon Potawatomi Community. And it was the first time that the Pokagon Potawatomis had ever had a voice or a chance to tell their own story. The museum, frankly, provided the space and provided the curatorial assistance, but we collected the items, we did the storytelling, we developed the exhibits and we did it the way we planned it, and we did it the way that we wanted to do it, that we thought was most appropriate for our community and for the other Potawatomi people that were coming from across the nation, across Canada and Mexico, to come visit, that they could see who we were about. It was also a wonderful opportunity because that exhibit was up for four months and so other non-Native members of southwestern Michigan and northwest Indiana could also come and visit and see what the Pokagon Potawatomi were about. And as I understand it, it was one of their most popular shows that they had ever had at the Southwestern Michigan College Museum. And so we are very proud of that. It had a profound impact on the community. And we documented that exhibit and it’s still up on our tribal website at pokagon.com, if you click on the banner, there’s the documentation, because we did not want to lose that, it’s that important to us.

Tribal communities across the country have been, when they can afford to and when there’s the political will to do so, opening tribal museums. And it teaches not only outsiders who they are, it also teaches youngsters and other people who we are. And so it has, you know, an extremely important effect. Of course, the capstone most recently of the National Museum of American Indian, sort of that partnership between all of the many tribes across the United States and the federal government in creating this monument to indigenous cultures on the Washington Mall, has been, you know, an incredible effort. You know, it’s gotten mixed reviews, but it’s an incredible effort nonetheless.

There are other good museums, the Grand Rapids Public Museum has a great exhibit on Great Lakes Indians peoples, the Eiteljorg in Indianapolis has a very good exhibit also, the Shingoethe Center for Native American Cultures in Aurora, at Aurora University, all do a very good job at being sensitive to and working with Native peoples. But in my mind, it’s time for us to tell our own story, and we need many times the help. We’ve been collaborating with museum professionals for the last hundred years, so that they could tell our story. I think it’s time now for museum professionals and others to collaborate with us, so that we can tell our story. And part of that would be repatriation, returning items of cultural patrimony, and facilitating loans and other financial assistance, so we can go ahead and do what we do best. We have been a community that has lost so much, like many communities, most Indian communities, that people are reticent, they’re reluctant to share much with outsiders.

Outsiders from Southwestern Michigan Community College never would have gotten the same level of cooperation without collaborating directly with Pokagon tribal members. And I notice that it sort of took on a life of its own, it snowballed. Once people saw that this family donated some family items, they were willing to donate, too. And then the next family was willing to donate. So we ended up having a really nicely, well-rounded exhibit of items that no museum has, that only families have, and that we were able to tell a story different from any story that any museum in the country could have told. And it was a very personal story. And it had a profound effect upon our community. There was a sense of pride, there was a sense of accomplishment, there was a sense of, “We still know who we are and we’re still learning who we are, and we’re not ashamed of that. We’ve lost a lot, but we’re not ashamed of that. A lot of that we lost through no fault of our own.” What’s important is not that we got knocked down as a community, but that we get back up. And that’s what we’re doing, is we got back up. And so the Pokagon Potawatomi, it’s my hope, my vision, perhaps, in my lifetime, that they will build their own museum and that they’ll build a museum that is a third space and an open space that is both a space for community members to come to and a space for non-Native people to come to and it’ll be a space for intersections and for intermingling, and a space where people can come and learn about each other. So it won’t be just a museum about the Potawatomi experience or the Pokagon experience, but about the American experience told through Potawatomi eyes.

My name is John Low and I’m an enrolled member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation. I was born in Niles, Michigan, near the tribal headquarters in Dowagiac. And I grew up in that community, I [was] raised by my grandmother and my mother, who were Potawatomi. I am a lawyer. Graduated from University of Michigan Law School in 1981. I returned home at the request of my elders and also because of my own sense of responsibility and desire to return home and work in a small town practice and also work as a tribal attorney on behalf of the community and did so. And worked on the process along with many, many, many others who did more work than me on the federal recognition process, which was finally successful in 1994. Since 1994, I’m a co-author of our tribal constitution. Since 1994, I’ve served on tribal council, I’ve served on several committees for the tribe, including the Traditions and Repatriation Committee and the Economic Development Committee as a coauthor of the tribal constitution. I also subsequently took a leave of absence from practicing law and returned to school. First to get a second B.A. in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota and then a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago in the Social Sciences and am now am completing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Michigan in American culture. Currently, I’m employed as a visiting professor [in the American Indian Studies program] at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I live in Chicago and visit often with my relatives and my friends and with my community in Michigan. While I was at the University of Michigan, I also earned a graduate certificate in Museum Studies which worked well with my subjects that I’m studying for my dissertation, but it also led to employment. I became the Executive Director at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, which I served as that director for about almost two years, the Mitchell Museum being located in Evanston, Illinois, and had the opportunity to work with a lot of Native and non-Native people in both curatorial and exhibition and preservation issues.

Production credits:
Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler
Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar
Production by Mike Media Group

Photo credits:
Display case – Photo courtesy of Museum at Southwestern Michigan College
Storytelling Area – Photo courtesy of Museum at Southwestern Michigan College
Beading demonstration – Photo courtesy of Lac Vieux Desert Tribe
NMAI – Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Magnus Manske
Grand Rapids Public Museum – Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons/Terry Johnston
Eiteljorg Museum – Photo courtesy Flickr/Creative Commons/Stephen M. Scott
Outfit display – Photo courtesy of Museum at Southwestern Michigan College
Exhibit panel display – Photo courtesy of John Low
Julie Wesaw – Photo courtesy of Alan Kamuda/The MSU Museum Michigan State University

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